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Chapter 10 - The Art of Miniature

Miniature is a style of painting that from its beginning, around the early 7th century, has been associated with the demand for illustration and beautification of documents and manuscripts. It is most often used to convey a certain message, be it of a poetical, fictional, philosophical, or religious nature, thus in these regards miniature is closely related to the art of graphic design. Despite the fact that it is not necessarily the case, miniature painting is frequently and erroneously presumed to be of small size. The word miniature is derived from the Italian miniatura, which itself is derived from the Middle Latin miniātūra, equivalent to miniātus meaning rubricated, illuminated, and in Latin it meant colored red with cinnabar. Throughout history there has been a large number of very large size miniatures. This style of painting, both in the east and in the west, stylizes the subjects in flatly painted surfaces that are delineated with highly intricate and harmonious linear patterns.

Mani (210-276 AD), the Persian founder of the Manichean religion may be regarded as the father of miniature paintings. Mani was a nobleman who lived in Babylon. He illustrated his most holy book Artang with miniatures of the type that has been discovered in Turfan. Turfan Studies is the scientific edition and interpretation of works of art and textual remains that were found in the Turfan oasis and neighbouring sites in East Turkestan. From the 2nd century BCE for nearly two millennia, in particular up to the end of Mogul rule in the 14th century, East Turkestan, today’s Xinjiang, was the land of exchange between East and West. Printed books are a small but significant part of the Turfan material. They were not printed with type but with carved wooden blocks that contained whole pages. These "block prints" were probably mostly made in Chinese workshops but they have been found in many sites of the Turfan oasis.The Manichaeans were not only the representatives of a special religious system presented by its founder as the last and best of all previous teachings, they also expended all their energy on the artistic realisation of their beliefs: They produced books the splendour and elegance of which were intended to outshine everything that went before and that apparently did become a model for later generations.

Miniature art in the east, particularly in Persia and India, is profoundly influenced by the traditional style of the Chinese paintings. While in the west, its roots can be traced back to ancient Egyptian manuscripts on papyrus scrolls. The beautifully illuminated manuscripts such as the Celtic Book of Kells and England's Lindisfarne Gospels contain some masterpieces of the western miniatures.

Nestorian missionaries were firmly established in China during the early part of the Tang Dynasty (618–907). This Miniature depicts a Christian monk-missionary from Persia who visited China during this era.

In China, the art of figurative painting reached its summit during the T'ang dynasty (618–906). T'ang’s artists frequently painted historical subjects and magnificent scenes from courtly life in which the focus of attention was on various figures which were placed in the painting according to their ranks and the importance of their role in the illustrated narrative of the work. The artist used brush drawings with colour washes to paint landscapes with trees, flowers, birds, mountains and so on in a highly stylized fashion and placed these elements strategically on their tableau in order to achieve a harmonious composition, using a minimalist approach towards colours. Han Kan one of the artists of the T'ang dynasty in the 8th century has painted magnificent horses that have achieved an amazing balance by the masterly use of curvatures of the horses. An extraordinary harmony is also achieved by Yen Li-pen another of the T'ang dynasty artists. For example, in his painting called “Northern Ch’i Scholars Collating Classic Texts”.

Yen Li-pen, Northern Ch’i Scholars Collating Classic Texts.  
Li has places the three bearded scholars in a circle, and balances the composition by the arrangement of their young pages in another circle. A diagonal line made up by the black margins of the scholar’s attires and their black hairs is balanced again by the stretched arms of the characters, and the whole panting has been highlighted by a minimal use of red as a contrast, which shows the artist's rational temprement. This temperament includes an extraordinary feeling for proportion and an acute visual sensibility.

The landscape painting reached its height during the Sung dynasty era (960–1279) . The artists used ink monochrome again in highly stylized fashion which focused on the harmony, and composition. Fan K'uan an artist of the Sung dynasty who has painted "Travelers Among Mountains and Streams", was a famous for his landscape painting of northern China. He created "monumental landscape" style, in which human figures were drawn in minuscule size in relation to the mountains, and woods.

