June 14, 2012 By Shameer Ks

Turko-Persian Spring of Islamic Art

Shameer-Ks-ImageOrhan Pamuk’s ‘My Name is Red’ is a refrabicated history (history told through the medium of novel) about the commissioning of caricaturists to illustrate classical works. The book narrates a time in the history of Turkey, namely the 16th century, which was kept apart by the avid focus at that time on painting.  Sultan Murat III was the patron of Islamic art and painting and, in order to further his cultural taste, brought Persian miniaturists from Persia to illustrate classical works. Pamuk’s shift changes from, as characteristic of a true novelist, the documentation of this rich cultural heritage to the mysterious murder, and the consequent post-modernist self-narration, of the two miniature artists: Elegant and Enishthe. The aim of this article is to foreground Sultan Murat III and his heritage and the rich cross-cultural (in this case between Turkish and Persian) blend of Islamic art.

Sultan Murat III (In Persian and Arabic: Sultan Murad III)
Sultan Murat III aka Murad III was born of Sultan Selim II and Nur Banu in 1546. Salim II was the emperor of the Ottoman dynasty until his death in 1566. Nur Banu, before her conversion, had been Cecilia Venier-Baffo, a Venetian who enkindled in her son the taste of art and culture. Sultan Murad came to power in 1574 and was known less for his administrative acumen than for his promotion of art and culture. During Murad’s reign, the empire was so full of problems that his vizier Mehmet Sokullu, a famed statesman, could not even contain them, resulting in Sultan’s assassination in 1579. Sultan Murads’ legacy remains in the three commissioned works. Sultan’s Murat’s contribution to the painting and miniature art lies entiwined with the birth and growth of two famous schools of Persian miniature painting: Herat school and Tabriz school, which is an off-shoot of the former.

Herat School
Herat is located south west Kabul and is one of the five largest cities in Afghanistan. Here goes the analogy of the region in ancient lores: ‘The world is like an ocean. And in the ocean is a pearl, and the pearl is Herat.’ Herodotus called Herat the breadbasket of the whole Afghanistan region. It is the sobriquet ‘Florence of Asia’ that makes out this region from other cities in the country. This distinct name has its origin from the richness of culture and art. In the history of painting, Herat is associated with the earliest mode of Truko-Persian miniature painting and designs. A serious student of art can hardly lose sight of Herat school and the revolution it brought about in Islamic art.
Herat school flourished under two mutually-antagonistic dynasties, namely Timurid and Safavid. So art historians divide Herat school into two phases: Timurid and Tabriz (Herat school came to be known as Tabriz school under Safavids, since painters and artists migrated en masse to Tabriz in Iran under Safavids). These two sharp divisions explain the positive and enriching nature of regime change and dynastic wars in the ancient Islamic world. Rather than destroying the heritages of preceding regimes, the succeeding dynasties rehabilitated, renovated and enriched them.
The two emperors before Sultan Husain Baiqura (1470), the major patron of Herat School, who contributed immensely to the school are Sultan Shahruk (1405-1447) and Sultan Husain Bayqara (1490). The name of 14th century prince Iskandar Sultan, who had set the stage for the school to flourish, is also to be remembered in this context.
Artists and painters from all over the Islamic world assembled in Herat around 1405 to illustrate and illuminate manuscripts and to paint on silk canvases. Artists and painters reached Herat from diverse regions with variegated aesthetic sensibilities. As is characteristic of all Islamic arts, diversities and heterogeneous aesthetic tastes came to be harmoniously blended (this unity amidst diversity has been sourced from Tawhid (monotheism) in Islam). The major themes thus illustrated are popular poems and religious and mystical poems. The miniature paintings depicted stories from the Quran and folk lores, which stood out as a source of iconography. One of the stock themes thus rendered into painting was the story of Laila and Majnoon.

Laila Majnoon: the beauteous Laila and her intoxicated lover have inhabited the national and cultural sub-conscious of Muslim artists and story-tellers. Many versions of the Laila Majnoon story were commissioned by Timurid Sultans in the heyday of the school, of which Khamsa of Nizami’s version is celebrated as the best.

This painting was Commissioned by Timurid prince Baysunghur of Herat, one of the greatest bibliophiles in the history of Islam, this painting, based on based on the 12th century poet Nizami.
Curator Michael Barry explains the depicted theme in the following words:
‘The illustration depicts Qais, the future “mad one” (Majnun) for love, and Laila, his beloved, who meet for the first time as children at a mosque school. He adds: ‘The scene depicts the child lovers framed in the mosque’s prayer niche in order to emphasize their mystical status. These visual conventions of Persian art, sometimes laden, as here, with Neoplatonic symbolism, crystallized in the royal cities of Tabriz and then Herat at the turn of the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries and endured for another 250 years in the court paintings of Iran, Turkey, and India.’
Features: One of the two important features of the painting is its ‘inclusiveness.’ All details have been assimilated into the canvas without leaving anything either in the foreground or background. All characters, the Sheikh or teacher and his disciples, including Qais and Laila have been given equal prominence by arranging illustrated themes one behind the other as if they are frames in movie. This second prominent feature that all themes come to our focus simultaneously is called ‘perspective.’ Herat artists borrowed the idea of creating perspective from the Mongols. All individual figures have been made larger than life by giving them long  beard and coloured robes.

