Miniature Painting:

Early figure painting

    Evidence of Early figure painting in Moslem regions has been found in fragments of wall paintings, textile designs, and painted ceramic pieces. Our first examples of illustrated text came much later either because paper had only been recently introduced to the area, or because paper deteriorates so much more quickly than these other products..

Pottery bowl from Nishapur.

Buff body designs in black and bright yellow under a colorless glaze. Tenth century.

Silk Twill. East Persian, 10th century

Inscribed: "Glory and prosperity to the Qa'id Abu-Mansur Bukhtagin, may God prolong his existance" . Bukhtagin was an officer of Abd-ul-Malik ibn Nuh, ruler of Khurasan and Transoxiana, and was put to death in 960 A.D.

These first examples show a mingling of Hellenistic and Sassanian influences, with Greek and Arabic lettering appearing side by side.

The Hellenistic figures are rendered naturalistically, the folds of their clothing carefully modeled, often depicted from the side or in three-quarter view.

In the Sassanian tradition figures are shown full face, in rigid poses, their limbs hidden beneath their heavy costumes, painted in rich, bright colors.

These female figures are posed frontally, in the Sassanian manner, even though many of the motifs must ultimately have been derived from Hellenistic art. The style of the paintings and the original colors, with red and bright blue predominating, were also essentially Sassanian.

Reconstruction of a wall-painting from the harem of the Jausaq Palace at Samarra, 833-41.


In the middle of the 10th century a new influence came, this time from the West, with the Fatimids, a family of Persian origin. Fragments of papyri bearing pictures unearthed from the rubbish dumps at Fostat are evidence of early Fatimid patronage of manuscript illuminations. These Moslem artists excelled in calligraphy and text embellishment. The earlier illuminations accompanied translations of Greek scientific works into Arabic. These miniatures were painted in brilliant colors, sometimes against backgrounds of gold. Naturalistic treatment of animals was favored along with an elaboration of intricate design.

Bowl Painted in polychrome "minai" with gilding

Persian (Kashan?) Late 12th Century

This man and woman is painted in a formal style that had developed in pre-Islamic Persia which tended toward the stylized and symbolic rather than the realistic. The face was characteristically round, with thick features and enormous, slanting eyes; the hair was black and straight, falling to the shoulders, and the body was fleshy.
An account of many beasts and the medicines that could be extracted from them was compiled in the 11th Century by a physician to the Caliph in Baghdad, and two centuries later was translated from Arabic into Persian and illustrated with 94 charming miniatures.

From the comparative simplicity of these earlier Arabic manuscripts, miniature painting in Persia ultimately developed into a very sophisticated art in which figures in court scenes, hunts and battles move against ornate, panoramic backgrounds. These illustrated secular books became known as the Persian Miniatures.

Illustration from the Manafi' al-Hayawan by Ibn Bakhtishu', Persian, 1295.

Page from De Materia Medica of Dioscorides, showing Dioscorides and a student. Northern Iraq, 1229

These figures are more modeled than those of more typical Mesopotamian manuscripts and more attention has been paid to the drape of the costume and less to rendering the decorative patterns that adorned the textiles of which they were made.


During the twelfth century a number of secular book illustrations of outstanding quality were created throughout Mesopotamia. Surviving examples include medical treatises, books about animals, a few volumes of lyrical poetry, and books about the adventures of the traveler al-Hariri.

The Mesopotamian style employed a strong, solid use of line in drawing the human figure, with an emphasis on facial expressions which often bordered on caricature. They painted in bright, brilliant, and contrasting colors, using fresh, vivid hues. Great attention was paid to small details, such as the pattern of the textiles from which the costumes were made. Spatially, these artists utilized a two-dimensional convention which placed all the figures on the same plane, essentially silhouetting them against an open background.

The formal composition, the emphasis on pattern, the way in which the figures are confined to two planes, and the nature of the facial types are in the Mesopotamian miniature style. Although most of the manuscripts of this type can be assigned to Mesopotamia, a number were also done in Syria and Egypt, under the patronage of the Mamluks.

Leaf from a copy of 'Assemblies' of Hariri which shows two figures seated. Syrian, 1237.