Fan K'uan, "Travelers Among Mountains and Streams", Sung dynasty

Nevertheless, in spite of their sizes, the artists painstakingly rendered their social ranks, human conditions, styles of their garments, the characteristics of the events which were unfolding before the viewers’ eyes, and their subtle reactions to the whole human drama. During the reign of Emperor Hui-tsung (r. 1101-1125) Li T'ang painted landscapes which were inspired by poetry, and symbolism. For example in his painting. "Windy Pines Among a Myriad Valleys", he studies at the harmonious interrelationships between clouds, pines, waterfall, and rapids in a majestic, almost , mythical mountain scene from a rather unusual perspective.

Li T'ang, " Windy Pines Among a Myriad Valleys"

Pure and Remote Views of Hills and Streams, a work by Hsia Kuei (c.1180–1230)-- one of the most important in the history of Chinese painting -- shows his amazing control of ink values in creating the impression of hard rock , tree leaves and clouds, using only brush, ink, and paper. In Ma Yuan (c.1190–1225) painting “Walking on a Mountain Path in Spring” the idea of representation of a poetical image as a subject for contemplation is further developed. The artist shows a wise man leisurely walking followed by a disciple on a pathway alongside a brook bank. He stops in admiration to contemplate over the two orioles on a wind-blown willow tree. The wise man is at the center of an imaginary circle created by the branches of the willow tree, while one of the orioles is flying out of the confine of that circle, visually stressing the fleeing of the bird. A vertical calligraphy of a verse couplet is placed on the right corner, in the sage’s lines of sight: as though he is reading it. It says ‘Brushed by his sleeves, wild flowers dance in the wind; fleeing from him, the hidden birds cut short their songs’.. The artist abstracts from all of the superfluous elements in his composition to create a minimalist representation.

Ma Yuan, “Walking on a Mountain Path in Spring”

During the Yüan dynasty, of Mogul origin ( 1279 to 1368), and the subsequent Ming dynasty (1368–1644) the Chinese painting style evolved into a new direction which stemmed from the achievements Sung art’s characteristics. There were grater emphasis placed on human figures and landscapes paintings became more dynamic, as artists used a verity of brushstrokes, and rendering styles. The China's scholar-painters of this era venerated calligraphy as the noblest of art forms, and used it as the integral part of their compositions.

Wen Cheng-ming “The First Prose Poem on the Red Cliff, 1555” 

Wen Cheng-ming (1470-1559), Shen Chou (1427-1509), T'ang Yin (1470-1523), and Ch'iu Ying (ca. 1509-1551) were known collectively as the Four Great Masters of the Ming (1368-1644). Perhaps the most important among them was Wen Cheng-ming whose many works survive to the present day, and profoundly influenced the Chinese style of painting. His painting “The First Prose Poem on the Red Cliff, 1555” depicting three learned friends reflecting on the state of their existence over wine on a moonlight Yangzi River cruise at the foot of the scenic Red Cliffs, invites the viewer to contemplate on the endless treasures of universe, based on a poem by Su Dongbo's poem written in 1082, which in part reads:

The clear breeze over the river, or
the bright moon between the hills,
These we may,
And they will never be used up.
These are the endless treasures of the Creator,
Here for you and me to enjoy together.

Shen Zhou (1427–1509) another of the most important Chinese artists of the Ming dynasty in paintings like “Lofty mountain” focused on the textures and the well-balanced curvaceous compositions contrasted against a geometric calligraphy. Tung Ch'i-ch'ang (1555-1636) was a celebrated calligrapher , and his semi-cursive style of calligraphy was considered the most excellent in the Ming dynasty. He was also a gifted and influential landscape painter in the Sung and Yuan styles.

Shen Zhou, “Lofty mountain”

Persian Miniature;
The history of Persian manuscript painting can be traced back to Mani the Persian founder of Manichaeism who was a painter and manuscripts of his holly book Artang were illustrated and used calligraphic compositions. Some of these books in different languages have survived, and can give a glimpse of the earlier Artangs which were originally illustrated on parchments.

