THE BRITISH LIBRARY

Asian and African studies blog

229 posts categorized "Art"

11 February 2020

Bugis flower power: a compendium of floral designs

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The collection of Bugis and Makassar manuscripts in the British Library, which has now been fully digitised, covers a wide range of genres from court diaries to literature, treatises on a range of sciences, and religious works on Islamic law and Sufism.  Most of the manuscripts are sober textual documents, carefully and neatly written in Bugis/Makassar (lontaraq) or Arabic script, but - save for one compendium of poems - with few formal decorative elements.  On the other hand, many manuscripts also contain notes, calligraphic pen trials and doodles, which often include sketches, primarily of a floral nature.  This text-light but picture-heavy blog post has brought together all the floral drawings discovered in these manuscripts from south Sulawesi, presented here as a sourcebook for Bugis floral designs in the late 18th century.  In each case, the manuscript shelfmarks are hyperlinked to the full digitised manuscript page, so that the sketches can be seen in context; all the manuscripts originate from the royal library of Bone and were captured by the British in 1814.

Floral sketch in a Bugis court diary from Bone Add_ms_12373_f076v-crop
Floral sketch in a Bugis court diary from Bone, on an empty page prepared for September 1798. British Library, Add. 12373, f. 76v  noc

The one decorated manuscript in the collection is a collection of poems. The largest part of the manuscript comprises a series of fourteen short Bugis poems in tolo' style, concerning heroic episodes in the past: one poem tells of the death of the mid-sixteenth century king of Gowa, Tu-nibatta, whose head was cut off in battle. The volume also contains one Makassar poem (sinrili'), by Arung Palakka on his divorce from Arung Kaju, and it ends with a Bugis war-song (elong-oseng) by Daeng Manrupai.  The manuscript is neatly written and opens with a finely double frame drawn in black ink with faint red highlights, shown below.

Add_ms_12346_f002v-3r
Opening pages of a collection of Bugis poems, late 18th century. British Library, Add. 12346, ff. 2v-3r   noc
 
Within the volume new poems are heralded with a horizontal floral panel, all of which are presented below, together with hyperlinks to the folio of the manuscript on which they are found.

horizontal floral panel Add_ms_12346_f007r-dec
British Library, Add. 12346, f. 7r  noc
horizontal floral panel Add_ms_12346_f012r-dec
British Library, Add. 12346, f. 12r   noc
horizontal floral panel Add_ms_12346_f019v-dec
British Library, Add. 12346, f. 19v  noc
horizontal floral panel Add_ms_12346_f026r-dec
British Library, Add. 12346, f. 26r  noc
horizontal floral panel Add_ms_12346_f030r-dec
British Library, Add. 12346, f. 30r  noc
horizontal floral panel Add_ms_12346_f046v-dec
British Library, Add. 12346, f. 46v  noc
Add_ms_12346_f050r-dec
British Library, Add. 12346, f. 50r  noc
Add_ms_12346_f052r-dec
British Library, Add. 12346, f. 52r  noc
horizontal floral panel Add_ms_12346_f056v-dec
British Library, Add. 12346, f. 56v  noc
horizontal floral panel Add_ms_12346_f061v-dec
British Library, Add. 12346, f. 61v  noc
Floral panel - Add_ms_12346_f064v-dec
British Library, Add. 12346, f. 64v  noc

At the start of the first six poems, a single flower is inserted at the end of the first line of text:

Flower-Add_ms_12346_f046v-flower  Add_ms_12346_f012r-flower  Add_ms_12346_f019v-flower  Add_ms_12346_f026r-flower  Add_ms_12346_f030r-flower  Add_ms_12346_f046v-flower
British Library, Add. 12346, ff. 7r, 12r, 19v, 26r, 30r, 46v  noc

The only other polished examples of artwork found in a few manuscripts in this collection are of divination diagrams (kutika) based on the compass rose, which were used to establish propitious days or times for certain actions. Some of these diagrams have at their heart an elaborate floral composition.

Floral pattern at the centre of a divinatory diagram in a collection of Bugis treatises on medicine and other matters Add_ms_12360_f062r-flower  Floral pattern at the centre of a divinatory diagram in a collection of Bugis treatises on medicine and other matters Add_ms_12372_f066r
(Left) Floral pattern at the centre of a divinatory diagram in a collection of Bugis treatises on medicine and other matters, British Library, Add. 12360, f. 62r; (right) a similar floral pattern on a divinatory diagram from a similar compendium on diseases and medicines, British Library, Add. 12372, f. 66r.  noc

 The other drawings presented below are all essentially doodles: sketches drawn in blank pages or spaces on a page at the beginning or end of a text. But all are remarkable for the skill and artistry of the artist’s pen, in black ink, sketching intricate floral and foliate compositions.

Doodle of flower with heart-shaped petals Add_ms_12346_back cover
Doodle of flower with heart-shaped petals, found on the inside back cover of the volume of poetry presented above. British Library, Add. 12346, inside back cover  noc

Floral sketches in a collection of Bugis poems Add_ms_12361_f017r-floral
Floral sketches in a collection of Bugis poems. British Library, Add. 12361, f. 17r  noc

Sketches in a collection of Bugis poems Add_ms_12361_f018r-floral
Floral sketches in a collection of Bugis poems. British Library, Add. 12361, f. 18r  noc

Floral sketches in a volume of Bugis treatises on diseases and medicines
Floral sketches in a volume of Bugis treatises on diseases and medicines. British Library, Add. 12372, f. 1v   noc

Floral sketches in a volume of Bugis treatises on diseases and medicines Add_ms_12372_f049r-crop
Floral sketches in a volume of Bugis treatises on diseases and medicines. British Library, Add. 12372, f. 49r  noc

Floral sketches in a volume of Bugis treatises on diseases and medicines Add_ms_12372_f073v
Floral sketches in a volume of Bugis treatises on diseases and medicines. British Library, Add. 12372, f. 73v  noc

floral scrolls in a Bugis court diary from Bone  Add_ms_12373_f002r-flower

floral scrolls in a Bugis court diary from Bone  Add_ms_12373_f002r-flowers
Two floral scrolls in a Bugis court diary from Bone for the years 1793-1799. British Library, Add. 12373, f. 2r  noc

Related blog posts:

The Royal Library of Bone: Bugis and Makassar manuscripts in the British Library

Digital access to Bugis and Makassar manuscripts

Bugis manuscript art

Annabel Teh Gallop, Southeast Asia section  ccownwork

07 February 2020

Moloch gibbons and sloth bears: the work of the Bengali artist Haludar

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The British Library has loaned twenty paintings and manuscripts to the Wallace Collection in London, for the ‘Forgotten Masters' exhibition, running through April 2020. Included are a selection of four works by the relatively unknown artist Haludar, whose natural history drawings are on display for the very first time. When the exhibition curator William Darymple started scoping paintings to be included in the exhibition, I brought to his attention the natural history drawings in the collection commissioned by the Scottish surgeon Dr. Francis Buchanan-Hamilton (1762–1829, hereafter referred to as Buchanan) at the turn of the 19th century. When I showed him the delicate paintings of a moloch gibbon, asloth bear, a long-tailed macaqu and the gerbils painted by the artist Haludar, Dalrymple was intrigued and we started considering the conservation aspects in displaying these works for the first time.

