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|Late Islamic Art in the Los Angeles County Museum of Arts, LACMA
|Perhaps even more so than in preceding periods, art was an instrument of dynastic
expression in this great age of empires. Spurred by royal patronage, the arts
flourished under the Ottomans and Safavids. Ottoman military incursions into Iran in
the later fifteenth century, and throughout the sixteenth century, led to the
appropriation of artists, works of art, and artistic ideas. Ottoman decorative arts and
the arts of the book were thereby enriched by the repertoire of floral and vegetal
motifs first developed in fifteenth-century Iran, generally referred to as the
international Timurid style.
In the sixteenth century artists also willingly emigrated eastward from Iran to India,
bringing with them a style of book illustration that contributed to the development of
a new and distinctive Mughal idiom. On many levels this was an international period,
in which Ottoman, Safavid, and Mughal art were each impacted by the aesthetic
established in fifteenth-century Iran.
Chinese pottery had long been admired, collected, and emulated in the Islamic
world, and this was especially the case at the Ottoman and Safavid courts, where
two important collections of Chinese blue-and-white porcelains were assembled.
Such Chinese porcelains influenced the style of Safavid pottery and other
decorative arts, but they had an especially strong impact on the development of the
Ottoman pottery known as Iznik ware. Iznik ware takes its name from the
northwestern Anatolian city where much of this pottery seems to have been made.
Produced as architectural revetment as well as tableware, Iznik pottery is one of the
most notable and renowned arts of the Ottoman period.
Sometime in the late fifteenth century, in an attempt to approximate the Chinese
blue-and-white porcelain that was then popular, Ottoman potters began to produce
blue-and-white wares of a type that was virtually unrivaled in Islamic ceramics.
These potters developed a hard, dense fritware body, which they covered with a
dazzling white slip in order to replicate the hard, white body of the Chinese wares.
Onto this white surface, floral scrolls, arabesques, and other designs were painted
in a deep cobalt blue; this was then covered with a colorless, shiny glaze.
A superb Iznik jar in the collection belongs to a slightly later phase in the
development of Ottoman pottery, possibly the second decade of the sixteenth
century (fig. 44). The jar employs a lighter shade of blue, along with the deep
cobalt, for its dynamic floral decoration inspired by Chinese designs. The flowers
are boldly painted on the white ground, or else, as on the foot and shoulder, they
are reserved in white against blue. Jars of this type, which were made for courtly or
urban patrons and were most likely used as storage containers, testify to the high
aesthetic standards of the day.
Beginning sometime in the 1540s Iznik potters introduced manganese purple, sage
green, and black to their palette, while their decorative repertoire still focused on
floral designs such as pomegranates, rosettes, tulips, and artichokes, the two latter
motifs form the main decoration at the center of a large dish in LACMA's collection,
where they are depicted in blue and green, while the cavetto and rim bear green
pomegranates alternating with blue sprays of leaves or else tulips (fig. 45).
Toward the mid-sixteenth century the color scheme of Iznik wares expanded to
include a brilliant red and a bright grass green. The magnificent tile with sumptuous
flowers and lower border painted to imitate breccia marble likely comes from the
royal living quarters at the Topkapi Saray, or Cannon-Gate Palace, Istanbul (fig.
46). Objects of this type, both vessels and tile revetment, figure prominently in the
museum’s collection. All of these objects demonstrate the great variety of ornament
used in Iznik wares, including the ubiquitous tulip; lush, plump peonies and
carnations; and spiky and scrolling leaves, as well as bold epigraphic ornament.
They also help to illustrate the different stylistic phases of Iznik wares, which in turn
reflect the evolution of Ottoman taste in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries in
other media as well, including metalwork, carpets, and textiles.
One type of decorative motif associated with blue-and-white Iznik pottery consists of
slender spiral scrolls punctuated by rosettes, semicircles, and comma-shaped
leaves. This same design is found in the illuminated background of the elegant
tugra, or imperial monogram, of Sulayman the Magnificent, which is preserved in the
museum’s collection (fig. 47). The tugra, originally placed at the head of a royal
document, transforms the sultan’s name and titles and the formula "ever victorious"
into a uniform and harmonious series of curved and vertical lines, while the actual
letters are stacked close together in the lower portion. This tugra demonstrates the
overwhelming concern for exquisite detail that characterizes the art of Sulayman’s
reign in particular and Ottoman art in general.
Another work in the collection, a richly embellished textile (fig. 48), gives a vivid
sense of the multihued opulence of Sulayman’s court. Possibly a cushion cover for a
throne or a sofa, the crimson satin fabric is embroidered with silk, gold, and silver
thread. The bold blossoms and spiky leaves that typify the Ottoman court style are
arranged, along with a quartet of lively roosters, around a complex eight-lobed
medallion. The quality of the design, the fine embroidery, and the lavish use of silver
and gold metallic thread demonstrate the unrivaled level of excellence of sixteenth-
century Ottoman imperial textiles.
