Parham Ghalamdar, June 2020 

In looking at the genre of Persian Miniature illustrations - the tradition of illustrating scripture, poetry and books on science since the thirteenth century - it is important to firstly explore the role of the illustrator. It would be useful therefore to first understand the challenges of having a voice, what may be called 'authorship'. By definition the author is ‘…the creator of a work of art’ (Oxford Dictionaries, 2017) which in this context could mean having the dominant role in deciding the content or stylistic approach of the artwork.

Norah Mary Titley, the leading expert on Persian manuscripts and Miniatures at the British Museum, in her book Persian Miniature Painting, distinguishes this art by its rich, vivid, flat and shade-less colours and the smooth, curvy and fine lines that separate the forms. Of course, this form of expression was deliberate, and utilised to picture the mystical philosophy and other worldliness of the poetic scenes. Miniatures were a kind of court art, commissioned by the royal family or rich citizens such as merchants, so the illustrator was often working for the upper classes. Each court in different times helped to form a new school of Miniature, often altering minor details in the genre. Each has had slightly different techniques and visual content but generally all approaches exist in the same category of art.


Figure 1 - A page of Varqah and Gulshah, gathered by Dr. Z. Safa and printed by Tehran University in SH. 1343.

Whenever a book was commissioned, several roles and responsibilities were involved, such as: papermaker, bookbinder, master calligrapher, illustrator. Two outstanding Russian scholars in the field of culture and art of Iran, Loukonine and Ivanov, have discussed the process and the challenges of the illustrator in The Persian Miniature book; the issue they point out and make interesting is that the images are always introduced at the end of the book making process. The calligrapher was supposed to leave some space for illustrations whilst he was copy-writing the book, based on his own considerations. Even when the Miniature piece was finished it was rarely dated or signed and even if this happened it was hard to decipher the artist’s name as it was usually written in a different calligraphic style called Ta’liq. Whilst the names of the monarch and calligrapher were always mentioned somewhere in the book, usually the colophon page, the illustrator was not allowed to choose his space or claim credit by signing the book. Thus, never claiming true authorship.

This dominance and authorship of the calligrapher can be understood from his association and familiarity of calligraphic practices found within holy texts such as the Qur’an, which had a critical role in the development of the Perso/Arabic script. It could also be that the tradition of Aniconism from the days of the Prophet Mohammad were still faintly present, therefore the illustrator was historically in an underestimated and frequently humiliated position.


Figure 1 is an early example of the Islamic Miniatures; it is a page from the epic book Varqah and Golshah written by the 10th-century Persian poet Ayyuqi. We can see the artist was given a small rectangular space. Other illustrations of this book have similar dimensions. As the artist tries to utilise all the available space, we only see the main characters of the story arranged in a horizontal composition with no nature, animals or extraneous details. The figures are stretched and struggling to fit into the space. What is frequently seen, however, is that the artist will try to develop more space and push the boundaries of his own responsibilities. There are references that could be interpreted as an attempt to challenge the calligrapher’s authorship.


Figure 2 - The Four Knights of Kai Khusrau in the Mountains, Folio from a Shahnama (Book of Kings) dated A.H. 741/A.D. 1341


Figure 3 - The Angel Surush Rescues Khusrau Parviz from a Cul-de-sac, Folio 708v from the Shahnama (Book of Kings) of Shah Tahmasp ca. 1530–35

Figure 2, The Four Knights of Kai Khusrau in the Mountains held at the Metropolitan Museum in NYC, is a good example where the illustrator has employed small details of spears and flags to work outside the space made available to him. As a result, the artist was challenging the authority of the calligraphy master in a most subtle way. This approach by the illustrator continues. Figure 3, a page from the Shahnama Of Shah Tahmasp, is created at a stage where the working space has become larger and the margins lose their function. The margins are rendered meaningless now as the landscape simply pours out into the abstract space around the page. With more space, an opportunity is presented for more content and the artist starts to explore new possibilities. This is where the artist is not satisfied with just picturing the key characters, as seen in Varqah and Golshah. He starts to create details based on his own taste and consideration, perhaps his own individuality. Later, the simple rectangular compositions transform into more complex scenes with geometric structures. This is a natural process if we consider that the artist has been struggling for authorship, or even acknowledgment. After all; the very conception of being the author comes with ‘individualising’, says Michel Foucault in his famous What is an author? essay.

A long time has passed since the creation of these masterpieces and we now experience these artworks in many ways. We are looking back in time, observing these works and trying to imagine them in a different set of socio/religious/political contexts. Roland Barthes, the famous semiotician and theorist, explains in his Death of the Author essay that we interpret things based on our own experience of life; it is in the reader’s mind where meaning comes to life: ‘The unity of a text is not in its origin, it is in its destination’. Miniatures were produced as part of books, meaning that it was located in a specific moment within a narrative text. The reader could flip through the pages, look at the artworks and keep on reading. Today it is not possible to encounter these books in this way. Instead we experience these illustrations isolated and extracted from the narrative. The pages from these books holding the illustrations are separated and exhibited in different museums and many pages are lost to history or not available for public viewing. The accessible ones are viewed out of their intended logical order and without the surrounding calligraphy pages telling the story, like the samples in Figure 4 from the Metropolitan Museum of Art. They are decontextualised. 


Figure 4 - Miniatures exhibited separately at Metropolitan Museum in NYC. Photo by Parham Ghalamdar

The best example to demonstrate the contemporary context of Miniatures is the Great Mongolian Shahnama, also known as Demotte’s Shahnama, which belongs to the fourteenth century. The book was taken apart by the owner Georges Demotte in the early twentieth century. The illustrations were detached from the calligraphy pages and the artworks sold separately to different collectors. What’s truly amazing is that there are pages with illustrations on both sides; one plate was taken out and a new calligraphy piece commissioned for the blank space, not even necessarily relevant to the Miniatures. Therefore, we have irrelevant texts and images combined, favouring a unified look over a coherent narration.

Within the current cultural context, not only is the illustrator’s viewpoint dominant, but the calligrapher is almost removed from the narration. In such situations, the individuality of the imagist is even more magnified than previously. The spotlight now shifts to the extra details that the illustrator created in the form of animals, nature etc. based on his own sensibility or taste. In other words, the illustrators voice becomes the dominant one telling the story.

The hierarchal structure has been reshuffled and the original authority’s attempt to control the content of the illustrator’s works has been defied. The illustrator has become the sole storyteller. They are the crystallisation of the Shahrzad, the muse and narrator of the Persian epic One thousand And One Nights, who tells a different story every time and suspends the punch line for tomorrow. The Shahrzad simply tries to stay present or to "forestall death, to postpone the day of reckoning that would silence the narrator" as Michel Foucault puts it. After all, the whole point behind the storytelling of narrators like Shahrzad was to keep death from the circle of life, hoping to see change for the better.

The whole idea of the illustrator becoming the dominant voice could have been briefly and delicately rendered with this beautiful Persian proverb: "Epigrams succeed when epics fail. Epics come with empires” - Hamid Dabashi.

Dabashi specifies in The World of Persian Literary Humanism that where there are no empires and dynasties to commission artists for gathering another epic - celebrating the dynasties ideals, bravery and heroes - then there will be no epics. It is exactly in such moments where, instead of page after page of poetry, a vivid image seizes the moment to tell a story.

Parham Ghalamdar