Iranian Visual Arts

A brief history of Persian Miniature
By: Katy Kianush, September 1998


Shiraz School, "Shahnamah", Ferdowsi
It is difficult to trace the origins of the art of Persian miniature, as it reached its peak mainly during the Mongol and Timurid periods (13th - 16th Century). Mongolian rulers of Iran instilled the cult of Chinese painting and brought with them a great number of Chinese artisans. Paper itself, reached Persia from China in 753 AD. Hence, the Chinese influence is very strong.

The most important function of miniature was illustration. It gave a visual image to the literary plot, making it more enjoyable, and easier to understand. Miniature developed into a marriage of artistic and poetic languages and obtained a deep and sincere accordance with poetry.

During the last ten centuries there have been many great literary works to inspire the great artists of their day. At the end of the 10th Century, Ferdowsi created his immortal epic poem "Shahnameh" (The Book of Kings), which at some 50 thousand couplets, relates through fact and legend, the history of the country from the creation of the world to the Arab conquests in the 7th Century. In the 12th Century, the poet Nezami created his romantic "Khamsa" (five stories in verse), which was very popular, and was imitated several times by Indian poets writing in Persian.

The 13th Century saw the creation of great works by Saadi, the author of the famous "Bustan" and "Golestan". Golestan is a collection of moralizing and entertaining anecdotes and proverbs written in elegant rhymed prose, and at intervals, with fitting lines of verse. Bustan is a didactic poem, lyrical in tone and anecdotal in composition. It is considered to be one of the masterpieces of Persian literature.

Tabriz School, "Pandj Gandj", Amir Khosrow Dehlavi
In the 14th Century, there were enlightening and romantic works by Amir Khosroe Dehlavi, Khajoo Kermani, Hafez, and Kamal Khodjandi. While the 15th Century was the time for the many faceted poet Jami, who wrote the seven epic poems called "Haft Owrang"(The Seven Thrones or Ursa Major). His poetry embraced all the different categories of preceding literature.

This great wealth of inspiring literature gave rise to the emergence of many important miniature schools, each with its own unique style, creating a great diversity of paintings. It was through these schools that miniature painting achieved its splendid development both in Iran and central Asia. Three of the most influential schools were in Shiraz, Tabriz, and Herat.

In the 13th and 14th Centuries Shiraz, the capital of Fars witnessed a new rise in the development of its cultural life. This was the time of Saadi, Khajoo Kermani, and Hafez. Poetry flourished and so did miniature. One of the most important works for the illustrators of the period was "Shahnamah", and in Shiraz there were a large staff of painters dedicated to it. In the Shiraz miniatures of the 14th Century, symmetry of construction was predominant, and for the most part composition was frieze-like, straightforward and monotonous.

Nevertheless, the Shiraz school was to have great influence throughout Iran, and by the end of the 15th Century it was producing miniatures of highest quality. The illustrations for "Khamseh" (1491) by Nezami serve as an example of Shiraz art at its peak. All is complete, and clear, both in composition and the distribution of detail, and in the outline of the silhouettes. The lines are firm and confident.

At the close of the 13th Century, the Tabriz school of art had been established. The early artistic development of the Tabriz school differed from that of Shiraz, as their illustrations tended to combine Far Eastern traits with the Armeno-Byzantine style of painting. This latter influence can be explained by the geographical situation of Tabriz, which is on the frontier of the Armenian region.

Herat School, "Khamseh", Nezami
Closer relations sprung up between different artistic styles of Shiraz and Tabriz art schools at the beginning of the 15th Century. This time is connected with a great migration of painters which begun after Timur had conquered Baghdad (in 1393, 1401) and Tabriz (1402). Many of them were brought to Samarkand, the capital of the conqueror, as well as to the court of his grandson, Iskandar Sultan, the ruler of Shiraz. In the new studios they adapted to the already existing ideas and tastes, but at the same time they introduced much of the traditions they had followed long before the migration.

In the 16th Century, on the vast territories of Iran and central Asia, poetry by Jami was extremely popular, and it enriched the art of painting with new themes. This was the start of great development throughout the various schools of art in Iran. In the Tabriz miniatures of the period, there appeared a magnificent ability to create within a limited space, a full illusion of a particular scene or landscape; for example, a picture of a palace building, including part of its yard, inner garden and the palace interior.

Architecture and landscape from now on were included as fully as possible. The figures within the composition were no longer constrained and static, and were painted in a more lively and natural way.

In the first half of the 15th Century an art school was established in Herat. The very best of the artists in the Tabriz and Shiraz schools moved here. In the early Herat miniatures figure painting became much more skilful and drawing gained greater accuracy. As the skill of the painters increased, the figures were placed more confidently and the rythmic structure of the composition became more complicated. The Herat artists were exceptional at portraying people, making the surrounding a mere accompaniment.

One of the best known and most influential painters from the Herat school was Kamal-od-Din Behzad, whose creative art was greatly influenced by the works of the poets Jami and Navai. In his own works there appeared a unique attention to portraying not just people but what surrounded them in their daily lives. Behzad's paintings brought miniature to its genuine bloom. He shared the fame of Herat painting with other outstanding miniature painters of the time: his teacher and the head of the court studio, Mirak Nakkash, Kasim 'Ali, Khwadja Muhammad Nakkash, and Shah Muzaffar.

The theme of miniatures became more limited as time went by. In the 17th Century there were mainly love scenes, portraits and some even copied European pictures. In the 18th Century there appeared a new genre of flowers and birds.