Islamic Art as Visual Literature

Fundamental to the expression of the spiritualism of Islam is the idea that its essence rests within one’s soul. In poetry and prose, that expression is rendered in literature, a reflection of the language of scholarly discourse that has endured since the religion’s founding moments. Though the application of that scholarship has changed, the Sufi mystic “soul” has endured, acting as the genius from which all art is made. The same applies to visual art. Sometimes accompanied with language, as in calligraphy, and sometimes not, as in most material culture, Islamic art functions as an aesthetic form of literature, drawing from the same place as prose and poetry to assert evocative spiritual landscapes that contribute to a form of artistic immersion. When read in the correct context, Islamic visual art speaks. To hear its voice, then, this response will analyze two manuscript pages in the collection of the Allen Memorial Art Museum to determine whether Islamic art can truly be confined to Islam, or if its motifs transcend explicit renderings of faith.

Representing literally the marriage between literature and aesthetic inherent in Islamic visual art, “Page from an Illustrated Copy of the Shahnameh, ‘The King Receives Three Ambassadors,’” is a remarkably valuable piece. At first glance, it is visually pleasing, but unassuming; the top three-quarters are dominated by four columns of Arabic text writ in a sweeping but precise hand, while the bottom quarter is devoted to an equally specific painting meant to illustrate the page’s narrative. Three figures stand to the left, hands clasped at their waists in a gesture of respect, opposite a brightly-dressed man seated on a lavish, near-golden throne. They stand among a simple scene of nature; blue, punctuated by flowers[1].

Looking more closely, the importance of the page becomes clear. Adorned with actual gold leaf, the folio comes from the Shahnameh, an epic that encompasses the history of Persia. Composed of over 50,000 verses set to nine volumes, it is a literary masterpiece — one that, in its thousand-year lifetime, has been married to art. Illustrated renderings abound; this example, drawn in the late 15th century, is visually consistent with — yet distinct from — contemporaneous interpretations. In “Painting in the Islamic World” from The Metropolitan Museum of Art’s Autumn 1978 Bulletin, three “miniatures” from other illustrated versions of the Shahnameh are analyzed, each with stylistic differences. All three, though, share “Ambassadors”’ purpose, sitting at the bottom of the page to describe the preceding columns of writing. While literature has been illustrated for a long time, the organizational similarities here are striking, suggesting a homogenous formula for illustrating such a voluminous epic. The hallmarks of these illustrations are all the same — finely-done linework; objects and figures that extend beyond the frame; and characters rendered in strict profile, set against a simple background[2]. The Met characterizes the paintings as all “fundamentally Persian in their pervasive sense of the decorative.” Indeed, decoration is the hallmark of such visual literature; in each small detail evoking nature, wealth, or piety — such as the flowers among the blue, the gold leaf set into the throne, and the distinct robed dress of each figure.

Part of the reason this piece was chosen for this response is that it is not wholly Islamic from a spiritual perspective. Though written under Islamic rule, Ferdowsi was part of a Sassanid-fond elite class fascinated by the history of pre-Islamic Persia. However, the later illustrations showcased hallmarks of miniature style that were shared by more ostensibly Islamic texts. In Titus Burckhardt’s “The Spirituality of Islamic Art,” he poses the question of how to distinguish between “Arab art” and “Islamic art,” employing a linguistic approach to answer. Burckhardt argues that the blurred lines between sacred and mundane make Arabic a language of power, and since art and language are so fundamentally linked in the Islamic style, that influence had a way of immortalizing an artistic movement that would otherwise have come and gone like any other wave of aesthetic particulars[3].

In the interest of proving this connection, this response will now turn to a decidedly Islamic piece of art with very similar iconography: “Manuscript leaf: King Suleiman Enthroned.” Noticeably more intricate than “Ambassadors,” “Enthroned” relies on many of the same motifs — floral designs, similar hats, and a comparable color palette — while decidedly upping the ante, partially due to the fact that it was painted nearly a century later, and represents a shift toward greater intricacy and flair. Placing more of a focus on visuals than text, the folio is paired with a passage from the legendary poet Hafez’s Diwan — a compendium of collected works, which this page would have sat among in its original context. The back of the page contains more text, however, showing a difference in design, but not intent; this writing tells the tale of King Solomon, confronted by his vizier and a “group of demons,” according to the Allen’s research[4].Though more fantastical in its imagery, the painting is a rendering and, in a way, translation of the Arabic text in the same manner as “Ambassadors,” though its connotations are explicitly Islamic.

Though distinct in the religiosity of their source material, the homogeneous attributes of these two folios point to an artistic style at once of and beyond Islam as a faith, expressing their poetry and prose through vibrant colors and painstaking detail that, though depicting entirely different scenes, contribute to a shared metatext of art as aesthetic knowledge communicated through consistent miniature styles. Thus, the trappings of Islamic art act as a formidable influence over the manifestation of the material record from nations adhering to the faith, asserting themselves even in secular spaces. These influences — infinite floral designs, surreal landscapes, and a very specific rendering of the human form — coalesce into a definition of art that is difficult to separate into “Arab” and “Islamic.” Rather, the sacred subsumes the secular like a growing vine does a wall.

[1] “Page from an Illustrated Copy of the Shahnameh, ‘The King Receives Three Ambassadors.’” Allen Memorial Art Museum eMuseum. Accessed 2017. Web.

[2] Simpson, Marianna Shreve. “A Reconstruction and Preliminary Account of the 1341 Shahnama.” From “Persian Painting: From the Mongols to the Qajars.” I.B. Tauris. Pub. 2001. Web.

[3] Burckhardt, Titus. “The Spirituality of Islamic Art.” From “Art of Islam: Language and Meaning.” World Wisdom, Inc. Pub. 2009. Web.

[4] “Manuscript leaf: King Suleiman Enthroned.” Allen Memorial Art Museum eMuseum. Accessed 2017. Web.