Illustration of a moloch gibbon in three ways
Moloch gibbon drawn for Francis Buchanan by Haludar, c. 1799-1806. British Library, NHD 3/499 Noc

Sloth bear NHD 3/489
Sloth bear drawn for Francis Buchanan by Haludar, c. 1799-1806. British Library, NHD 3/491 Noc

In researching the Buchanan collection at the British Library, which consists of several hundred natural history alongside countless volumes of his notes, I met with Dr Ralf Britz an ichthyologist (or fish scientist) at the Natural History Museum, who was working on Buchanan's volume on Fishes of the Ganges held in the British Library. When I mentioned my plans to work on the drawings of mammals in the Library's collection and researching the artist Haludar, he immediately sent me a scientific article by the French zoologist Henri de Blainville. In 1816, de Blainville  (1777–1850) wrote in the Bulletin des sciences, par la Société philomathique de Paris, that a new species of Cervus niger could be identified ‘after a very beautiful coloured drawing that was completed on site by Haludar, an Indian painter’. After reading this article I started to look at other early 19th century periodicals to see if any other zoologists were looking at de Blainville's work or by chance also mentioned Haludar.

NHD 3 (501) copy
Indian sambar deer, Cervus Niger, drawn for Francis Buchanan by Haludar, c. 1799-1806, Barrackpore. British Library, NHD 3/501 Noc

I discovered that in 1819,  the German naturalist Lorenz Oken’s periodical Isis also made reference to C. niger, stating it was ‘painted on the spot by the master painter Haludar’. Both references to Cervus niger, which is an Indian Sambar deer, provided only brief descriptions of the species, and omitted to give details regarding the source of the scientific information as well as the location of the artwork by Haludar. However, in cross-referencing C. niger with Haludar, we are directed to a single drawing in the British Library’s collection that was commissioned by Francis Buchanan inscribed with the artist’s name, that had been deposited at the Company’s library on Leadenhall Street, London in 1808. This painting of Cervus niger is one of 28 natural history drawings now held in the British Library that are inscribed Haludar Pinxt and that were prepared between 1795 and 1818, when Buchanan was working as a surgeon for the East India Company and actively documenting botanical and zoological specimens during his travels across the subcontinent.

Mildred Archer, art historian and author of Natural History Drawings in the India Office Library, suggested that Haludar most likely was one of the artists retained by William Roxburgh, the superintendent of the Calcutta Botanic Gardens. Roxburgh and Buchanan were in regular correspondence; Archer suggests that Roxburgh referred Haludar to Buchanan. Haludar was first employed by Buchanan from 1795-97, in Lakshmipur (in southeast Bangladesh), where the Scottish surgeon worked for the Company's factory until 1798 and spent his time studying the freshwater fishes in the Ganges River. During this time, we know that he 'hired a young Bengali artist to drawing various species he encountered'. According to Ralf Britz, Haludar was responsible for illustrating the freshwater specimens. While Buchanan-Hamilton examined and prepared written descriptions for each species, Haludar accurately depicted each fish with meticulous precision. He used pen-and-ink for the outlines, with pulversized silver to colour in the specimens (see BL IOR Mss Eur E72).

Following Buchanan’s posting at Lakshmipur, it is unclear whether Haludar accompanied Buchanan over the next few years when Buchanan was in Chittagong, Mysore and Nepal conducting surveys or sent on official visits on behalf of the Company from 1798-1803. Haludar may have returned to Calcutta in 1799 when Buchanan was temporarily placed in charge of the Botanic Gardens as Roxburgh was recovering in the Cape of Good Hope from ill health.

On returning from Nepal in 1803, Wellesley appointed Buchanan as his surgeon at Barrackpore, which had been converted as the residence for the Governor-General in 1801. On the grounds, Wellesley established the Barrackpore Menagerie which Buchanan would run as superintendent from 1803-05. Specimens from across the subcontinent were collected and brought to the menagerie. Based on archival evidence in the British Library, we know that Haludar was one of several artists to illustrate birds and mammals at Barrackpore. This information is documented in the series of illustrations that were sent in two batches from Barrackpore to London, first in 1807 and the second in 1818. A document titled ‘List of Drawings of E. Indian Quadrapeds and Birds made under the inspection severally of Mr Gibbon and of Dr Fleming and Buchanan – and deposited in the Library of the Honourable East India Company [Received on 24 August 1808]’,listed twenty-six mammals and twenty-eight birds. Of these works, Haludar was the artist of twenty-six drawings. In the second batch of a further 108 drawings sent under the authority of acting superintendent Nathanial Wallich in 1818, two additional works inscribed with Haludar’s name was sent to London. Among the wider collection of natural history drawings from Barrackpore in these two phases, the work of Haludar’s contemporaries Guru Dayal of Chittagong, Mahangu Lal and Bishnu Prasad are included.

Malini Roy, Head of Visual Arts Ccownwork

Further reading:

Mildred Archer, Natural History Drawings in the India Office Library, H.M.S.O., 1962.

Ralf Britz (ed.) Hamilton’s Gangetic Fishes in Colour: A new edition of the 1822 monograph, with reproductions of unpublished coloured and illustrations, London: Natural History Museum and Ray Society, 2019

Malini Roy, 'The Bengali Artist Haludar', in W. Dalrymple, Forgotten Masters: Indian Painting for the East India Company, Wallace Collection, 2019.

Mark F. Watson and Henry J. Noltie, ‘Career, collections, reports and publications of Dr Francis Buchanan (later Hamilton) 1762-1829: natural history studies in Nepal, Burma (Myanmar), Bangladesh and India. Part 1,’ in Annals of Science, 2016.

Mark F. Watson and Henry J. Noltie. (2019). The Buchanan-Hamilton collection of botanical drawings at the Linnean Society of London. Marg 70(2): 81–84.

 

21 December 2019

Chinese Botanical Paintings in the British Library Visual Arts Collection

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Rita dal Martello is completing her doctorate at UCL and has completed a doctoral placement at the British Library in November 2019. 

In 2019 the Visual Arts team has been pleased to welcome Rita Dal Martello as the section’s PhD placement focusing on Chinese works on paper. Rita has primarily been working on translating, identifying and cataloguing a collection of over 300 watercolour painting of botanical subjects along with additional paintings related to Chinese furniture and interiors, methods of torture and also the Macartney Embassy to China in 1792-1794. This blog will explore some of Rita’s research related to the Chinese botanical paintings cared for by the Visual Arts team.

In 1975, a collection of Chinese botanical paintings was received from the Foreign and Commonwealth Office comprising of 6 volumes of mostly quarto-size sheets of watercolour illustrations. On four different types of paper, the majority of the paintings are on paper watermarked Whatman 1794 II or Whatman 1794 I, whilst a small percentage are on cartridge type paper and a few on a very thin paper.

The paintings are provisionally dated to c. 1800, and are by unknown Chinese artists. 234 of the paintings represent flowering plants belonging to over 60 families, which have now been identified as including Rosaceae, Orchidaceae, Rutaceae, Fabaceae, Lythraceae, Ericaceae, Theaceae, Malvaceae, Magnoliaceae, Annonaceae, Apocynaceae, Asteraceae, Myrtaceae, Paeoniaceae, and Sapindaceae families, which have multiple examples across the collection. The remaining 76 illustrations in the collection are of unidentified flowering plants.

Over half of the identified plants are Asian ornamental flowers, such as orchids, azaleas, camellias, roses, chrysanthemums, peonies, magnolias and lilies among other.