Detail of a Turfan Manichaen Illuminated Scroll; Turfan Antiquarian Bureau (Turfan, China),

Persia imported paper from China in the mid 8th century, and by the time of Mogul dynasty painting on paper was an art form well known to Persian artists. A painting from Tang Dynasty in the British Museum depicting a Christian monk-missionary who came from Persia, is an evidence of close cultural ties between Persia and China. The art of Persian miniature, was introduced during the Mogul and Timurid periods (13th - 16th Century). The Mongolian dynasties of Iran were enthusiastic patrons of Chinese style painting and a large number of Chinese artisans were among their court entourage. Most of the vast collection of post-Islamic Persian literature, constitutes a rich conduite for artists’ inspiration. Chief among this literature were the 10th century, Shahnameh (the King of a Book, frequently and incorrectly translated as The Book of Kings -- Shahan Nameh) by Ferdowsi of Toos, which in epical style of poetry recites the ancient legends of Persian heroes, kings, and human tragedies.

Shahnameh Shiraz School 14th Century Topkapi collection

Khamseh, (Quintet), a collection of five lyrical and romantic poems by Nezami of Ganja in the12th century is another important source. The three among the five legends in this book are of particular significance as they are studies in various aspects of love. These are; the tragic love of Leili and Majnoon, the epical love between the Armenian queen Shirin and her sculptor lover Farhad, and the romantic love between King Khosrow and Shirin . The 13th century, books of the great Persian ethicist, Saadi of Shiraz, who created two of his monumental works Golestan (The Flower Garden), a collection of short moral stories, and Bustan (The Fragrance Garden) a collection of etical poems , together with the esoteric poems of Rumi in his monumental work Mathnavi were also among the most important conduits for artists' imagination. Finally in the 14th century, Odes of Hafez; the 15th century Sufi poems of Jami in the book of "Haft Owrang" (The Seven kingly stations) were added as sources of of ispiration for Persian miniaturists

This illustration from Nezami's "Khamseh" is one of the most beautiful of Shiraz style. The compositional harmony and he colour balance are at their best. The clarity of the communication is superb. The viewer immediately sees the visual aspect of the story, while the more subtle element is described through the poetry.


Persian miniature styles can be categorized in four schools centered in four major cities;. Shiraz, Tabriz, Herat and Isfahan.. The Shiraz school, founded by the Mongol Il-Khans in mid-14th century, developed in various phases. It is distinguished by its symmetrical composition and geometric harmony. A page illustrating the great 12th-century poet Neẓāmī’s Khamseh depicts the aesthetic height reached by this school in combining line, shape, value, texture, form, color and space to acheive a visual elegance in the harmony, variety, balance, movement, emphasis, proportion and rhythm.

Another early painting, dated 1341, shows the Shahnameh hero Siavosh playing polo. The school with the elaborately decorated landscapes with their imaginative perspective and elongated and stylized figures became distinctly Persian in the early 15th century, under the Timurid Dynasty. The final phase of the school in the mid-15th century was during the Turkmen era in Shiraz with great a emphasis on colour scheme, and stylized landscapes. A leaf from Ibn Husam's Khavaran-nameh, dated about 1480 depicts this phase.

Sultan Muhammad, Tabriz Style, Rakhsh fights a lion while Rustam sleeps, A Shanameh story. 

The school of Tabriz under the Turkmen influence was above all known for its expressionist style in which landscapes are influenced by the works of artist like Hsia Kuei, Ma Yuan and Li T'ang of the Sung dynasty in China. One of the most fabulous Tabrizian manuscripts is an unfinished Shanameh (1515-1522) of which only one illustration, attributed to the painter Sultan Muhammad, has survived depicting the super hero Rustam reclining while his beloved horse Rakhsh fights a lion. Sultan Muhammad, the leading painter of the Turkmen style, is credited with several other masterpieces among them a magnificent image of the luminous prophet Muhammad ascending to heaven M’raaj (c. 1540):

Kamal ud-Din Behzad, Herat School, A story from Nezami's Khamseh. Behzad, the most renowned of the Persian miniaturists introduced a new compositional style and colour scheme

The Herat style of Persian miniature was appeared in the early 15th century and was greatly influenced by the styles of Shiraz and Tabriz, but benefited enormously by the ingenuity of the great Herati master miniaturist Kamal ud-Din Behzad Herawi known simply as Behzad (c. 1460–1535), who is generally placed at the zenith of the Persian pantheon of painters. Bihzad is renown for his ability to communicate with his viewer, through the personality and symbolic staging of his figures. His masterpiece Yousef and Zulaykha (the Joseph and Potipher’s wife), depicting the morally decent Joseph reacting to the immoral advances of Zulaykha by fleeing all the way through an elaborately intricate passage that symbolizes the emotional bewilderment of this complicated relationship in its various carnal and spiritual aspects.

