Persian miniatures – the most outstanding paintings in the Mideast

Persian miniatures – the most outstanding paintings in the Mideast

Persian miniatures – the most outstanding paintings in the Mideast

Drinking Party in the Mountains. Attributed to Muhammadi, 1590.

Persian miniatures are usually considered the best miniatures of all the small paintings produced in Middle Eastern countries. Their origin is usually traced to the artistic works of the Sassanid Empire which ruled the area where modern Iran is today from 224 to 651 A.D. This pre-Islamic empire’s art incorporated very old Persian themes with more recent Hellenistic and Chinese techniques and motifs. The latter were introduced into the Middle East as a result of the Mongol invasions of the fourteenth century so we find mythical beasts in Persian miniatures that greatly resemble those in Chinese drawings.

The heyday of the Persian miniature lasted from the 13th through the 17th centuries. The first of the “schools of painting” that developed was at Herat in today’s Afghanistan, especially in the period following the city’s conquest by the famous Tamerlane in 1380 until it fell to the Turkoman Karakoyunlu tribes around the middle of the fifteenth century. Later, in the Safavid period, schools were formed at Tabriz and Isfahan between 1501 and 1722 with the latter the more important of the two cities. The schools developed principally under the control of the empire’s rulers and to a large extent were able to free themselves of Chinese influence.

“The sixteenth century saw a flowering of classical painting in Persia. Art flourished under the aegis of the Shahs… Within settings exquisitely portrayed, world of great luxury and delicacy unfolds on every folio as palaces open onto fountains and gardens, lovers and warriors sigh or are vanquished – all realized in shimmering jewel-like paintings that delight the eye and please the mind.” – Stuart Cary Welch, “Persian Painting”

As time went on however, illuminating manuscripts gave way to single page paintings and drawings. Most likely this occurred as members of the middle class wanted to possess what had previously been a monopoly of the wealthy, upper class. Some Persian miniatures were so elaborate that the artist might spend up to a year painting them, driving up their cost. Eventually, people began collecting these individual pages and binding them into separate books.

Book illustrations

What is important about Persian miniatures is to recognize that they were intended primarily to be book illustrations without any intention of showcasing the artist’s creative abilities. As with Arab miniatures, the goal was to show how well the artist could adhere to the rules and traditions used in previous renderings of traditional subject matter which were mostly related to Persian mythology and poetry.

Among the favorite manuscripts that were illustrated was that of the Shahnameh, a long epic poem written between 977 and 1010 AD that relates the mythical and historical past of the Persian Empire from the creation of the world up to the Arab conquest of Persia in the seventh century A.D.
Other favorites were the Kelile wa Dimne fables, similar to those of the ancient Greek story-teller, Aesop; the Quintet by the poet Nizami; the Mesnevi of Jalal ud-Din Rumi; Sa’di of Shiraz; and the poems of Hafiz and Jami.

The first characteristic to remember is that the size of the miniature may be very small but the level of detail can be very complex. A good example of that is the portrayal, in the Shahnameh, of the Court of Gayumarth, considered by the late Indian and Islamic art scholar, Stuart Cary Welch, as probably the greatest miniature in Iranian art. It portrays a scene from the court of the legendary first shah of Iran, combining imagination with refined classicism. It is possible to recognize individuals and even guess at what they are thinking from their expressions. Even the many animals portrayed seem
realistic. The rocks and plants are naturalistic, while the clouds are shown in a stylized manner very common in Persian miniatures.

Very few names of Persian miniature painters are known but one of the very best was Kamaleddin Behzad (c. 1450 – c. 1535) who headed the royal workshops in Herat and Tabriz during the late Timurid and early Safavid periods. He is particularly praised for his compositional use of landscape to direct the eye around the miniature and his ability to portray people in various everyday situations. Another artist was Sultan Mohammed who painted the Court of Gayumarth miniature discussed above. He is considered one of the greatest of Persian painters and the most notable artist of the Ṣafavid school at Tabriz during the first half of the sixteenth century. Agha Reza (1565 - 1635) was the most renowned Persian miniaturist, painter and calligrapher of the Isfahan School. Even some of the shahs were talented, amateur painters and encouraged other painters.


Perspective in a Persian miniature is not portrayed very naturalistically, perhaps because the miniatures are supposed to be two dimensional. One doesn’t find shadowing, one means of trying to achieve perspective; rather the various elements are laid over each other such as a group of people who may be shown standing at right angles to the viewer and portrayed in a line that ascends up the painting without the figures becoming smaller as they stand further away.

Content and form are fundamental elements of Persian miniature painting, and miniature artists are renowned for their vivid but subtle use of color. Color is used very sparingly. Classically, a Persian miniature also features accents in gold and silver leaf, along with a very vivid array of colors. The level of detail was achieved with a very fine hand and an extremely small brush, a hair from a kitten for example.

B.W. Robinson sums it up as follows in his work, “Persian Paintings”: “Persian miniature painting… is primarily an art of book-illustration; in other words a Persian painting normally tells a story, with no conscious attempt on the artist’s part to project his own personality or to convey any spiritual message. His aim (apart from the necessary one of earning his living) was simply to give a clear, beautiful and effective presentation of the subject in hand, and so to please his patron and any others (including ourselves) who might look at his work… The beauties of Persian painting are all on the surface, and because it was an art of perfection these beauties are, in the best examples almost breath-taking in their impact.”

The admiration of the Ottomans, and the Mughals of India, inherited their love of miniatures from the Persians.