Persian Paintings and Miniatures


Pictorial art in Iran is represented by miniatures, especially illustrations for manuscripts, and – to a much lesser extent- by mural paintings. Fragmentary remains of wall paintings from the Parthian and Sassanid periods have been found, but no example of Iranian book painting is known prior to the 8th or 9th century. From this period date fragments of Manichaean books recovered at Turfan, but these are followed by another gap of almost 300 years. There are some mural fragments, painted pottery, and a few illustrated manuscripts from the Seljuk period, but on the whole, it is impossible to trace the history of Iranian painting prior to the early 13th century.

Numerous factors account for this situation. The first is the well-known antipathy of orthodox Muslims toward all representations of the human figure, and indeed, of all forms of animal life. Because of this theological condemnation, the painter was only able to work in a milieu where the influence of the theologian could be diminished, and consequently had to take service under some powerful patron, such as ruling monarch or wealthy noble. Despite certain notable exceptions, in the Islamic world the painter was clearly denied the sympathy and encouragement conducive to the production religious works of art; this aspect of his circumstances was in strong contrast with that of this contemporary working in a Christian or Buddhist society. Thus Islamic art was deprived of one of the strongest incentives for artistic production which the world has known.

The second factor is the appalling succession of destructive agencies which have swept away many examples of pictorial art. Palaces with decorated walls were razed or fell into ruins, while books were destroyed insects, rats, or conflagrations. No doubt many examples of the work of Iranian painters perished in the fire which in 998 reduced to ashes the famous Samanid library, said to have contained incomparable treasures. Mahmud Ghaznavid did away with the greater part of the Buyid library in 1029, carrying what he did not destroy to his own library, which suffered a similar fate in 1150. But all this devastation was nothing, when compared with the dreadful destruction wrought by the Mongols in the early 13th century. However, by as early as the 1270s, the Ilkhanid rulers of Iran had established a versatile court which included, among others, historians, poets, astronomers, and painters. This period saw the major development of the Iranian miniature, characterized by the adoption of the Chinese designs and coloring brought in by the Mongols, and by the subsequent blending of Far Eastern methods with the idiosyncratic cultural concepts of Iranian artists. The new Irano-Mongolian style proved vigorous and energetic, though the first experiences of the Ilkhanid painters are often criticized for their lack of homogeneity.

The most important function of miniature was the illustration of manuscripts. Miniature pictured the literary plot, making it more enjoyable and easier to understand. Iran’s great wealth of inspiring literature caused the emergence of many schools of miniature painting, each school having its own, unique style.

After the fall of Ilkhanid ruling house, art centers shifted to the provincial capitals. In the mid-14th century, Shiraz became the most important center of Iranian painting. At that time, it was challenged only by Baghdad and Tabriz, the capital cities of the Jalayrid dynasty. In Shiraz were produced many important manuscripts, among them, a copy of the Kalila and Dimna, ranked among the masterpieces of Iranian painting.

The coming of the Timurids signaled the beginning of the period in which the development of the Persian miniature rose to its greatest glory. The art blossomed particularly under Timur’s descendants. The earliest Timurid manuscripts, contemporary with those produced at the Jalayrid court, are associated with Sultan Eskandar, Timur’s grandson, who during 1409-1410 was governor in Shiraz. The anthology of Persian poems, made for Sultan Eskandar in 1410, represents the Shiraz school at full maturity.

Under Timur’s son Shahrokh, Herat became anew major center of Persian manuscript illustrators. During the rule of Shahrokh’s son Baysunqur (died in 1433), craftsmen created a number of exquisite volumes that rank among the finest examples of the art. Of these, Ferdowsi’s Shahnameh, completed in 1430, is the most celebrated. In the miniatures of the Herat school, numerous figures, singly or in groups, are shown on various planes, one above the other, using the entire picture area. The figures of the earlier Herat school are stylized- tall and thin with oblong heads and pointed beards- but are painted in variety of positions. Above all, they are animated, always taking part in the action of whatever scene is represented. Artists of the Herat school display a highly-developed sense of composition combined with a fondness for descriptive detail. The colors, bright but not strident, are worked in subtle gradations.

The highest point of the Persian miniature was, however, reached under the last of Timur’s sections, Hossein Bayqara, who came to power in Herat in 1478. His era in painting was dominated by the figure of Kamal al-Din Behzad, acclaimed by many as Iran’s most important painter. As head of Herat Academy of Art (the position he held until 1560, when at the order of  Shah Ismail Safavid he was removed to Tabriz and given the same post there), Behzad was a leading force in the development of the Persian miniature. In a harmonious, imaginative, dramatic style, Behzad painted individuals rather than characterizations. A 1489 copy of Saadi’s Bustan contains illustrations outstanding among Behzad’s works. A few of these bear the signature of the master, and in an inconspicuous place.

In 1535, Herat fell to the Uzbeks, and most of its artists and craftsmen found shelter in the capital cities of the newly-established Safavid dynasty-Tabriz, Qazvin, and finally Esfahan. Among the most exquisite manuscripts of the Safavid period is Nezami’s Khamseh, prepared in 1539-1543 under the patronage of Shah Tahmasp I. The large, brilliantly-colored paintings of this book represent the apex of the Persian miniature style. Another beautiful manuscript from Shah Tahmasp’s reign is the copy of the Shahnameh, illustrated with more than 250 miniatures of great size.

A new climax of Persian miniature art was reached with the establishment of the Esfahan miniature school at the court of Shah Abbas the Great. Not only an impressive number of manuscripts, but also mural paintings in at least two of the Safavid palaces, Ali Qapu and Chehel Sotun, have survived from this period. It is curious to note that very little difference exists between the styles and the thematic concerns of monumental artworks and miniature painting. The most remarkable artist of this period was Aqa Reza, better known as Reza Abbasi. His painting style is characterized by the increasing cosmopolitanism and synthesis of Eastern and Western elements in a Persian context. This diligent artist with an exceptional gift and great technical skill, exercised a strong influence over the artistic life of Iran, and attracted a large following of pupils.

When the Safavid dynasty fell in 1722, Persian painting seemed to have broken once and for all with the old tradition and settled firmly for an imitation of European models. Under Karim Khan Zand, there was a revival of miniature painting, though now it was found more in lacquer work than in book illustration. Of course, some separate album-pictures and portraits of good quality were also produced. The leading artist of the time was Mohammad Sadeq, who initiated a style that remained virtually unchanged until the middle of 19th century. The European features of the style-shading, modeling, drapery, and perspective- are all on the surface; concept and subject remain unmistakably Persian.

The Qajar dynasty in 19th century ushered in a renaissance of painting. From this period have survived a few finely- illustrated manuscripts, notably a magnificent copy of "The Thousand and One Nights". Album –pictures were also produced in some quantity, mostly in the form of portraits and flower studies. Three other forms of painting were explored and developed at the same time: single miniatures on the paper, produced as souvenirs for European travellers and executed with considerable charm; painted enamel on gold, silver, or copper; and eglomise, or “behind glass” painting. The so-called Qahveh Khaneh (coffeehouse) painting was a sort of primitive folk art that also appeared during this period. The most important painters under the Qajar descended from the Ghaffari family; among them were Mirza Abulhasan Khan, titled Sani al-Molk (“Painter of the Kingdom”), who made countless portraits of all the noble people of this period; and Mirza Mohammad Khan, titled Kamal al-Molk (Excellence of the Kingdom”), a dexterous painter, and the founder of the first Iranian Academy of Fine Arts.

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