Bihzad (1450-1535):A significant phase in the history of Herat school is the arrival of Kamaluddin Bihzad  in the Timurid court under the patronage of Sultan Husain Bayqara.

Bihzad was a connoisseur of colour and his ability to give intricate and subtle colour to designs is such that he can be called the father of graphic designers and the originator of color pixels.
By 1470, Sultan Husain Husain Byqara’s court has become the major hub of book production in the medieval world, thanks to the innovative and iconoclastic graphic styles of Bihzad. In 1502 Herat fell to the succeeding dynasty of Safavids, who shifted the capital to Tabriz. Bihzad led the artists and painters who migrated to Tabriz and the entire school came to be renamed Tabriz school.
The details of war front and war tactics as well as mosques are the important contributions of Tabriz school.
Seduction of Yusuf, illustrated under the guidance of Bihzad, explains in detail the features of Bihzad’s art.

Seduction of Yusuf:The Quranic chapter Yusuf (Joseph) narrates in detail the story of Yusuf and his eventful life. Born to Ya’qoob (Jacob), Yusuf was the most handsome of all the children. Indeed, he is second to Prophet Muhammad in comeliness as per Islamic lores and traditions. A victim to his brothers’ jealousy and craving for power, Yusuf got separated from his father thanks to their vicious and well-orchestrated plot. They dropped him in well but he was providentially saved by a caravan. The caravan sold him at a slave market to the king of Alexandria (Egypt). The theme of the above painting comes about at the court of the King, whom the Quran identifies as Aziz (exegetes are of the opinion that ‘Aziz’ does not the king’s name but his title). Zulekha, Aziz’s wife, was bewitched by the beauty of Yusuf and fell instantly in love with him. This love touches on the themes of passionate (also erotic) and platonic (also spiritual) love. When Yusuf was all alone in his chamber, Zulekha comes there ‘she bolted the doors and said: “come, please.” He said: “God forbid! My lord (your husband) has given me honourable and good lodging. Assuredly, Wrongdoers never prosper” (12:23). So they raced to the door and she tore his shirt from his back…(12:25).
The theme of seduction of Yusuf by Zulekha has generated many eulogies and folktales, mostly erotic, in the Muslim oral formulaic tradition. But Bihzad’s above illustration deconstructs all these oral traditions by realigning the story in the pattern of dualism in love tales (the dualism of platonic vis-a-vis passionate love). In order to escape from the physical snares of Zulekha’s love, Yusuf escapes to ethereal, namely to the heaven. The more she tries to pull him down, the more intensely he flies to the heaven. To contrast the two worlds, Bihzad has subtly manipulated colours. Zelekha’s world is imbued with bright and intense colours, which is suggestive of erotica (but which has ironically crept into the folk oral narration on Yusuf) whereas the whole elements in Yusuf’s world are soaked in less intense, if more ethereal, colours.
Adding details to history in the silk canvas has earned Bihzad flaks from traditional Islamic scholarship. He was criticized for adding colours to history. Considering that traditional oral traditions were also a-historical, this criticism can be seen as an extension of some of the traditional scholars’ criticism of painting and fine arts. Also, but for the depiction of Yusuf in the above painting (in which his face has been significantly blurred), the whole nuances of love in the tale would have been rendered unexpressed. But simplistic critiques based on the ‘pure’ Islamic vales existed back in the era of Behzad himself.

Pamuk writes:“Nothing is pure,” said Enishte Effendi……….’We owe Bihzad and the splendor of Persian painting to the meeting of an Arabic illustrating sensibility and Mongol-Chinese painting. Shah Tahmasp’s best paintings marry Persian style with Turkmen subtleties. Today, if men cannot adequately praise the book-arts workshops of Akbar Khan in Hindustan, it’s because he urged his miniaturists to adopt the styles of the Frankish masters. To God belongs the East and the West. May He protect us from the will of the pure and unadulterated.”  (My Name is Red, page 176).


1. The History of Herat School of Painting, The Saylor Foundation
2. My Name is Red, Orhan Pamuk, Translated by Erda M Göknar, Vintage
3. Golden Age of Persian Arts:150-1722, Sheila R Canby, British Museum Press
4. metamuseum.org
5. Safavid Empire 1502-1736, Iran Chamber Society,
6. http://www.artres.com/c/htm/CSearchZ.aspx?o=&Total=3&FP=4418752&E=22SIJM…
7. ‘Herat: The Pearl of Afganistan’, BBC,

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