Professor Giovanni Curatola in his lecture, “Real or Imaginary? Miniatures as a source of knowledge for the history of Islamic Art” discussed whether the lavishly painted images on pages of manuscripts depicted reality or fantasy. The talk was held at the Yarmouk Cultural Centre as part of the Dar Al Athar Islamiyyah’s weekly lectures in its 24th cultural season.
Curatola is a professor at the University of Udine, Italy and the author of more than one hundred scientific publications on Islamic art. He curated the first general exhibition on Islamic Art in Italy in 1993. Moreover, he also curated the exhibition al-Fann: Art from the Islamic Civilization from The al-Sabah Collection, Kuwait, and, together with the curator Salam Kaoukji, he organized the loan of 250 objects from the collection to the MFAH (Houston, USA).
In his lecture, Professor Curatola shared that the arts of the book, especially miniatures, are an important branch of art in Muslim culture. Since the beginning of Islamic art studies, Western scholars dedicated time and other resources to the art of miniatures which resulted in their becoming the most popular and important aspects of art from the Islamic world. He focused on some characteristics of the paintings and scrutinized many details to help viewers better understand the aesthetic of the art.
He hoped that his lecture would shed light on the history of miniatures and what we know about miniatures as a source of different ideas. At the onset, he confessed that he was not a scholar who studied miniatures and revealed that although he wasn’t overly fond of them, he chose the topic because the history of Islamic miniatures has been widely studied. “There are so many publications on this topic. I think the only object which is more widespread in scholarship than miniatures are carpets.”
He shared that miniatures are relatively easy to study as the image is found flat on a page and can be easily photographed for analysis, on the other hand, the study of architecture, requires travel. “One reason that I think that miniatures have not been so effective in the history of Islamic art being that the book is a private find, never public”, he added.
The first miniature he discussed was ‘Humay and Humayun on the day of Their Wedding’ of the Diwan of Khwaju Kirmani, copied by Mir ‘Ali Tabrizi for Sultan Ahmad, the Jalayrid ruler from Baghdad circa 798/1396 found in the British Library today.
He noted that it was a famous, well painted miniature and pointed to its little details. He stressed, “I believe that miniatures should be looked at in detail and look at what details can teach us.”
He pointed out that although Western scholars believe the Muslim artists who were painting the Islamic miniatures did not know perspective, he declared that it was untrue. “I can show you that there is a perspective. In a lot of miniatures, you find a world beyond our perceptions.”
He supported his claim by pointing to different details of the miniature painting that portrayed multiple perspectives at the same time. For instance, there is a carpet seen from the top and at the same time, two people are seeing kneeling on the carpet, seemingly sideways. The scene, depicts water being poured on the head of Humayun on his wedding day which is factual. Professor Curatola asserted that the different planes and impossible perspectives could only be in view of God. “None can imagine looking at something from multiple points at once. The only way we can change our perspective is by moving, but we don’t see everything at the same time.” He shared that it is this idea that supports the argument that the miniature is another world altogether, a world beyond us.
But not all miniatures ascribe to this idea, in another miniature, Poetic Anthology from Tabriz, Iran dated 801/1398, copied by Mansur Bihbihani and now found in Istanbul’s Museum Of Turkish and Islamic Art. He highlighted that the miniature presents a conventional idea of the nature with a stream of water, ducks, palm trees and cypresses.
Next, he discussed the famous The Court of Gayumars from the Shah-nama of Tabriz from 1522-25 painted by Sultan Muhammad from the Aga Khan Collection. The page has a frame but the frame is broken by the painting. Curatola shared that this bleeding out of the painting symbolises that reality cannot be confined in a frame. He urged the audience to always look closely at miniatures, and pointed out to the audience the presence of a camel painted in stone and pointed its peculiarity in Sufi art.
Another very important and famous miniature, that of ‘Rustam sleeping and Rakhsh fights against a lion’ from the Shah-nama found in the British Library. He shared that the painted horse is not a horse but the idea of a horse. In the time that you look at the horse you are painting, the horse has changed. He then drew the audience’s attention to the beautiful landscape of the miniature.