Illustration of a camellia
Pale pink Japanese camellia (Camellia japonica) by an unknown Chinese artist, c.1800. British Library, NHD 52/37  noc

The rest of the paintings illustrate mostly Asian economic fruit and legume species, such as oranges, peaches, pears, persimmons, wampees, kumquat, litchi, longan, Bauhinia, and rosary pea among other. Finally, a few examples of Asian trees are illustrated in the later volumes of this collection, including one example of a willow tree, Japanese oaks, pines, and tallow trees.

Nhd_55_032r copy

Sweet orange (Citrus x sinensis) by an unknown Chinese artist, c. 1800. British Library, NHD 55/32.  noc

Most of the paintings show one or multiple flowering leafy branches, with fruits illustrated on a separate, smaller branch on the side. The drawings and colouring are accurate, with detailed illustration of individual petals and stamens, and veins on the leaves’ surface.

The floral and fruit dissections are meticulously illustrated on the lower corners of the paintings; individual pedicels, sepals, pistils, stamens and petals are all represented in these dissected illustrations; for fruit dissections fleshy interiors and seeds are often represented both within the fruit and separately on the side, often dissected themselves. Leaves, flowers, and fruits are illustrated at different stages of their life cycle, including in buds, at full bloom, and decaying, as well as immature and mature for fruits.

The depiction of floral and fruit dissections was becoming the norm in botanical paintings and allowed botanists to accurately identify different plant species from illustrations rather than from living or dried specimens, which could die or become damaged in transit.

At least one third of the paintings present visible pencil underdrawings; these most often represent changes in the final painted outcome, but rarely whole flowers and fruits are drawn in pencil on front and have not been painted. One instance of upside-down pencil sketches mirroring the front painting is found on the reverse of NHD56/49.

Numerous inscriptions are present on the front and reverse of the paintings. On the front, these usually include a set of Chinese characters, written in ink either on the lower right or lower left hand corner; these typically relate to the Chinese common name of the illustrated plant, some have folkloristic names which have now become obsolete. On the front, always written in ink on the lower left hand corner, there is one of two sets of initials – ‘W. Ch.’ on 152 paintings, and ‘H. Sh.’ on 129 paintings. Additionally, about a third of the paintings also have Latin plant names, rarely with English translation, written in pencil on the front lower right hand corner.

On the reverse, Chinese characters and their corresponding Cantonese transliteration are written on the lower right corner in pencil; these usually match the characters written on front, but in a few paintings additional characters are written on reverse, indicating the edibility of the plants or other noteworthy characteristics. The Cantonese transliteration are written in European script.

On a number of paintings, flowering times are indicated through Chinese characters written in ink on the reverse lower left hand corner; this is present only in paintings that bear the front inscription of H. Sh.; flowering times are given in individual months, and these match current known flowering times of the species illustrated in South China.

During my time at the British Library, I spent many hours transcribing and translating all the different inscriptions on the paintings, including updating plant Latin names according to the most recent scientific knowledge. I also compared the British Library collection with other Chinese botanical paintings such as the William Kerr collection held at the Royal Botanic Gardens at Kew, as well as consulted online and printed Chinese floras. This allowed for the accurate taxonomic identification of many of the plant depicted which were previously catalogued as unidentified botanical illustrations. This will enhance greatly future research and discoverability of this collection.

The records of each individual painting, including detailed information regarding plant species depicted (both common English names and Latin names when available), painting composition, and inscriptions (both front and reverse) can be found on the British Library Explore Archives and Manuscripts catalogue, by searching for the specific references of the collection (NHD52, NHD53, NHD54, NHD55, NHD56, NHD57), or otherwise by searching for specific plant names.

These paintings are also available for consultation on appointment only, through contacting the Asian and African Studies Print Room Staff in advance.

Rita dal Martello, doctoral candidate at UCL  ccownwork

07 October 2019

Arts of the South Asian Sultanates at the British Library

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The British Library holds one of the richest and most diverse collections of fifteenth-century South Asian manuscripts belonging to the sultanates. In association with a recent symposium, Connected Courts: Art of the South Asian Sultanates hosted at Wolfson College, Oxford, from 20-21 September, the library held a study session for a group of scholars who work on manuscripts, literature, and architecture. This viewing session provided a rare occasion for researchers of varying disciplines to share ideas on these manuscripts and discuss the interplay of different traditions.

Frontispiece of Shāhnāmah (BL Or 1403)
Fig. 1. Frontispiece of Shāhnāmah of Firdawsī, Bidar or Shiraz, 1438, Folio: 27 x 16 cm (BL Or 1403)
Noc

An initial group of manuscripts invited us to consider how and where the Persian narrative tradition spread across South Asia. Persian literature was certainly known, copied and enjoyed in India since at least the late thirteenth century. However, the earliest surviving manuscripts date to the fifteenth century. A copy of the Shāhnāmah of Firdawsī (Or 1403, fig. 1), dated 1438, contains illustrations that do not fit with contemporary Persian painting traditions, and has no colophon providing a provenance. Certain scholars have concluded this manuscript must have been produced elsewhere. There are various factors that suggest a South Asian origin, perhaps the Deccan region under the Bahmani sultanate. An intervention in the preface recounts Firdawsī’s journey to India and his visit to the Delhi court, not usually found in Persian copies of the Shāhnāmah.

Sharafnāmāh of Niẓāmī, Bengal (Gaur?), 1531. Iskandar shares the throne with Queen Nushabah (BL Or 13836, f. 37v)
Fig. 2. Sharafnāmah of Niẓāmī, Bengal (Gaur?), 1531. Iskandar shares the throne with Queen Nushabah. Folio: 31 x 20 cm (BL Or 13836, f. 37v)
Noc

Another manuscript viewed at the session was a copy of the Sharafnāmah (Or 13836, fig. 2), dated 1531 and produced for Sulṭān Nuṣrat Shah, ruler of Bengal (r. 1519-38). The text is from Niẓāmī’s Khamsah (Quintet), and is the first half of the Iskandarnāmah that describes the conquests of the Alexander the Great, the last poem of the quintet. This slim volume contains nine vibrant paintings that show the assimilation of both Indic and Persian artistic traditions. Such adaptations were common to several fifteenth-century manuscripts from the Indian sultanates.

Anthology of Persian Poetry, Jaunpur, India, beginning of the fifteenth century (BL Or 4110); Qur’ān, India, ca. 1450-1500 (BL Add 5548-5); and Kalpasūtra and Kālakācāryakathā, dated 1427 (BL IO San 3177)
Fig. 3. Anthology of Persian Poetry, Jaunpur, India, beginning of the fifteenth century, Folio: 37 x 26 cm (BL Or 4110); Qur’ān, India, ca. 1450-1500, Folio: 26.5 x 18.4 cm (BL Add 5548-5); and Kalpasūtra and Kālakācāryakathā, dated 1427 (BL IO San 3177)
Noc

Within the second grouping of manuscripts a Qur’ān (Add 5549) was juxtaposed with an anthology of Persian poetry (Or 4110), and a Sanskrit work of Jain scriptures, all created in fifteenth-century India (IO San 3177) (fig. 3). Although each of these manuscripts is written in a different language they come into dialogue in their use of script and ornament. The Qur’ān’s interlinear Persian translations are inscribed in the naskhī-dīvānī script similar to the Persian anthology of poetry. The illumination and deep red and orange floral ornament used in the Jain Kalpasūtra and Kālakācāryakathā bear striking resemblances to illumination in the Persian anthology and Qur’ān. While we know such similarities exist in theory, viewing these manuscripts together highlights these connections and opens new paths for research.

