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The Timurids Contd.

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1502 - 1737

The Safavids Contd.

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The Safavid dynasty, of Turkish origin, is generally considered to have lasted from 1502 to 1737, and under Shah Ismail's rule the Shi'ite doctrine was imposed as a state religion. The Safavids continued the attempts of the Ilkhanids to foster closer diplomatic ties with the European powers, in order to cement alliances against the Ottomans.

As a result of this closer relationship, the Safavids opened the door to European influence.

From the description of Western travellers it is known that there once existed wall paintings; with battle scenes in Shiraz showing the capture of Hormuz from the Portuguese, as well as erotic scenes in Julfa, and pastoral scenes at the Hazar Jarib palace in Isfahan.

Inside the Safavid palaces pictorial decoration was used alongside traditional decorations in Kashi or ceramics.

Safavid fresco (oil paint on plaster)

Safavid fresco (oil paint on plaster) "Attendants at an Outdoor feast". By Muhammad Zaman or his atelier, Isfahan, c. second half of 17th century

Early Safavid painting combined the traditions of Timurid Herat and Turkoman Tabriz to reach a peak in technical excellence and emotional expressiveness, which for many is the finest hour in Persian painting.

The masterpiece of the age is the Shahnama-yi Shahi (The King's Book of Kings, formally known as the Houghton Shah-nama) with its 258 paintings, which was the most lavishly illustrated Shah-nama recorded in all of Persian history.

Herat was the great Iranian miniature painting centre of the Timurid period, but in 1507, after its capture by the Safavids, the leading artists emigrated, some to India and some to the Safavid capital, Tabriz, or the Shaybanid capital, Bukhara.

Shah-nama of Shah Tahmasp

Shah-nama of Shah Tahmasp, Tabriz, c. 1525. The scene depicts the death of King Mirdas.

One of the main innovations of the Bukhara miniaturists was the introduction of plant and animal motifs in the margins of their miniatures. It was in Tabriz, the other chief miniature centre of the period, that in 1522 Shah Ismail appointed the famous Behzad director of his library.

The Characteristic features of the Tabriz school can be seen in the illustrations for a manuscript of the Khamsa by Nezami; executed 1539 - 43 by Aqa Mirak of Isfahan, his pupil Sultan Muhammad, the Tabriz artists Mir Sayyid 'Ali, Mirza 'Ali, and Muzaffar 'Ali. Tabriz miniatures exploit the complete colour scale, and their compositions are complex and full of figures, which fill the space.

Miniature attributed to Sultan Muhammad, Safavid, Tabriz

Khamsa by Nezami, miniature attributed to Sultan Muhammad. Safavid, Tabriz, c. 1539-43. The scene shows Sultan Sanjar and the old woman.

Shah Ismail's successor Shah Tahmasp, himself a painter, expanded the royal atelier. However, during the latter part of the 16th century, Shah Tahmasp became a religious extremist, lost interest in painting and stopped his patronage. This was the beginning of the end for the luxury book.

Many of the best artists left the court some going to Bukhara, others to India where they were instrumental in the formation of a new style of painting, the Mughal School. Those artists who remained turned from the production of lavishly illustrated manuscripts to separate drawings and miniatures for less wealthy patrons.

Some time around the end of the 16th century, with the transfer of the capital to Shiraz (1597), an official deregulation of the traditional code of book painting took place. Some painters turned to other media, experimenting with book covers in lacquer work or with full-length oil paintings.

If earlier paintings had been about man in his natural environment, the late 16th and early 17th century is about man himself. The work of this period is dominated by large scale representation of seedy dervishes, Sufi shaikhs, beggers, merchants.... with satire as the driving force behind most of these pictures. Some of the same artists leant their talents to an altogether different genre of painting - the sensuous and erotic - with scenes of lovers, voluptuous women, etc. These were extremely popular and were produced mechanically with the minimum of effort.

Painting by Riza 'Abbasi, Isfahan, 1630

Painting by Riza 'Abbasi, Isfahan, 1630. From the end of the 16th century, the human figure becomes more important in paintings and the subjects and treatment are sensuous. Drawings and paintings have a calligraphic quality.

Two main factors influenced artists between 1630 and 1722; the works of Riza, and European Art. In the drawings by Riza, the outline of basic shapes is accompanied by an obsession with pleats and folds, which normally serve to emphasise the sensuous curvature of bodily form, but on many occasions, reach the point of complete abstraction. In a country with a powerful calligraphic tradition, writing and drawing are always interconnected, but at this time the link seems to have been particularly strong so that drawing takes on the physical appearance of Shikastah or Nasta'liq1 calligraphy.

Woman by a fountain

A youth and an old man

Woman by a fountain. By 'Ali Quli Bayg Jabbadar, Isfahan, c. 1650-60. The subject and style of painting here are clearly influenced by European art.

A youth and an old man. Two drawings mounted on the same album leaf. Both by Riza 'Abbasi. Isfahan c. 1620-5

By the second half of the 17th century, when Shah Abbas II sent the painter Muhammad Zaman to study in Rome, there was awakened a need in artists to find new ways of expression. Muhammad Zaman himself returned to Persia completely under the influence of Italian painting techniques. However, this did not lead to a great move forward in his style of painting; indeed his miniatures for the Shah-nama are in general banal and lack a sense of balance.

A prince on horseback with a courtier and servants

A prince on horseback with a courtier and servants. By Muhammad Zaman, c. 1670-85



1. Shikastah or Nasta'liq - 'hanging' script characterised by wide sweeps and loops


Persian Art Through The Centuries

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Persian History

Persian Art
Through The Centuries

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The Safavids

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