Leaf from a manuscript of the 'Assemblies' of Hariri, known as the St. Baast Hariri. Here Hariri is seen with a half-naked, old man who speaks to him in verse. Late thirteenth century

Chinese influence 1258

The Mongol invasion in 1258 gave the surviving Moslem artists patrons with different tastes. In China a more acute observation of nature was preferred, introducing into miniature painting a greater naturalism.

Many of the miniatures painted after 1258 are handled in a linear style clearly inspired by Chinese painting utilizing light, feathery brush-strokes colored with delicate tints, rather than the strong contrasting colors of earlier Persian works. Also appearing for the first time were knobby tree trunks with branches like those of a willow pattern plate and an attempt to render the background in three-dimensions by multiplying the number of planes.

Illustration from Rashid al-Din's 'Universal History" copied at Tabriz in 1306 showing the Prophet Jeremiah.

Nushirwan rewards the young Buzurjmihr. Miniature from a manuscript of the Shah Nameh of Firdausi. Persian (Tabriz), about 1340

At first the old Mesopotamian style illustrations and the new Chinese style miniatures appeared side by side in the same texts. But eventually the blend became so complete, that a new style emerged. It was this blend that constituted the basis of Persian miniature painting from the mid-fourteenth century onwards, and had it not taken place, the art would not have developed in the way that it did.

Later 14th century Persian

The Shiraz School of later 14th century Persia is distinguished by its brilliance of coloring, a love of gorgeous landscapes, by the frequent inclusion of freely drawn bird and flower motifs in the margins, and by faces and figures with rounded contours, fine lines, narrow eyes, and rather characteristic sideways glances. A new system of vertical perspective is evident in which figures are shown one over the other, and where such things as ponds and carpets appear as flat on the page.

The arrival of Prince Humay: The symbolic decorative basis of Persian painting is here fully apparent. The flowers bask in the brilliance of daylight while the stars shine in the sky, combining realism with symbolism. The artist is completely unbounded by the practicality of naturalism, yet his approach remains completely comprehensible.

The Meeting of Prince Humay and Princess Humayun. Miniature from a manuscript of the Khamseh of Khwaju Kirmani. Persian (Herat), about 1430

The building of the famous castle of Khawarnaq from Nizami's Khamsa. the manuscript was illustrated about 1494 and the miniatures are the work of Bihzad

Ottoman Turks

Ottoman sultans were great patrons of the arts, with work of very fine quality being executed under their aegis. In the 15th century Turkish painting was characterized by a forcefulness and realism which was totally absent in Persian art of the period.

At this time certain miniature painters began to sign their works. The most famous of all was Bihzad, 1440-1514. His style was more intense, more dramatic than that of other painters of the age, and his work showed more of an interest in individuals, their character, and in the affairs of everyday life.

Miniatures of this period often utilized a new aide for producing perspective: the inclusion of a hill in the background. Scenes were frequently staged on what appears to be the edge of a precipice, with the horizon indicated by a sudden drop in the landscape. Figures in the extreme background look as if they were climbing up an inevitable hill behind, their heads and shoulders appearing over the imaginary horizon. Sometimes they were shown emerging from behind a little hill which fills one corner of the picture.

Illustration for The Progress of the Prophet16th century, Turkey

The artists who illustrated this book were particularly wary of painting the face of the Prophet or his family, lest the portraits be inaccurate or sacrilegious. They chose to depict Mohammed veiled and surrounded with a halo-like flame.

The Sultan watching dancers and comedians in the Hippodrome. This is a leaf from the Suranam-i-Vehbi of Ahmed III (1703-30).

The experiments in composition, to be seen in a search for a multiplicity of planes and a love of rather full scenes and tall figures, which had been introduced by Bihzad, never found much favor north of the Oxus.

Turkish miniature paintings were full of life and action, an art in which romance had little part to play. In this respect, it was far removed from that of the enchanting dream-world of Persian miniatures.

This brief look at the miniature painting of Moslems is indebted to the extensive writings and research of David Talbot Rice, Desmond Stewart, and Ralph Pinder Wilson.

About the Artist

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Islamic Art Throughout History


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