Wild ass or tomb, definitions of ‘gūr,’ Miftāḥ al-Fuz̤alā ( Key of the Learned) by Muḥammad ibn Muḥammad Dā’ūd Shādiyābādī, Mandu, India, ca. 1490
Fig. 4. Wild ass or tomb, definitions of ‘gūr’ in Miftā al-Fuz̤alā (Key of the Learned) by Muḥammad ibn Muḥammad Dā’ūd Shādiyābādī, Mandu, India, ca. 1490, Folio: 33 x 25.4 cm (BL Or 3299, f. 248v)
Noc

A final grouping brought together three manuscripts from the court of Malwa. Beyond the Ni‘matnāmah (Book of Delights), the British Library holds a few other manuscripts associated with the court of Malwa, based primarily in the capital of Mandu, each of which is entirely unique. The multilingual intellectual Muḥammad ibn Muḥammad Dā’ūd Shādiyābādī authored both of these manuscripts. The first is a multilingual Persian illustrated dictionary known as the Miftā al-Fuz̤alā (Key of the Learned, Or 3299, fig. 4) and the second is a Persian adaptation of al-Jazarī’s twelfth-century book of automata, the ‘Ajā’ib al-anā‘ī (Wonders of Crafts, Add 13718). This group of manuscripts from Malwa revealed how rich the libraries of fifteenth-century India were—long before the Mughals—and how we can place the Ni‘matnāmah within a larger context.

The opportunity to view these manuscripts with other specialists in the field allowed us to imagine more vividly the inter-connected world of the sultanates, and will no doubt inspire further research. We are grateful to Ursula Sims-Williams, Malini Roy, and Saqib Baburi for their help in organizing this session, and the support of the Barakat Trust, Khalili Research Centre, and Iran Heritage Foundation.

Further reading

On BL Or 1403:
Brend, Barbara, “The British Library’s Shahnama of 1438 as a Sultanate manuscript.” In Facets of Indian Art, eds. Robert Skelton et al (London: V&A, 1986), pp. 87-93.
Firouzeh, Peyvand. “Convention and Reinvention: The British Library Shahnama of 1438 (Or. 1403).” Iran (2019):1-22.

On BL Or 13836:
Skelton, Robert, “A Royal Sultanate manuscript dated 938 A.H./1531-2 A.D.” In Indian painting: Mughal and Rajput and Sultanate Manuscripts (London: Colnaghi, 1978), pp. 135-144.

On naskhī-dīvānī:
Brac de la Perrière, Éloïse, “Bihârî et naskhî-dîwânî: remarques sur deux calligraphies de l’Inde des sultanats.” In Ecriture, calligraphie et peinture, Studia Islamica, eds. A.L. Udovitch et H. Touati (Paris: Maisonneuve et Larose, 2003), pp. 81-93.

On the Ni‘matnāmah:
Skelton, Robert, “The Ni‘matnama: A Landmark in Malwa Painting.” Marg vol. 12 no. 3 (1959): 44-48.
Titley, Norah, The Ni‘matnama Manuscript of the Sultans of Mandu: The Sultan’s Book of Delights (Oxford: RoutledgeCurzon, 2005).

Vivek Gupta, SOAS University of London, History of Art and Archaeology; British Library PhD Research Placement
Dr Emily Shovelton, Research Associate, The Khalili Research Centre, University of Oxford
 ccownwork

08 August 2019

Emanating light: Illumination in Islamic manuscripts

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Without the ability to travel time it may forever be impossible to restage the medieval and early-modern viewing conditions of Islamic manuscripts. Whereas in paintings books are often shown being enjoyed outdoors, architecture can offer insights into the experience of manuscripts indoors.

Mullah holding a book. Bijapur, c. 1610 (British Library, J.25, 14)
Fig. 1: Mullah holding a book. Bijapur, c. 1610 (British Library, J.25, 14). Public domain

Consider the wholly illuminated central prayer niche (miḥrāb) at the Jāmi‘ Masjid of Bijapur in Deccan India (mosque: 1576; miḥrāb: 1636) (fig. 2). The entire niche is covered with calligraphy and micro-architectural details that are a mise en abyme within the mosque. Hanging lamps and manuscripts that likely represent the Qur’ān fill smaller niches at the dado level flanking both sides of the central niche. The books bear gilt bindings and the lamps have delicate golden tassels that accentuate their light-giving quality. The simple juxtaposition of lamps and books reminds us that the viewers of these manuscripts did not encounter them under the harsh lighting of today’s modern libraries. In an assessment of illumination, the problem of light is inescapable.

Detail of Miḥrāb of the Great Mosque of Bijapur, 1636
Fig. 2: Detail of Miḥrāb of the Great Mosque of Bijapur, 1636. Photograph: Vivek Gupta

Generally, manuscript illumination is a practice where reflective substances have been applied to the surfaces of books. These surfaces include the binding, support (paper, parchment), and the edges of the support. While illumination is most commonly associated with gold, other metals including silver and tin are also used to create lustre. I refer here to gold as shorthand, but the material was in fact a liquid gold or alloy that was malleable to various surfaces and showed a variety of hues. This material can be flattened, painted, scattered, and pricked to create different effects on the surface of a support (fig. 3).

Shamsah (sunburst) and Heading of the Kulliyāt-i Amīr Khusraw Dihlavī, 1517 (British Library Add. 21104)

Figs. 3a and 3b: Shamsah (sunburst) and Heading of the Kulliyāt-i Amīr Khusraw Dihlavī, 1517 (British Library Add. 21104). Public domain

Heading of the Kulliyāt-i Amīr Khusraw Dihlavī, 1517 (British Library Add. 21104)

Illumination occurs everywhere on the page: its edges, borders, line rulings (jadval), rosettes (shamsahs), frontispieces (sarlawḥs), headpieces (‘unvāns), headings, interlinear space, the writing itself, and even the edges (fig. 4). There is no authoritative handbook for these terms in Arabic, Persian, Turkish, Urdu, etc., and this nomenclature has evolved with convention. For example, the term ‘unvān has caused some confusion. The word literally denotes ‘title,’ and therefore I have used it for headpiece. In the British Library’s Persian manuscript catalogue edited by Rieu, ‘unvān denotes anything from illuminated headpiece to frontispiece (single or double page) to heading. Beyond references to illuminators (mudhahhib), the practice of illumination (tadhhīb), other words formed with the Arabic root dh-h-b or the Persian word zar, the textual record offers remarkably little prescriptive terminology for illumination. Even less defined are the names for particular illuminated patterns. While some of these patterns have analogues in architectural ornament, they do not always seamlessly translate to book decoration. For this reason, one safe compromise is to use English words, yet this can often be dissatisfying.

Gilded edge of manuscript, Kulliyāt-i Amīr Khusraw Dihlavī, 1517 (British Library Add. 21104)
Fig. 4: Gilded edge of manuscript, Kulliyāt-i Amīr Khusraw Dihlavī, 1517 (British Library Add. 21104). Public domain

Regardless of the lack of an established technical vocabulary, illumination and light (nūr) are everywhere in Islamic art and architecture. This is best attested by the Qur’anic Light verse (24:35) that begins, "God is the light [nūr] of the heavens and the earth; the likeness of His light is a niche [mishkāt] wherein is a lamp [miṣbāḥ]," which frequently graces miḥrābs. Widespread lamp imagery such as that found in Bijapur’s Jāmi‘ Masjid also alludes to it. When books like the Qur’an or poetry reflected light through their illumination, this took on a divine significance. Through technologies such as multi-spectral imaging it may be possible to recover how premodern manuscripts looked by candlelight and evaluate the effects of how different lighting changed the experience of these books. Collaborations between architectural historians and scientists have started to reveal how sites such as the Mosque of Córdoba looked when lit with early Islamic glass lamps (Kider, Fletcher, Yu, Holod, Chamlers, and Badler, 2009).

