islamicartmanuscriptpaintings.gif
profile pic.jpg

Islamic Art in Medieval Illuminated Manuscript Paintings 

Randy H. Sooknanan

Art & History Writer

Islamic medieval illuminated manuscript paintings are masterpieces of art that were produced from Persian, Ottoman, and Mughal traditions. These works often presented cultural themes in the form of timeless stories about courage, love, and virtue, all completed in brilliant and vibrant miniature compositions.

Islamic Art directly reflected the cultural values of the faith and showed the unique Muslim view of life and in all things spiritual. We can see it is characterized by recurrent motifs, using geometrical floral or vegetal designs in a repetition known as the arabesque. Arabesque style in Islamic art symbolizes God's transcendent, indivisible, and infinite nature. For Muslims, God is the center (Allah), and therefore, Islamic art developed a unique character of geometric, arabesque, floral, and calligraphic patterns that reflect on their aspects of balance.

These illuminated manuscripts were carefully hand-written books and meticulously illustrated with glorious painted decoration that generally included precious metals such as gold or silver. The pages were made to be durable and created from animal skin, commonly calf, sheep, or goat. These works were mostly produced between 1100 and 1600, with monasteries being recorded as their earliest creators. They are primarily dated from the later Medieval era to Renaissance times.

At the time, many rulers were connoisseurs of the arts, and they collected these types of books featuring paintings by famous artists. We can note that these manuscripts were thought of as financial investments as well, since they were donated toward the endowment of charitable foundations, seen as status symbols, and presented as gifts between heads of state. The artist workshops that made such books were supported by rulers and their extended family members. The shops produced copies of famous literary works, histories, and the Quran text itself. The production of these elaborately illustrated books was mainly concentrated and worked on within royal workshops because the overall production of each book in its entirety was a rather expensive undertaking.

The text sections were first completed in traditional caligraphy and then the pages were passed along to the artists. The manuscript paintings were actually the work of several artists who were often commissioned to illustrate a particular scene in the story. Each scene was based on skill as some artists were known for their portraits and others for their battle scenes. Thus a single page might represent a massive collaborative effort, and even saw apprentices or junior artists called upon to fill in backgrounds and landscapes. Before painting, the artist laid out the composition with a very fine brush, and some elements were based off or copied from preexisting sketches. To create pigments, the painter turned to natural sources, such as orpiment (for yellow) and malachite (for green). Indigo was a common source of blue, while azurite was used for a lighter blue. 

After the initial artwork and illustrations were finished, separate illuminators and gilders then added flourishes to the text and colored frames. They also created frontispieces and end pages using gold and silver. Finally, each sheet of the book was burnished with a hard stone or glass to increase the longevity of the work. The books were then sewn and bound, and the covers were joined to a spine.

The bindings were also decorated with geometric or vegetal patterns, until later in the 15th-century when the Persian development of a design using oval medallions, pendants, and corner pieces became popular. Surrounding the central medallion were arranged rich floral motifs, arabesques, and cloud bands. This style soon spread to India and Turkey. We can accredit this Islamic manuscript style and its influence on other cultures located in such places as Italy as well.  Particularly when we examine the use of Pseudo-Kufic or Kufesque, also sometimes known as Pseudo-Arabic style, which is a type of decoration used during the Middle Ages and the Renaissance. Through the 16th-century, designs became more elaborate, with the addition of miniature figures and landscapes, and the doublures (interior covers) also came to be decorated. Patterns for these were created in cut-out leather, colored papers, and gilding. In the 19-century, lacquered bindings with painted designs replaced these elaborate leather works.

Galleria

Islamic Art in Illuminated Manuscript Paintings

Mughal Empire Emperor Painting Illustrated in Islamic manuscript

press to zoom

The Shah-nameh, Ardashir and the slave girl Gulnar denoting Logic and Emotion from the The Book of Kings, a Persian Manuscript

press to zoom

A painting of Prophet Muhammed's ascension, 1540 CE. In some illustrations such as this one, the Prophet's face is either covered by a veil or flame. This method became popular with the rise of Sufism. From The British Library.

press to zoom

Persian Art Handmade Indo Islamic Mythical Folk Hunt Miniature Manuscript Painting

press to zoom

A Young Lady Reclining After a Bath Leaf from the Read Persian Album Herat (Afghanistan), 1590s

press to zoom

The five epic poems in this illuminated Persian manuscript. Khamsah-i Nizami [Nizami's Quintet (Five Stories)], by Nizami Ganjavi, Nizam al-Din Abu Muhammad Ilyas ibn Yusuf (1140 or 41-1202 o4 3). 9 Ramadan 970 H/2 May 1563. From The Yale Library.

press to zoom

From various Persian manuscripts dating from the 15th and 16th centuries which contain illustrations and illuminations signed by their artists in minute script. Often these all-but-invisible signatures are tucked within the frames of illuminated title pieces or worked into a composition’s architectural or landscape setting.

press to zoom

Islamic Art in Illuminated Manuscript Paintings

press to zoom