Arab miniatures art for the urban middle class
Pilgrim caravan. First half of the 13th century.The distinguished British art historian, David Talbot Rice, wrote in the introduction to his book on Islamic art: “One of the most striking things about Islamic art is the way in which a completely definite style, a whole repertory of motifs, and a distinct architectural system became, quite early in the era of the Hegira, associated with an idea and a faith … In the Islamic world … there was much greater uniformity, both with regard to time and to space… the artists did not seek the new and unfamiliar in the way that the Renaissance artists did, but rather remained attached to the model whose merit had been sanctioned by time and convention, seeking to renew its appeal, rejuvenate its character, by subtle variations of detail.”
Reproducing the human form in painting was forbidden in Islam, although this was rather taken to refer to any painted form that could be worshipped in place of God. Presumably this prohibition occurred because of the icons used in the Christian Church. Over time, however, painting two-dimensional figures became acceptable in Islam. We know that the human form was painted on the palace walls of the early caliphs in Qusayr Amara and Samara, as well as elsewhere in the Near East.
Islamic miniatures divided into four areas
It should be pointed out, however, that today Islamic miniature art is usually divided into four areas – Arab, Persian, Turkish and Indian. This division is based on geography, language differences and time frames. Books and books have been written about each of the four areas and about different styles within them. So given the amount of space available, it seemed right to concentrate on each of these separately starting with Arab miniatures. Very few of these miniatures still exist, making the quality of those produced between the end of the 12th century AD and the 14th in the areas of the Middle East where Islam was predominant all the more startling.
These miniatures were produced at a time in the Middle East when it was in political turmoil throughout the 12th and 13th centuries. The Crusaders were attempting to capture Jerusalem. The Fatimid rulers in Egypt were overthrown and replaced with the Ayyubid dynasty including the famed Salah al-Din. The Seljuk Empire was breaking up. This gave birth to a “phenomenal burst of artistic energy, creating the most brilliant examples of illustrated manuscripts…”
Scholars believe the Arab miniature tradition most likely stemmed from the miniatures that came from the Byzantine and other Christian communities of this period. Few manuscripts remain in the Middle East but many are to be found in London, Berlin and Istanbul.
Arab miniatures for middle class
The late Richard Ettinghausen stressed that Arab miniatures did not deal with royal or religious symbols but instead, in this limited period, appealed to the urban middle class because its subject matter was secular. The people depicted were ordinary people and what they’re engaged in were everyday events. Even where well-known scenes are produced, in this period there is greater liveliness in the relations between people and in the portrayal of animals.
Arab scholars were particularly interested in sciences and many ancient Greek manuscripts were translated. One of the best illustrated is the work of Dioscorides, a Greek physician, pharmacologist and botanist. He wrote the De Materia Medica, a five-volume encyclopedia about herbal medicine and related medicinal substances and published it in Greek in 70 AD. Very quickly it was published in Latin and later in Arabic. What is interesting in addition to the enormous amount of information Dioscorides provides on herbs and their uses are the illustrations. These include figures engaged in various activities related to medicine and herbs. Or they may portray drug stores or just plants. The style tends to be simple but, for example, includes examples of furniture in scenes in which humans are portrayed. The clothing on the humans is portrayed in such a way that one can see the body beneath and although the pictures are two-dimensional, they are quite realistic.
Some of the most interesting of miniatures are to be found in manuscripts relaying the stories in the Fables of Bidpai (Kalila wa Dimnah). These stories are lessons on how a king should behave although told through the animals, and the illustrations that go with these animal stories are again two-dimensional but very expressive. The background for the animals includes rocks and trees depending on the location of the story; however, these are hardly as realistic
Al-Hariri’s Maqamat (The Assemblies of al-Hariri) tell stories about the imaginary travels of al-Hariri and his companions. They are shown in various locations and circumstances and demonstrate an extraordinary interest in pattern. The prototypes for the people are thought to be Byzantine in origin because some of the humans portrayed are wearing haloes in the earliest manuscript. In later copies people don’t have such haloes and so it was likely that these copies were made in areas further away from Byzantium.
Miniatures with religious subjects
Rice writes of one of the later al-Hariri manuscripts in Paris: “The faces too are rather more Persian and greater attention has been paid to detail. More important still is the fact that the artist was also more concerned with an attempt to set his figures in a three-dimensional background.” Rice then turns to the last al-Hariri manuscript, also in Paris: “The work is of outstanding quality. The figures are extremely expressive, the compositions are often very beautiful in themselves, and the colors are gay, brilliant, and remarkably effective.”
Miniatures with religious subjects have come down to us from approximately this same period and it is unclear if they existed before but somehow were destroyed in the various conflicts that broke out in the Near East. The first was Rashid ad-Din’s illustrated Compendium of Chronicles, written at the beginning of the 14th century. In it, the Persian historian traces the history of the world from Adam and includes the Prophet Muhammad and the succeeding caliphs. Interestingly enough, the miniatures show the Prophet’s face. In other words, the convention of hiding his countenance behind a white veil had not yet arisen. It only appeared in the 16th century. These show him in a variety of situations with his companions, including his riding on Buraq to the heavens. About the same time The Legends of the Prophets appeared, which also contained illustrations of religious subjects.
We really only have examples of Arab miniatures on a high level from this brief period in the 13th and 14th centuries. But at least we have that. They were superseded by Persian and then Turkish miniatures which had conventions of their own.