Ascension (mi‘rāj) of the Prophet forming the sarlawḥ (frontispiece) of the Khamsah (Quintet) of Amīr Khusraw Dihlavī, 1571 (British Library Add. 22699
Fig. 5: Ascension (mi‘rāj) of the Prophet forming the sarlawḥ (frontispiece) of the Khamsah (Quintet) of Amīr Khusraw Dihlavī, 1571 (British Library Add. 22699). Public domain

In painting, illumination has been applied to nearly all forms. Fire, the sun, skies, and halos are popular gold elements. In her several articles and books on images of the Prophet Muhammad, Christiane Gruber has demonstrated how this tradition evolved. On the double-page frontispiece of the Khamsah (Quintet) of Amīr Khusraw Dihlavī dated 1571 from Safavid Qazvin (Fig. 5), gold is deployed profusely in a scene showing the Prophet’s ascension (mi‘rāj). In the flowering cartouches in the borders, the swirling clouds, and the fire they cast upon the Prophet and his steed Burāq, this page is fully illuminated. The dramatic interplay of these gold swirls and lapis blue surface would have created a startling effect especially if this page were viewed in low light. In experiencing the open book, the light of Muhammad (nūr Muḥammad) would have certainly shone onto the viewer.

Shrine of Aḥmad Shāh (r. 1422–1436), Ashtur, Bidar
Figure 5: Shrine of Aḥmad Shāh (r. 1422–1436), Ashtur, Bidar. Photograph: Vivek Gupta

The study of book illumination should be placed in an expanded visual context that also includes architecture. In an early fifteenth-century Deccan shrine/tomb initially studied by Helen Philon (2000), I later drew comparisons between its domed apex and specific Indian maṇḍalas or yantras that Philon previously compared to Islamic talismanic bowls as well. Yet, the entirety of the shrine is covered in gold illumination. One of the clearest comparisons between the apex and a manuscript would be an illuminated shamsah or starburst. The completely calligraphed golden dome when lit with lamps would reflect light onto visitors below.

Illumination in Islamic manuscripts thus is no simple matter. Here, I have tried to make its obvious connection to light both practically and spiritually. While the majority of my research for the British Library has involved developing a method to catalogue illumination in Persian manuscripts (ca. 100 manuscripts completed), I do sometimes imagine the buildings and spaces in which they once were read, enjoyed, and seen. For, illumination allowed books to emanate light.

With thanks to Umberto Bongianino, Eleanor Sims and Ursula Sims-Williams.

Use #BL_IslamicIllum to share your favourite examples of illumination at the library and follow @_nainsukh for more!

Vivek Gupta, SOAS University of London, History of Art and Archaeology; British Library PhD placement
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Further reading:

Akimushkin, Oleg F. and Anatol A. Ivanov. 1979. “The Art of Illumination.” In The Arts of the Book in Central Asia, 14th-16th Centuries, ed. Basil Gray, London: Serindia, 35-57.

Brend, Barbara. 2015. “The Management of Light in Persian Painting.” In God is the Light of the Heavens and the Earth: Light in Islamic Art and Culture, eds. Jonathan Bloom and Sheila Blair, New Haven: Yale University Press, 198-229.

Gruber, Christiane. 2019. The Praiseworthy One: the Prophet Muhammad in Islamic texts and images. Bloomington: Indiana University Press.

Waley, Muhammad Isa. 1997. “Illumination and its Function in Islamic Manuscripts.” In Scribes et manuscrits du Moyen-Orient, eds. François Déroche and Francis Richard, Paris: Bibliothèque Nationale de France, 87-112.

Wright, Elaine. 2018. Lapis and gold: exploring Chester Beatty’s Ruzbihan Qur’an. London: Chester Beatty Library in association with Ad Ilissvm.

25 July 2019

Countdown: Biruni-Galileo-Apollo, British Library astronomy manuscripts in new visual forms

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The Iranian-American artist Pantea Karimi’s recent solo exhibition Countdown: Biruni-Galileo-Apollo at the Mercury 20 Gallery in Oakland, California, USA, was inspired by a study of several of the British Library’s scientific manuscripts which she reviewed during an extended visit in 2018. In this guest blog she speaks about this process and her work.

Two ancient manuscripts in the British Library drew my special attention and formed the foundation for my exhibition: the 17th century Italian physicist and astronomer Galileo’s De Mundi Sphæra Tractatus Autographus cum Figuris (Add MS 22786) and the 11th century Persian astronomer Biruni’s Kitāb al-tafhīm li-awā’īl ṣinā‘at al-tanjīm (Or. 8349). My multimedia works in the exhibition explore an ancient and enduring fascination with the moon in science, culture and language, while simultaneously celebrating the 50th anniversary of the Apollo 11 Lunar Mission.

Pages from Kitāb al-tafhīm li-awā’īl ṣinā‘at al-tanjīm by al-Bīrūnī. British Library, Or. 8349, (from left to right) ff. 93r, 72v and 31v
Pages from Kitāb al-tafhīm li-awā’īl ṣinā‘at al-tanjīm by al-Bīrūnī. British Library, Or. 8349, (from left to right) ff. 93r, 72v and 31v Noc

Pages from De Mundi Sphæra Tractatus Autographus cum Figuris by Galileo. British Library, Add MS 22786, (left and right) details from p. 63-64, (centre) p. 46
Pages from De Mundi Sphæra Tractatus Autographus cum Figuris by Galileo. British Library, Add MS 22786, (left and right) details from p. 63-64, (centre) p. 46   Noc

My completed works are large scale digital illustrations combining the abstract lunar diagrams with images of the Moon taken on my cell phone from a hill in California, as well as archival images from the Apollo 11 Lunar Mission in 1969. They are printed on fabric, and titled Moongraph, 01, 02, and 03. Other similarly inspired diagrams and images of the surface of the Moon have been combined with verses of Persian poetry and printed on circular pieces of metal in various sizes. They are presented in an installation on a grey geometric background that references the Moon and its phases. I believe that illustrating abstract ideas, as was done in these early diagrams, indicates how they were used as an important tool to visualize early science and pass down these ideas to later generations.

My exposure to these manuscripts from the early pioneers of astronomy has allowed my artistic interpretation of the science of astronomy. However, it was Persian poetry and its playful use of metaphor that first sparked my imagination and interest in the moon. As a child I was an avid reader of science fiction, especially Jules Verne novels translated into Persian.

The exhibition in many ways revisits my childhood obsession with the moon: from my compositions and illustrations, to the use of medieval Persian poetry that presents the moon metaphorically and symbolically. Verses by poets Attar Nishapuri, Nezami Ganjavi, and poet-scientist Omar Khayyam are included.

