Persian Miniature Painting

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  • Topic: Persian literature, Persian miniature, Mughal painting
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Persian Miniature Painting
Within the Potter’s House;
The Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam
(Unknown)
Persian Miniature painting: Gouache on paper
Late 19th- Early 20th century
Bequest of Helene Brosseau Black (Class of 1931)
MH 1991.4.50

I. Discussion of the Image
This miniature is a beautiful example of later Persian book painting that displays adaptations of the classical style to suit a more global viewership in the late 19th- early 20th century, the era of British colonialism (see figure 2). This scene depicts the beginning of the Kuza Nama (verses 59 through 68) from the Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam, initially written by Omar Khayyam, a famous 12th century Sufi poet. The painting is composed of a uniform border, enclosing a relatively broader field comprising a central medallion and two smaller medallions aligned along a longitudinal axis. The central medallion (see figure 4) portrays a male potter in his house or workshop, at his wheel accompanied by three male assistants, all engaged in activities related to creating earthen pottery. This scene is overlooked by a bearded male figure, presumably a depiction of the poet (Khayyam) himself. The background of the central medallion visually describes flat structural and architectural spaces with a textile aesthetic i.e. use of interwoven geometric shapes and saturated colors to dissolve the distinction between positive and negative space, and create a flat, two dimensional tapestry- like viewing experience. The center of this medallion contains images that might indicate the artist’s desire to create the illusion of depth by portraying a background setting. A back wall with a separated framed space is shown, which could be either another painting or a window showing a rocky landscape, with some sparse grasses and a large blossoming tree. The smaller medallions at the top and bottom contain the image of a snow leopard attacking a gazelle, very similar to the “preying lion” (see figure 3) motif that has been observed in Persian royal art since at least 1000 years ago. For example, this motif is visible in the apse of the diwan at Khirbat al- Mafjar, Jordan, 740 CE, except it uses a lion, to probably symbolize the authority and strength of the ruler. The outermost border contains foliate patterns that are symmetrical, but have lost the rigid linearity of earlier such Islamic and Persian patterns; the border contains mostly curved lines, and it appears as if the artist purposely used highly saturated color to make the painting stand against the surrounding open space. The patterned body does not create a visual rhythm i.e. encourage the viewers’ eye to travel. Instead it has a very flat aesthetic, with the weightedness of hung fabric. Thin lines encompass this pattern, and the use of different colors creates the experience of various types of fabric. For example, the delicate lines included in the main body are mainly white, gold and pink and are suggestive of woven lace, in comparison to the border, which contains saturated gold and sapphire blue, which can be visualized as belonging to a heavier, more silken fabric, perhaps georgette or velvet. Compositionally, the pattern seems to converge around all three medallions, and seems very suggestive of the popular analogy of Islamic foliate design to the Koranic notion of Paradise. These patterns involve very thin lines of similar colors, which combine to create an almost metallic luster. The use of atypical colors like pink, lavender, and rust is observed, as we notice that the color saturation reduces as the eye travels from the border toward the center of the page. There is no text included within the composition of the image, but it is likely that this painting was superimposed on a border page that might have earlier contained text (see top left corner, above frame of image). Despite the planeness of the image, the central medallion serves as a window into the world within. The artist has created an unusual alignment of...
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