Sultan Mohammad, Tabriz School, Court of Kioumarth. Shahnameh

Majnun recognised by Layla's dog Page of a manuscript of "Layly and Majnun" Uzbekistan, Bukhara, 
C. 1560  Louvre,Dpt.des Arts d'Islam, Paris, France

A brilliant synthesis of the diverse Persian miniature styles, was created under the auspices of Safavid rulers, by Sultan Muhammad and Bihzad, and corroboration of numerous master calligraphers, painters, gilders, leather workers, book binders and so on in the form of Shahnameh of Tabriz (or the "Houghton Shahnameh”). The Court of Kioumarth in this book is considered as a true masterpiece of Persian miniature. The painting depicts Kioumarth, (from Ki, meaning king, and Marth meaning man), the first king, who ruled from a mountain sumit over the wild beasts reflecting despondently at the fortune of his son, Siyamak, who is fated to be killed in a predestined combat with the Div e Siah black demon.

Reza Abbasi, School of Isfahan, Portrait of a Prince

The Isfahan school was the culmination of Persian miniature painting in the 16th century. Reza Abbasi one of the foremost masters of the Persian miniature painting introduced an elegant minimalist coloring scheme, and an impressionist style which became the defining feature the school of Isfahan during the Safavid dynasty.

Miniature Painting in India

The Portrait of a Young Scholar (1549-1556), created in Homaioon era, is distinctly in Persian style 

Indian miniature painting started in the Mogul era, two Persian style miniatures, the Portrait of a Young Scholar (1549-1556) and Prince Akbar Hunting a Nilgae (1555-1560), from the court Humayun , Akbar's father show the that the early Indian Miniaturists were influenced and perhaps trained by Persian artists. The distinctly Indian school started during the reigns of three of the great Mogul emperors, Akbar, Jahangir and Shahjahan, which classify principally the first three phases of Mogul art.

Miniature by Mansur, "Babur Meeting Khanzada Begam, Mehr Banu Begam and Other Ladies" (An illustration from the Baburnama), circa 1598, in the style of Akbar era.

Babur's sister, Khanzada Begam, was forced to marry Shaibani Khan, an Uzbek warlord, who defeated Babur and occupied Samarkand in 1500 A.D. A while later, Shaibani received a letter from Shah Ismail of Persia asking him to get out of his territories. The Uzbek Ruler replied with a scorn: "I am a Prince who hold my dominions by hereditary descent. I do not understand what claim you Shah Ismail have to the countries you call your hereditary dominions. Sovereignty descends through the father and not the mother." This he said inasmuch as Shah Ismail had claimed to rule over a large part of Persia on the ground that he was descended by his mother from Uzan Hassan who, as the chief of the Turkmen Horde, had once been Ruler of the country.

Shah Ismail's reply according to the historian Erskine, was that " I have tightened my girdle for a deadly contest, and have placed the foot of determination in the stirrup of victory. If thou wilt meet me face to face in fight like a man, our quarrel will at once be decided."
Having dispatched this letter, he pretended to retreat and thereby allured Shaibani out of the citadel of Merv. When the Uzbeks had got so far from the town that retreat was impossible, they suddenly fell on the whole Persian Army which had been drawn up to meet them, and in the battle which ensued were totally defeated. He was killed, and his head was severed. The historians who write of Babur's early days suggest that he was forced to become more or less a vassal of Shah Ismail. In this scene, after Ismail returned his sister back to him, Babur writes of his reunion with his sister, who's separation lasted for about ten years, so much so that when the sister saw him she could not recognize him.

It was during the reign of Akbar (1556-1605) that over a hundred of master painters were employed in the Royal ateliers at court. The Indian miniature artists of this first phase illustrated mainly the Persian classical literatures, such as Gulstan of Sadi, Shahnama of Ferdowsi, Duval Rani Khizr Khan, the Persian romance of Duval Rani and Khizr Khan. Some historical texts such as Timurnama, Chingiznama, Baburnama and Akbarnama were also illustrated with some degree of realism in a naturalistic setting.