Pages from De Mundi Sphæra Tractatus Autographus cum Figuris and Kitāb al-tafhīm li-awā’īl ṣinā‘at al-tanjīm showcase the phases of the Moon. The abstract version of the diagrams is by Pantea Karimi, 2019
Pages from De Mundi Sphæra Tractatus Autographus cum Figuris and Kitāb al-tafhīm li-awā’īl ṣinā‘at al-tanjīm showcase the phases of the Moon. The abstract version of the diagrams is by Pantea Karimi, 2019

Moongraph 01, 02, and 03, 2019, digital archival prints on fabric, 6 x 3.42 feet
Moongraph 01, 02, and 03, 2019, digital archival prints on fabric, 6 x 3.42 feet

Installation view at Mercury 20 Gallery, Oakland, CA, USA
Installation view at Mercury 20 Gallery, Oakland, CA, USA

TThe Infinite Moon, 2019, digital archival prints on metal, detail
The Infinite Moon, 2019, digital archival prints on metal, detail

From the Earth to the Moon, 2019, dome mirror, metal disks, cylindrical pipe, screws, the moon transparency and light. After the 1865 novel by Jules Verne.
From the Earth to the Moon, 2019, dome mirror, metal disks, cylindrical pipe, screws, the moon transparency and light. After the 1865 novel by Jules Verne.

Pantea Karimi’s work as a multi-disciplinary artist centers around visual representations and textual contents in medieval Persian and Arab and early modern European scientific manuscripts in five categories: mathematics, medicinal botany, anatomy, optics/astronomy and cartography. This recent research project has further broadened her interest in the long-term exchange of knowledge across these cultures. She specifically examines how illustrations in ancient scientific manuscripts played a role in communicating knowledge, and how the broader aesthetic considerations of science were closely linked to art. Her work collectively highlights the significance of visual elements in early science and invites the viewer to observe science and its history through the process of image-making. Karimi works with interactive installations, virtual reality, silkscreen and digital prints on various substrates. She moved from Iran to the UK to study and has lived in the San Francisco Bay Area since 2005.

Countdown: Biruni-Galileo-Apollo will be exhibited in the Fall of 2019 at the Euphrat Museum of Art in De Anza College in Cupertino, California, USA.

Pantea Karimi Ccownwork

Pantea Karimi wishes to thank the British Library and staff for the opportunity to view and study the scientific manuscripts in their care.

For more information visit: www.panteakarimi.com
@panteakarimiart
@Karimipantea

08 July 2019

Rustam: The Hero with Red Hair

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Today's post comes from Dr Peyvand Firouzeh, Postdoctoral Fellow, Getty Foundation & American Council of Learned Societies at the Kunsthistorisches Institut in Florenz, Max-Planck- Institut. Peyvand has been a frequent visitor to our Reading Room during her research on the art and material culture of the Islamic world, especially early modern Iran and India. 

The Shahnama (Book of Kings), was completed ca. 1010 by the poet Ferdowsi in Persian. It is the most-popularly copied, illustrated, and circulated epic that has survived in Persianate societies. One of the most frequently depicted, key protagonists of the Shahnama is the hero Rustam, known for his remarkable physical strength and, as Ferdowsi put it, ‘elephant-bodied’ (pil-tan) stature.

In manuscript illustrations, Rustam is known for specific attributes that help distinguish him immediately from others: particularly, his tiger-skin surcoat and leopard headwear, and sometimes his ox-headed mace and leopard-skin saddle. But another feature of Rustam’s appearance has remained rather neglected: his red hair. This detail caught my eye while working on a fifteenth-century manuscript of the Shahnama, Or. 1403, at the British Library. A quick look through the manuscript proved that every depiction but one shows Rustam with red facial hair.

Scene from the Shahnama: Rustam overthrows Puladvand. 1438 (BL Or. 1403, f. 183v)
Scene from the Shahnama: Rustam overthrows Puladvand. 1438 (BL Or. 1403, f. 183v)
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In my attempts to contextualise this feature of Rustam’s appearance, I could only find brief mentions in previous literature: observations that note Rustam’s red hair in a single manuscript (for example, Clinton and Simpson, 178), or associate it with a specific workshop (Goswamy, 25), or with certain periods – for instance the fifteenth-century (Robinson (1951), 83), or the Safavid period (Robinson (2005), 261). It has rarely been acknowledged as a widespread phenomenon (Swietochowski, 186).

Rustam’s red hair, however, crosses geographical and temporal boundaries. It is found in manuscripts attributed to Baghdad, Shiraz, Tabriz, Isfahan, Gilan, Mazandaran, and several workshops in India, starting from some of the earliest surviving illustrated manuscripts of the Shahnama in the fourteenth century. Indeed, the red hair is just as old as other iconographic features like the tiger-skin coat and leopard-skin headwear, which are thought to have emerged, respectively, in fourteenth- and fifteenth-century manuscript paintings (Robinson (2005), 253, 256, and 258).

Garsivaz prostrating himself before Siyavush in the presence of Rustam. 14th century
Scene from the Shahnama: Garsivaz prostrating himself before Siyavush in the presence of Rustam. 14th century, Ilkhanid (Freer Gallery of Art and Arthur M. Sackler Gallery, Smithsonian Institution, Washington, D.C.: Purchase — Charles Lang Freer Endowment, F1940.12)

Rustam Kills the Turanian Hero Alkus with his Lance. ca. 1450, India
Scene from the Shahnama: Rustam Kills the Turanian Hero Alkus with his Lance. ca. 1450, India (The David Collection, Copenhagen, Inv. no. 3/1988). © Pernille Klemp

Rustam leads an attack on the Turanians' allies. ca. 1590, Shiraz
Scene from the Shahnama: Rustam leads an attack on the Turanians' allies. ca. 1590, Shiraz (BL IO Islamic 3540, f. 176r)
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Of course, to understand the full extent of Rustam’s image as a redhead, a complete survey would be necessary. Based on the material surveyed so far, it seems that in the earliest surviving Shahnama manuscripts from the fourteenth century, the hero is predominantly depicted with red hair, though not completely consistently: this is the case in all of the four surviving Shahnamas made under the Inju dynasty (see H. 1479 , Dorn 329), one of the so-called Small Shahnamas, as well as several other Ilkhanid Shahnama paintings. The red hair features quite regularly in illustrated Shahnamas of the fifteenth century, while the ratio of the hero’s image with red hair to his total surviving depictions seems to drop increasingly from the Safavid period forward.

Rustam slays Ashkbus and his horse. ca. 1350, Ilkhanid
Scene from the Shahnama: Rustam slays Ashkbus and his horse. ca. 1350, Ilkhanid (Freer Gallery of Art and Arthur M. Sackler Gallery, Smithsonian Institution, Washington, D.C.: Purchase — Charles Lang Freer Endowment, F1944.56)

Rustam rescues Bijan from the well, detail showing the red pigment. 1341, Inju, Shiraz
Scene from the Shahnama: Rustam rescues Bijan from the well, detail showing the red pigment. 1341, Inju, Shiraz (Freer Gallery of Art and Arthur M. Sackler Gallery, Smithsonian Institution, Washington, D.C.: Purchase — Charles Lang Freer Endowment, F1945.7)

Rustam shoots Isfandiyar in the eyes with a double-pointed arrow, detail showing Rustam’s facial hair with a darker shade. 1486, Shiraz
Scene from the Shahnama: Rustam shoots Isfandiyar in the eyes with a double-pointed arrow, detail showing Rustam’s facial hair with a darker shade. 1486, Shiraz (BL Add. 18188, f. 292v)
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With some exceptions, there is usually a good degree of consistency throughout a single manuscript, and some of the inconsistencies could be due to later repairs and repainting. In general, there are also common scenes that eliminate the facial hair to show Rustam in his youth, or depict white hair to indicate old age.

