Updated: May 7
My Name Is Red is a master work by Orhan Pamuk, the Turkish Nobel Laureate, who wrote a fabulous murder mystery, love story, and thesis on the power of art, involving highly skilled miniaturists in 16th century Istanbul. Each element in the story, from the people directly involved to the colors in the miniatures (Red, for instance), speak. All start by giving their name. I wish that I could truly say that "My Name Is the Persian Miniature" and speak from the perspective of the miniature, but not being Pamuk, I will simply tell what I know.
While living in France, I was able to take advantage not only of French culture and art but of the vast collections they have of art from other cultures. While Europe has a history of miniature painting dating from manuscripts coming out of the Dark Ages, when it comes to miniatures, one must turn to Persia, modern day Iran.
In Pamuk's story, the Turkish master miniaturists in the late 1500s painstakingly and faithfully copied the style of the masters from Herat, which was Persian at that time. Around the same time, these Persian masters also influenced the Indian miniature, as several of them went to work for the Rajas when Shah Tahmasp closed his ateliers. So who were these masters? Why are miniatures a special genre? How did they function as works of art?
The Persian miniature's glory seems to have been between the 12th and 17th centuries, according to Francis Richard, one of the world's foremost experts on the Persian book and the Persian miniature. His exhaustive research into the manuscripts and the miniatures culminated in an extensive exposition of the works held by the Bibliothèque Nationale de France called Splendeurs Persanes, Manuscrits du XII au XVII siecle
We can see by the example in this photo the covers of the books were highly decorated; the pages held quite a lot of white space around the writing; and a picture of decorative design, but sometimes a picture telling part of a story, were present. In the 13th century, the city of Hamadan held a whole neighborhood that was dedicated to the book. It was sponsored by a famous vizier named Rachid al-Din. The area was called "the neighborhood of Rachid," and there the focus was on the manufacture of books, the storage of knowledge, and book selling to those who wished to buy. Rachid al-Din was an encyclopedist before the 18th century ones, having ordered a great work to collect all that mankind knew of the world, called The Universal Compendium. The dwellers in that area known as Rachid's neighborhood were families engaged in the production of books, with everyone in the family participating. The fathers of families were normally miniaturists. The sons did the decorative book binders, and the mothers and daughters were copyists.
One thing immediately observed is the emphasis on the decorative in the binding and on the pages of the books. Look for a moment at Advice of the Ascetic (above) by Kamal ud-Din Behzad (1450-1535), one of the five most famous classical miniaturists. The beautiful little painting has the wonderful clarity of color that the Persian miniatures are known for. The artists worked on paper, using a variety of hand-ground colors and sometimes flecks of gold or silver. (For more on their paints and techniques see: Nancy Purinton and Mark Watters' article http://cool.conservation-us.org/jaic/articles/jaic30-02-002.html) However, this piece is offset by a surround in golden colors that serves to frame the picture, which is placed to the right of the page, leaving ample space for a wonderful brocade like design featuring plant and animal images.
This focus on the decorative may have caused the destruction of many of the most beautiful Persian books when they came into the hands of Westerners. Francis Richard explains that in the West, the pictures in a book illustrate the story that is being told. When they encountered the Persian books, Westerners thought the same was true. Loving the "illustrations" as works of art and being unable to read Persian script, the beautiful paintings were stripped from the books, framed, and hung as paintings are in the Occident. This cultural misunderstanding led to the dismantling of various famous works like the Shahnammeh of Shah Tahmasp. The Shahnammeh is a work relating the history of the Shahs of Persia in an epic poem by Ferdowsi between 977 and 1010. Shah Tahmasp I (1514-1576) maintained one of the most celebrated ateliers of artists ever assembled. It included the five greatest classical Persian miniaturists: Behzad, Soltan Mohammed, Mir Mosavver, his son, Sayyed Ali, and finally Dust Mohammed. This Shahnammeh was a masterpiece. However, what was not understood by people from the Occident was that the paintings in a Persian book tell the parts of the story that the writing does not, so both writing and painting are needed to get the full story. This cultural difference has caused the loss of many Persian books, for as the miniatures disappeared so did parts of the tales the books told.
In looking at the miniatures, there are often scenes of complicated physical settings which look rather odd to the eye used to Western painting using perspective. Activities take place it seems on various levels of the painting. The works have a flat feeling that makes them a bit unreal. Take a look at the works below.
In the School painting, even though it is not in perfect condition, we can still see layers of different activities, some in a garden, some in a school setting, some inside of a structure, and others just outside. Blocks of beautiful clear color section off the different activities. The absence of perspective does not come because of a lack of mathematical ability, as astronomy and math were much advanced in the area. However, the religion of Islam which came to Persia in 651 did not allow for anything that tried to exactly replicate the natural world. The natural world was made by god, not man. One way around that was to create a facsimile that did not show things in rounded natural forms with perspective to show the illusion of actual distance within a flat surface. Different levels were blocked off and shown stacked one upon the other, with a decorative flatness to enhance their separation from actual reality. In the picture from the Shahnammeh, I noticed a treatment of the architecture that shows all the areas of the building with some indication that one area is behind another, but done in a fanciful fashion. I was reminded of 14th century paintings from Siena, Italy, in which the architecture looked rather similar, but was done once again to pay respect to religious ideas. The Sienese painters wanted to put biblical figures in settings that were beyond this world to set them apart from us. The Persians did not want to indicate that they dared copy god's work, so they made their own.