Persian Miniature Painting

Girl smoking,
Muhammad Qasim, 
Isfahan

Present-day Iran was known as Persia. Though the Persian empire was much more than Iran. It influenced the culture of the people beyond the land of Iran. 

About Iran, the historians say that, “Iran, in its former incarnation as Persia, created the world's first empire, produced titanic figures like Cyrus, Darius, and Xerxes, and is one of the great fountains of world culture”. The style of painting called ‘Miniature painting’ was initiated in Persia and present-day turkey. Thereafter it spread into the vast land of India.

When I started the journey in the land of art, my life in those days was less than definable. It was my early days of blissful wandering, the college days. I came across two types of miniature art: Mughal Miniatures and Persian Miniatures. I do not remember which one I had started to love first. However, I had in my heart a special corner reserved for Rajasthan Paintings, especially the paintings of Lord Krishna.

Materials used in Persian Miniatures: The artists had used indigenous materials and the materials imported from neighbouring countries. For Blue they used lapis lazuli, they used gold and silver for yellow and grey colours. For other hues, they used sulphur, too. The artist used to extract colours by drying the local plants, too. In India, the urine of cows was also used for yellow colours. The artist did much labour in painting, as some of the paintings were completed over a period of a year or so. It happened that one painting was executed by several artists, putting the different parts of the painting by a specialist or a junior artist. The master painter would do the final touches.

For support the Iranian artists used paper. During that period valium was used in Europe and India for miniature paintings. The Persian artist would paint the borders first on the paper, and mostly the border would be painted by using gold colours.

Riza-i Abbasi (1565-1635)
Painting a Dutch Musician
with a Viol

Subjects painted in Persian Miniatures: The Persian miniatures depicted the mythological, heroic and historical events in their paintings.  These artists depicted lifestyle prevailing in the 15th to 17th century Northern Asia. The origins of the Persian miniatures are difficult to trace. 

But with the conquest of Iran by Turkish Seldschuks in the eleventh century, in the twelfth century, a miniature style of book illustration was developed. It reached its first highpoint in the Mesopotamian school of the thirteenth century. 

After the Mongolian invasion (13th and 14th centuries) Chinese influence was also taken up. Under the Timurid (15th and 16th centuries), a true Persian style of miniature painting developed. 

It was the time when the artists were unknown about the concept of painting the purposeful ambiguity. They were simple-minded people. They were like the guys who live in our neighbourhood. So they painted simply. Mostly known as manuscript illuminations, the art of Persian miniature paintings had flourished in present-day Iran and the surrounding areas. 

The golden period of the miniature was from the 14th to the 17th centuries. It is an art of radiant colours and masterful brushwork by the artists. The paintings got their beauty from the other aspects, too, the graceful calligraphy being the main. The artists of Persian miniatures were nourished by the patronage of princes and rulers.

Unknown authorUnknown author
Mary and Jesus (Maryam and Isa)
in a Persian miniature.

Here in the above miniature Girl smoking, the colours used for depicting the transparency of the clothes indicate one important aspect: the lady occupying the scene belonged to a highly rich family, perhaps a noble family. The silk clothes, sometimes imported from the Kashmir region of India, were in vogue in that piece of time. 

However such costly clothes were limited to wealthy people. During this period, paintings of court-people and the women playing musical instruments were very much loved 

The other miniature painting Mary and Jesus is of the Virgin Mary and Jesus. This painting is done in Islamic style. In Islam religion, the Virgin Mary and Jesus are called Mariam and Isa. Persian miniatures are sometimes being compared to stage settings, arranged on various levels and composed around an architectural scene. 

Very often the mountainous landscape is part of the miniatures. This painting contains a host of small actors, all equal in size, bustling here and there on the stage set for them. The subjects like a green tree, the calligraphy and the railing wander at their assigned level of the paintings.

Style of Painting: Precise brushwork is the specific characteristics of Persian paintings. They painted the accumulation of picturesque details and neat subjects. The viewers can let their eyes sail over the wealth of details that is stemming from the meticulous observation of nature. The miniatures, which are often rich in literary allusions, make the viewers admiring the whole picture. These works mainly illustrated scriptures and literary texts.