Rustam slaying the white elephant
Scene from the Shahnama: Rustam slaying the white elephant, detail showing Rustam with red eyebrows and hair, but no facial hair, hinting at his young age. 14th century, Ilkhanid (Freer Gallery of Art and Arthur M. Sackler Gallery, Smithsonian Institution, Washington, D.C.: Purchase — Charles Lang Freer Endowment, F1929.35)

The emergence of red hair in paintings requires more in-depth study of medieval physiognomy. Christ, too, was commonly depicted with red hair, especially in the fourteenth century. Apart from the connection with blood and bloodshed, there also seems to have been a connection between physical strength and red hair, which Robinson and Swietochowski mention in passing (Robinson (2005), 261; Swietochowski, 186). That ideas about this connection were circulating in the medieval Islamic world can, for instance, be witnessed in descriptions of the Sufi writer Shaykh Ahmad-i Jam (d.1141), who is recorded to have red hair, wine-coloured beard, tall stature, and striking physical strength, which earned him the title Zhanda-pil (Moayyad and Lewis, 8), a term used commonly by Ferdowsi to describe things, animals, and people – including Rustam – that were awe-inspiring.

Unlike the tiger-skin coat (babr-i bayan), which is mentioned by Ferdowsi in the Shahnama, and similar to the leopard headwear, it has been noted in passing that there is no indication of Rustam’s red hair in the text of the Shahnama (Swietochowski, 186). This seems to be the case for most copies. However, in some versions of the epic, there are two lines that do note Rustam’s red hair, and raise interesting questions about the relationship between text and image. The lines occur in the section on the birth of Rustam where Rudaba, Rustam’s mother, had to have a caesarean to deliver the immense baby. The lines in question are among the first that describe Rustam at the moment of birth, bringing together metaphors of light, blood, and the colour red:

The hair on his head all red, his hair like blood,
he emerged like the shining Sun.
Both hands full of blood, he was born of his mother,
No one has ever known of a child like this.

همه موی سر سرخ و مویش چو خون
چو خورشید رخشنده آمد برون
دو دستش پر از خون ز مادر بزاد
ندارد کسی این چنین بچه یاد

birth of Rustam. 1616, Mughal, India
Scene from the Shahnama: birth of Rustam. 1616, Mughal, India (BL  Add. 5600, f. 54r)
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Interestingly, the authenticity of these two lines has been questioned. Djalal Khaleghi-Motlagh leaves them out (Khaleghi-Motlagh, vol.I, 267-8), while Dabir Siyaqi includes them in the main text (Dabir Siyaqi, 136), and Ashtiani and others record them in footnotes (Khalifeh, vol.I, 213). I have not yet come across any illustrated manuscripts – even those depicting Rustam with red hair – which include these lines. Yet, the existence of these verses attests that at some or multiple points there was a written – and perhaps oral – dimension to such iconography.

Explaining this disparity between text and image requires more in-depth research into the iconography and textual variations of the Shahnama. Whether the text predates or was inspired by the image remains unclear for the time being, but two preliminary points can be mentioned here.

First, it is possible that earlier texts, images, and oral traditions that have not survived led to the choice of this iconography for Rustam. There is both textual and visual evidence for the transmission of the legends of Rustam dating back to the eighth and ninth centuries, before the completion of the Shahnama by Ferdowsi in the eleventh century (Eighth and ninth century versions of the Rustam cycle and Sims-Williams & Sims-Williams (2015), 252-254). Moreover, several depictions of Shahnama scenes on pre-1300 objects and architecture attest to the transmission of the hero’s visualisations prior to the earliest illustrated Shahnama manuscripts that have reached us.

But there is no reason to assume that images of the Shahnama were strictly dependant on texts, either of Ferdowsi’s Shahnama or related legends. Images of a hero like Rustam – like many other people and narratives in the Shahnama – were popular beyond the medium of the book and had a life of their own. Visual traditions of the Shahnama offer multiple examples of artists who took the liberty to depict extra-textual details. Another way to explain the text-image disparity in the case of Rustam is the possibility that his image as a redhead came first, and subsequently found its way into written traditions, either directly or by way of oral traditions. If so, this could be an interesting case where the pictorial, verbal and textual forms of the Shahnama converge on a single figure, and the former informs the latter.

My sincere thanks to Rachel Parikh and Charles Melville for their help with this blog post.

 

Further Reading
Clinton, Jerome W. and Marianna S. Simpson. “How Rustam Killed White Div: An Interdisciplinary Inquiry.” Iranian Studies, Vol. 39, No. 2 (2006): 171-197.

Ferdowsi, Abu’l-qasem. Shahnama, edited by Djalal Khaleqi-Motlaq. New York: Bibliotheca Persica, 1987.
Shahnama, edited by Muhammad Dabir Siyaqi. Tehran: Qatreh, 2007.
Shahnama, edited by ‘Abbas Iqbah Ashtiani and Bahman Khalifeh. Tehran: Talayeh, 2007.

Goswamy, B. N. A Jainesque Sultanate Shahnama and the Context of pre-Mughal Painting . Zürich: Museum Rietberg, 1988.

Moayyad, Heshmat and Franklin Lewis, eds. and transl. The Colossal Elephant and His Spiritual Feats: Shaykh Ahmad-e Jam, The Life and Legend of a Popular Sufi Saint of 12th-Century Iran . Costa Mesa, CA: Mazda Publishers, 2004.

Robinson, B. W. “The National Hero in Persian Painting.” Journal of the Iran Society, Vol.1, No. 3 (1951): 80-85.
—  “The Vicissitudes of Rustam.” In The Iconography of Islamic Art: Studies in Honour of Robert Hillenbrand, edited by Bernard O’ Kane, 253-268. Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 2005.

Sims-Williams, Nicholas and Ursula. “Rustam and his zīn-i palang.” In: From Aṣl to Zāʼid: Essays in Honour of Éva M. Jeremiaś, edited by I. Szánto, 249-58. Piliscsaba: Avicenna Institute of Middle Eastern Studies, 2015.

Catalogue entry (p.186) by Marie Lukens Swietochowski in: Ettinghausen, Richard. Islamische Kunst: Meisterwerke aus dem Metropolitan Museum of Art New York . Berlin [u.a.]: Rembrandt-Verlag [u.a.], 1982.

 

Peyvand Firouzeh, Postdoctoral Fellow, Getty Foundation & American Council of Learned Societies at the Kunsthistorisches Institut in Florenz, Max-Planck- Institut.
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20 June 2019

Islamic Painted Page: Growing a Database

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Today's post is by Stephen Serpell announcing the launch of the new version of his online database Islamic Painted Page, now hosted with the University of Hamburg. In a world where individual institutions still maintain their idiosyncratic approaches to locating and displaying digitised images, this resource is a major breakthrough.

Since its launch in 2013, Islamic Painted Page (IPP) has grown into a major online database of Islamicate arts of the book, with over 42,000 references to paintings, illuminations and bindings from over 270 collections around the globe – of which the British Library is one of the most important.

Headerimage

IPP is found at www.islamicpaintedpage.com and it does two things. First, it enables users to locate and compare works worldwide using a single database, displaying images wherever possible; and second, it signposts users onward to more authoritative sources, with hotlinks direct to the specific image pages of collection websites where available, and page-specific references for printed publications.