In the miniature, ‘Story of Bayad and Riyad’ from 13th Century Spain or Morocco, found in the Vatican, Apostolic Library today, Professor Curatola shares that the water wheel depicted is exactly as those found in Syria and other places at the time. This miniature therefore depicts reality and can add to our knowledge of materials.
In another miniature from the British Library, Persian Poetry Anthology, copied by Sharaf al-Din Husain Sultani from Shirvan (Azerbaijan), he posed the question of whether the painted town was real or imaginary and concluded that it was the latter but based on something real.
Among the miniatures he discussed were the Miraj-nama from Tabriz circa 1360-70, attributed to Ahmad Musa, and ‘Firdusi meets the court poets in Ghazni’ from the Shah-nama from Tabriz 1532, attributed to Aqa Miraq.
‘Khosraw listening to Barbad playing the ud’ from Nizami, Khamsa in Tabriz, 1540 ca by Mirza ‘Ali now found at the British Library, also affirms the idea of different perspectives, he shared and pointed how the pond is seen from the top while others from side. He pointed to a tree with yellow leaves which denotes autumn, an evergreen cypress as well as a peach or apple blossom that denotes spring. “It is impossible that something happens at the time in spring and in autumn. They are suggesting to us that the scene is not in our real time. It is something set outside of time making miniatures timeless, in a way.”
In “Officers playing backgammon and chess”, from a Poetic Anthology of Herat from the Bernard Berenson Collection, found in the Center for Renaissance Studies, University of Harvard. Pictured, are people playing chess and backgammon. He looked closely at the garden and urged viewers to look at the flowers and the leaves in miniatures, to pay close attention to their colour to notice that in a lot of cases there are leaves that are yellow for autumn as well as blossoms. A man, playing backgammon sports a Chinese collar, a style which arrived with the Mongols in the Ilkhanid court and has been portrayed by the miniaturists. While the painted carpet shares similarity to another carpet of the same period, Professor Curatola shared that the miniature can be trusted in some details but not altogether.
He pointed out that “Nushirvan listening to the Owls in the Ruined Palace” of the Nizami, Khamsa from Tabriz in 1540, attributed to Aqa Miraq and Mir Sayyid ‘Ali in the British Library, contained interesting details that could further archaeological research. In contrast, Al-Jaziri’s “Kitab fi ma’rifat…” from Syria around 715/1315, now in the The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, features everything magical, except a lone elephant.
In “Maqamat” by al-Wasiti from Baghdad 634/1237 found in Paris, at the Bibliothèque Nationale, depicts people wearing an Arab tunic, set in a market place with domestic animals that depicts reality.
Another old painting shows a woman who is about to deliver a baby. “We know that she is a rich woman because of gold necklaces she has on. People are seen bringing food and attending to her. On the top floor, the man who has an astrolabe is looking at the horoscope of the newborn and while another writes what he says.” This, Professor Curatola added, is probably what really happened in courts at the time.
In the Kitab al-Aghani, Vol 17 from Mosul, 1220 ca and today found in the National Library of Istanbul, is typical of Byzantine painting but features a Mongol as seen by his eyes dressed in Arab tunic, a similar scene is found 120 years in “Maqamat” from Egypt or Syria 734/1334, today found in Wien, Nationalbibliothek. A crucial difference between the two, Professor Curatola points out is in the portrayal of the king’s function through power portrayed through weaponry and an stance.
‘Shah Jahan Receives His Three Eldest Sons and Asaf Khan During His Accession Ceremonies Mughal’ from the Padshah-nama in 1628 portrays daggers precisely in the painting. He pointed out that in India, there is a different perspective of what is real. Other real miniatures include A Zebra which the Rumis brought from Abyssinia with Mir Jaffar painted by Nadir al-’Asr, The Miracle of the Age, Ustad Mansur, in 162, Victoria & Albert Museum, I.M. 23-1925 and that of a Turkey, an image brought to Jahangir from Goa in the 7th year of his reign, 1612 ca.
In conclusion, he looked at the miniature, ‘Allegory of Drunkness’ from the Anthology of Hafiz, signed by Sultan Muhammad in 1526-27 that combines both real and fantastical elements within it.
By Cinatra Fernandes – Arab Times Staff