Persian miniatures are mainly found in the books produced for the wealthy people residing in the area. It was because only the very rich and powerful could afford to commission a manuscript with the miniature paintings. The artist involved in the art of miniature paintings and calligraphers were respected as celebrities. They were highly sought after persons at the time.

Construction of the fort of Kharnaq
Present Location British Museum, London

Bihzad Style of Painting: During the 15th century, forcefulness and realism guided the characteristics of the miniature paintings in Persia and Turkey.  It was unlike their predecessors. 

At that time, some of the masters of miniature paintings had begun putting their signature on their works. It was the time of master painter Bihzad, (1440-1514). Before that, they believed that art should be kept impersonal.

Bihzad's style was more dramatic and intense. It was an improvement over his contemporaries. He had also reformed and enriched the subject portfolios. He chose the individuals, their character, and their affairs of everyday life as the subject matter of the paintings. The liveliness embedded in each character in the frames of Bihzad is quite elegant. In Bihzad painting, we could see people other than the court-people. He started exploring the newer subjects showing common people working.

The advice of the Ascetic, 
Moraqqa’-e Golshan, conserved
in Golestan Palace, Tehran, Iran 
Kamāl ud-Dīn Behzād,

Miniatures of this period utilized a new aide for producing perspective: the inclusion of hills and other natural elements in the background. Scenes were frequently staged on what appears to be the edge of a mountain, with a horizon indicated by a sudden drop in the landscape. 

Figures on the lower side look as if they were climbing up an inevitable hill behind. Their heads and shoulders appearing over the imaginary horizon. 

This style of painting, putting different scenes in levels within one frame, was carried over to the famous Mughal miniature style of paintings in India, too.  

Here the artists narrate one story, but the story is depicted in parts. Each part of the story gets one level in paintings. These types of miniatures paintings are painted on four levels, too.

A newly applied technique of vertical perspective is evident. In this method, the figures and objects are shown one over another. However, the paintings of the ponds and carpets were painted as flat figures.

Baysunghur's_Shahname 1430
AnonymousUnknown author
Shiraz School of Persian Paintings: Though Miniature painting was a prominent art since the 13th century, it was on peak in the 15th and 16th centuries. In Persia during the last years of the fourteenth century, there emerged a school of miniature paintings known as Shiraz. During this period, the artists used brilliant colours. Their landscapes were elegantly painted. 

A novel feature of perception is visible in the paintings of this period, depicting freely drawn birds, flowers in margins, and figures and their faces were shown clearly. This painting style illustrated the realistic turn of the art of painting in Persia.

The Shiraz School of later 14th century Persia is distinguished by its brilliance of colouring and presence of gorgeous landscapes; by the frequent inclusion of freely drawn bird and flower motifs in the margins. They depicted the faces and figures with rounded contours. That was an improvement. These faces had fine lines, narrow eyes, and rather unique side-way glances. 

Aqa Riza JahangiriAfghan,

Description of the Miniature Painting: Afghan-Gentleman with a Gold Wine Cup, c. 1600 Painting Indian, 16th-17th centuries Mughal period, Creation Place: India. Ink heightened with opaque watercolour and gold on paper 13.1 x 6.8 cm (5 3/16 x 2 11/16 in.) Harvard Art Museums. Department of Islamic & Later Indian Art, Division of Asian and Mediterranean Art. 

The painting that is depicted here is believed to have been painted in the year 1600. This miniature painting portrays a gentleman having a golden cup of wine in his hand. The standing portrait is a wonderful piece of simple drawing with easy brush strokes. The entire scheme of the portrait is the perfect one. 

The Art: The symbolic decorative basis of Persian painting is fully apparent in the paintings of 15 the century. The flowers bask in the brilliance of daylight while the stars shine in the sky. It was a masterly combination of the style of realism with symbolism. The artists were completely unbounded by the practicality of naturalism, yet the theory approach remained completely comprehensible.  [All the images are in Public Domain, taken from Wikimedia Commons]

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