The website enables users to search by picture description, collection, accession number, date, place of origin, manuscript title or author, or publication – or any combination of these. So it is possible, for example, to find with a single search 77 different interpretations of the famous scene where Khusrau sees Shirin bathing, with IPP itself showing images of 36 of them.

Five British Library versions of “Khusrau sees Shirin bathing”
4 out of 77: Five British Library versions of “Khusrau sees Shirin bathing” (BL Add. 6613, f.42r, IO Islamic 138, f.75r, Or. 2265, f.53v, Or. 2933, f.19v)

Or one could look into the development of non-figurative illumination and page decoration during the reign of Sultan Ḥusayn Bāyqarā in Herat, 1469-1506 (70 different results); or search under an accession number to locate reproductions of works not currently published online, such as the paintings from the Topkapi Royal Turkman Khamsah H762; or search by a particular classical author, for example to study the star charts in different manuscripts of the Ṣuwar al-kawākib of al-Ṣūfī. And one can even search the contents of a publication, perhaps to check if it contains relevant illustrations, or to cross-check for metadata that was left out of the printed text (IPP is good for filling in missing details).

IPP aims to help users find not just images of works, but also articles and commentaries about them; so its search results list all the publication references it holds on each item, with the collection website location topmost if one exists. This means that well-known works return multiple “hits” in a search; for example the Miʻraj painting in the British Library’s celebrated Khamsah of Shah Tahmasp (Or. 2265, f.195r) is one of the most-published of all Islamicate miniatures and comes up with 25 references. However very few works achieve such fame, and in fact the database currently holds about 42,500 references for its total of about 30,000 separate items - so on average, each item only appears in 1.4 publications.

“The Miʻraj of the Prophet” from the Khamsah of Shah Tahmasp (BL Or. 2265 f.195r).
Multiply published: “The Miʻraj of the Prophet” from the Khamsah of Shah Tahmasp (BL Or. 2265 f.195r). Public Domain

This illustrates a further use of the database; its very large size means that it could be used as a starting point for statistical analysis, for example to chart the production of particular illustrated works against place of production or by date, or how the popularity of certain scenes has varied over time.

Islamic Painted Page, main search page

Finding needles in haystacks: Islamic Painted Page, main search page

The database originated simply from one individual’s frustration over the difficulties of studying Islamicate miniature paintings and illuminations, since they are dispersed all over the planet and references to them are scattered throughout a daunting corpus of literature; and even though many are now published online, it can still be very laborious to find relevant links. This led to a personal database that soon grew to point where it seemed likely to be useful to others, if only it could be placed online. A grant from the Iran Heritage Foundation made the website possible in 2013 with an initial 12,300 entries. Subsequent support from the Islamic Manuscript Association in 2015 improved the website’s utility for manuscript studies, including proper attention to transliteration. By this time the database had already grown to 20,600 references and had built in item-specific links to VIAF, WORLDCAT and FIHRIST so that users can just click to find fuller, authoritative information on authors and works, print publications, and - for UK items - manuscript details. Needless to say, a private sideline had by then become a mega-hobby.

However the most exciting subsequent step has been adding actual images of the paintings, illuminations and bindings wherever possible. Copyright prevents the database from reproducing illustrations in printed works, but IPP also covers works published online; and in many cases this has enabled IPP to show images that have been published as Creative Commons or Public Domain, or where a collection has given special permission.


Example search results (from a global search for “Khusrau sees Shirin bathing”)
Example search results (from a global search for “Khusrau sees Shirin bathing”)


Flyout details for one result (from a global search for “Khusrau sees Shirin bathing”)
Flyout details for one result (from a global search for “Khusrau sees Shirin bathing”)

It was a particular pleasure in 2018 to receive permission to incorporate images for the British Library, since it houses one of the world’s most important collections of Islamicate manuscripts and has been digitizing many of its finest holdings. Together with coverage of 19 other collections, IPP is now able to display thumbnails and larger images for about 50% of its references so far; and it is the inclusion of images that transforms the usefulness of the site for most researchers. It should be stressed that every thumbnail and every flyout image in IPP acknowledges the collection source and provides a folio-specific weblink to the relevant collection webpage, together with a recommendation to proceed to the collection website for authoritative images and other details.

Along the way, IPP has had to confront some difficult issues. Users need to be able to search efficiently, especially if they are trying to find a painting of a particular scene; but this requires consistent descriptions, whereas different authorities give different titles to the same scene (eg Khusrau sees Shirin bathing; Khosrow spies Shirin bathing; Shirin bathes observed by Khusrau….). To help manage this, IPP uses just one consistent description for each scene, but also holds the corresponding alternative descriptions. This ensures that users who cannot find what they want among the “consistent descriptions” can still search among the “alternative descriptions” if necessary.

The price for this simple-sounding device is that IPP not only has to check for consistent titling across the entire database for every new entry, but also has to maintain entire sub-databases of descriptions listing every scene encountered in each of about 30 of the most popular painting cycles, such as those illustrating the Khamsah of Niẓāmī (where artists have represented over 300 different scenes), the Haft Awrang of Jāmī and the Shāhnāmah of Firdawsī (which extends to over 1,000 scenes and where the work of the Cambridge Shāhnāmah project must be fully acknowledged). Hobbyists, beware!

RAS239-7r RAS239-16v RAS239-32v RAS239-44r
Four scenes from the Shāhnāmah painting cycle (Royal Asiatic Society MS 239, ff. 7r, 16v, 32v, 44r)

Different authorities also ascribe different dates and places of origin to the same items. IPP respects this but it does result in inconsistent metadata between the relevant IPP references. And even authorities can make mistakes, or fail to provide essential details, and publications can suffer misprints; IPP has filled in a lot of missing accession numbers and corrected a lot of wrong ones.

IPP includes thousands of references to non-figurative illuminated pages and bindings, as well as covering figurative pictures; and an important upgrade is in hand to improve the detail of its 2,500 references to decorated Qurʼan pages.

Non-figurative examples – bindings, illuminations, decoration
Non-figurative examples – bindings, illuminations, decoration (BL Add. 16561, Add. 18579, IO Islamic 843 f.34v, Or. 12988 f.2r)

IPP is an academic resource and its future clearly needs to lie with an academic institution, not with an individual. For that reason, about a year ago IPP began a relationship with the University of Hamburg’s Centre for the Study of Manuscript Cultures that aims to enrich the database’s features and extend the coverage of works published online as well as in print. One of the first fruits of this collaboration has been the re-launch of the IPP website hosted and supported by the University of Hamburg, with a new look and a number of improvements to the user interface.

Meanwhile the database continues to grow and it is planned to include more images, enlarge its coverage of collections and secondary sources from the Muslim world, and extend its geographical scope. In this way, it is hoped that IPP can act as a multi-disciplinary resource and assist not only art historians and manuscript scholars, but also contribute to digital humanities and wider cultural studies.

The author would like to thank Dr. Barbara Brend, Professor Charles Melville and Dr. Teresa Fitzherbert, as well as his own wife Elizabeth, without whose support, encouragement and patience Islamic Painted Page would never have come into being.

Stephen Serpell, Islamic Painted Page
Research Associate, Centre for the Study of Manuscript Cultures (CSMC), University of Hamburg
stephen.serpell@uni-hamburg.de
https://blogs.bl.uk/.a/6a00d8341c464853ef0240a4547af8200c-pi