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15th April 2021

MACFEST: Persian miniature painting

Alienor Bombarde finds illumination in Persian miniature painting at MACFEST
MACFEST: Persian miniature painting
Photo: Walter Arts Museum @Flickr

The award-winning and groundbreaking Muslim Arts and Culture Festival is on! This Manchester-based International Festival promotes social inclusion through the celebration of Islamic culture. It was first launched in 2017 by Qaisra Shahraz MBE, an award-winning activist and acclaimed novelist who featured in the Power 100 list of the most influential Muslims in the UK.

The festival’s events range from art to cuisine, and music to the heritage of the Muslim diaspora. This year MACFEST has events running until July 2021, most of which are free and digital, and which you can book on Eventbrite.

The event 

After a short introduction by Qaisra Shahraz, Elizabeth Gow, a curator and archivist, shared her screen to shed light on a series of forty different miniatures by nine unnamed artists. The John Rylands Library is home to some of these treasures. The library has miniature paintings in over forty different languages. This event focused on their Persian manuscripts. 

From the 13th to 17th centuries, Persian literature inspired visual arts. Persian miniature painting blossomed in the 13th century. Under Ilkhanid patronage, books began to be illustrated and illuminated.

Photo: Cambridge University @Flickr

Gow took the time to shed light on forty different paintings housed in the University library. Scans of these manuscripts are available on the library website.

Coming to life

Khamsa means ‘hand’. The original Khamsa, by Nizāmī Ganjavī, was written in 1444-5. It features five poems and nineteen miniature paintings. Inside, the colours have remained vibrant. The binding is leather, with its centre a treasure of gold detail. Decorative borders, painted with gold leaf and gold ink, frame the poems. Silver paints the rivers. Everything points to the wealth and artistic knowledge of the Persian court.

The first painting is a hunting seen, originated from 1445. People play beneath the trees in the grass, each strand of grass appearing to be individually painted.

In one unnamed painting illustrating Nizāmī Ganjavī’s text, two seemingly identical trees stand side by side. One has a hidden horse behind the branches. A painting from the same manuscript shows a small shepherd peeping out from behind a rock. Gow points out he is attempting to rescue his flock from a perilous position on the mountain.

These paintings convey absolute care and precision in their depiction of scenes from the written passages. Khusraw va Shīrīn shows birds floating in trees, people in the green grass beneath. It illustrates a sense of wonder at nature, of beauty and love. These pictures stand as stories in their own right. Abd al-Samad, the identified painter, became one of the leading painters of the Mughal court in India under Emperor Akbar.

Where to have a look

The art of Persian miniature is fascinating. While this article cannot do Elizabeth Gow’s wisdom or MACFEST itself justice, we can direct you towards more resources which might. The highly acclaimed MACFEST has a website, accessible here.

The library gives students access to historical and literary masterpieces. These are a few examples of miniature painting resources of high aesthetic importance. There are nineteen paintings in the original Khamsa, by Nizāmī Ganjavī, 1444-5.

There are one hundred paintings by five different artists in Shahnama by Abū’l-Qāsim Firdawsī, 1518.

Finally, there are three hundred and fifty-five paintings in Ajāyib al-makhulūqāt [Wonders of Creation] by Zakarīyā ibn Muhammad Qazwīnī (1632). Elizabeth Gow calls it a ‘sort of encyclopedia of wonders’. 

Click here for the John Rylands Library special collections page.

The recordings of these events and more news about the festival are on their website and on Youtube.

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