Female portraits were allowed during the Jahangir's reign, in spite of the fact that his Muslim father Akbar did not favor it. His queen, Nur jahan, is the subject of this masterpiece of circa 1740-1750. In 1611, Jahangir married Nur Jahan, the widowed daughter of a Persian immigrant. She and her relatives soon dominated politics, while Jahangir devoted himself to cultivation of the arts, especially miniature painting.

The stylistic emphasis of Indian Miniature shifted towards greater realism in landscapes and portrays in its second phase during the Jahangir reign (1605 – 1627) . Jahangir’s love of miniatures were developed years before he ascended to the throne during which, under the Persian painters Aqa Riza and his son Abu Hasan he set up his independent studio at Allahabad. The work of various artists in Jahangir’s court such as Abu Hasan’s court scenes and official portraits, Mansur’s landscapes and historical illustrations, and Daulat’s portraits as well as others were influenced by the Persian style of Aqa Riza, with the flat surfaces and highly embellished. The female portraitures of this era reveal a sophisticated compositional execution.

Miniature by Bichitr, "Jahangir Preferring a Sufi sheikh to Kings". ca. 1620,
A highly symbolic illustration showing Jahangir seated on an hour-glass , while some kings, including a European one, are portrayed at the lower left corner. ca. 1620. The Persian poetry says: Although kings in appearance stand before him, but in reality he looks up persistently at Dervishes.

Finally in the third phase, during Shahjahan reign (1605-1627), the Indian style of miniature became intensely formalized with copious ornamentation, and greater emphasis on the visual extravagance. This formalization, and artificial mannerism become progressively the dominant characteristic of the Indian miniature in its post-Mogul phase.

Shah Jahan holding a public audience in the great hall of his palace.

Go to the next chapter; Chapter 11 - Woodblock Prints of China and Japan
    References and Further Reading
  • Sickman, L. and A. Soper, The Art and Architecture of China (1956);
  • Sirén, O. Chinese Painting (7 vol., 1956–58);
  • Cahill, J. The Art of Southern Sung China (1979), The Distant Mountains: Chinese Painting of the Late Ming Dynasty, 1570–1644 (1982);
  • Sullivan, M. The Arts of China (rev. ed. 1984);
  • Fong, W. Beyond Representation (1992).
  • Beach, Milo Cleveland. Mughal and Rajput Painting (The New Cambridge History of India): Cambridge, 1992.
  • Oleg Grabar, Mostly Miniatures: An Introduction to Persian Painting, Princeton University Press 200, ISBN-10: 0691049998
  • Allan, James Hunt for Paradise: Court Arts of Safavid Iran 1501-76 , Skira; illustrated edition edition, 2004, ISBN-10: 8884915902
  • Sims, Eleanor Peerless Images: Persian Painting and Its Sources, Yale University Press; illustrated edition edition, 2002, ISBN-10: 0300090382
  • Hillenbrand, Robert Persian Painting: From the Mongols to the Qajars, I. B. Tauris , 2001, ISBN-10: 1850436592
  • Barry , Michael Figurative Art in Medieval Islam: And the Riddle of Bihzad of Herat (1465-1535), Flammarion; illustrated edition edition, 2005, ISBN-10: 2080304216
  • Cooper, David (ed). A Companion to Aesthetics (Blackwell Companions to Philosophy): Massachusetts, 1997.
  • Daljeet, Dr. Mughal and Deccani Paintings (From the Collection of the National Museum): New Delhi, 1999.
  • Losty, Jeremiah P. The Art of the Book in India: London, 1982.
  • Mansingh, Surjit. Historical Dictionary of India: New Delhi, 2000.
  • Okada, Amina. Imperial Mughal Painters: Paris.
  • Randhawa, M.S. Paintings of the Babur Nama: New Delhi, 1983.
  • Sen, Geeti. Paintings from the Akbar Nama: Varanasi, 1984.
  • Thackston, Wheeler M (Tr. and ed). The Jahangirnama (Memoirs of Jahangir, Emperor of India): New York, 1999.
  • Verma, Som Prakash (ed). Flora and Fauna in Mughal Art: Mumbai, 1999.
  • Welch, Stuart Cary. Imperial Mughal Painting: New York, 1978.
  • Ziad, Zeenut. The Magnificent Mughals: Karachi, 2002.

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