A drawing in the collection, whose remarkable intricacy of line and detail belies its
minute size, was likely executed in the Ottoman court atelier (naqqashkhana) in
Istanbul (fig. 49). There, in the second half of the sixteenth century, a distinct style
of painting developed separate from the highly conceptual tradition of manuscript
illustration. Known as the "saz style" after the reed pen employed in its creation, this
style (exemplified by the LACMA drawing) emphasized fantastic and dazzling
imagery that incorporates Chinoiserie motifs and feathery leaves. Here, concealed
among the dense, bristly foliage, are two silently slithering dragons, barely visible at
first glance. Rather than to emphasize pure line, the anonymous artist is caught up
with the textural qualities of the dragons' scaly, speckled bodies and the sinuous
veins of the serrated leaves.
Drawings of this type, accompanied by Persian verses, were typically mounted and
bound in albums that were compiled for the Ottoman sultans and presented on
special occasions. Albums were likewise popular at the contemporary courts of
Safavid Iran and Mughal India. Larger than a book and with a different directional
organization, albums combining a varied and skilfull mixture of calligraphy, painting,
and drawings could be contemplated and enjoyed by a single royal user or by a
small ensemble of courtiers. In the hands of an artist, however, an album could
serve as a source of study, inspiration, and emulation. For example, some time in
the early seventeenth century a mirror image copy of the LACMA drawing was
made, which is now preserved in the Louvre.
Ottoman military supremacy, which had helped make them a world power, was
largely based on the highly disciplined Janissary corps—crack infantry troops. As a
part of their uniform, the Janissaries wore a distinctive cap somewhat like a stocking
cap in appearance, to which was affixed just above the forehead and ornament such
as the rare silver gilt example in LACMA's collection (fig. 50). This slightly concave
device, decorated with delicately worked geometric designs, would have held an
insignia demonstrating the Janissary's loyalty to the Sultan—most likely a spoon,
signifying that it was the ruler who provided him with his daily soup.
High court art under the early Safavids is perhaps best exemplified by manuscript
illustration. The museum’s collection includes a painting (fig. 51) from a manuscript
whose size, scale, and quality make it one of the most luxurious Islamic books ever
created. This now-dispersed copy of the Shahnama was made for Shah Tahmasp
(r. 1524–76) in Tabriz, the Safavid capital. The manuscript originally included 258
illustrations, innumerable illuminations, and more than one thousand pages of text,
all with gold-flecked borders. A book of this magnitude would have taken several
years to complete, perhaps even a decade or longer, and the manuscript is
generally believed to have been executed between 1522 and 1535. Its numerous
illustrations display a diversity of compositional types and styles, many of them
derived from later fifteenth-century painting.
Using formalized conventions, the museum’s illustration, Nushirvan Receives an
Embassy from the Khaqan, depicts a type of idealized world first perfected in
Persian painting more than a century earlier. Here the rich colors of the costumes
and the architectural decoration, the sedate poses of the figures, and the carefully
contrived landscape and gold sky create a most suitable, if unreal, setting for this
Manuscripts such as this Shahnama were the result of a collaborative effort, one
that required wealthy, generally royal, patrons, who could afford the costly materials
and large staff required. Such manuscripts were produced in the kitab khana
(literally, "book house"), a royal atelier combining the functions of scriptorium,
workshop, and library. There, under the supervision of a director, manuscripts were
selected to be copied and illustrated, and the work was distributed among the
various artists and craftsmen, including calligraphers, painters, designers, gilders,
and bookbinders. It is important to bear in mind that the manuscript was created and
understood as a complete work of art; the paintings, calligraphy, binding, and other
components formed beautiful but constituent parts of a greater whole.
Paper was naturally an important element in the making of a manuscript.
Papermaking was introduced to the Islamic world from China in the mid-eighth
century. By the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries, the apogee of illustrated
manuscript production in Iran, the technique of papermaking (from flax and
occasionally hemp), had become quite sophisticated, allowing for the manufacture
of sizable sheets of paper, as large as three feet across.
The layout of the manuscript was another significant element, one that was
determined before pen and ink touched paper, including the number of lines per
page, where to insert chapter headings (which were often richly illuminated or
decorated), and where in the text to place the illustrations. Next, lines had to be
ruled for the calligrapher, who copied the text and left appropriate spaces for
paintings and illuminations. The calligrapher wrote with a reed pen and ink that he
prepared himself, generally a mixture of lampblack (or soot), water, and a binding
medium such as gum arabic. Since the most frequently copied Persian texts were
written in verse, the two halves of the couplets were generally divided into columns
of text, as many as six per page.
After the text was copied, certain sections—the opening pages, the beginning of
each chapter, and the closing page—were often elaborately decorated, usually with
strictly symmetrical compositions of delicate vegetal and abstract designs, which
enclose and sometimes even overwhelm the calligraphy. Such illuminations, which
are often brilliantly embellished with gold, were the work of specialized artists such
as the designer and the gilder. This type of lavish illumination is a standard feature
of luxury manuscripts and one the glories of Islamic arts of the book.
The painters who illustrated the text began their work with an underdrawing or
sketch. Next, using fine brushes, preferably made from the fur of long-haired cats
that were bred for this purpose, they applied opaque, jewel-like colors in a
remarkable array of hues. The artists prepared their own pigments, of which the
finest were made from minerals, including lapis lazuli for blue, cinnabar for red, and
malachite for green. These were finely ground and mixed with a binding medium
such as albumen. Gold or silver, which was also used, was pounded into leaf and
then liquefied and mixed with a binding medium. Unfinished paintings show that the
colors were set down in stages: gold, used for the sky, and silver, for water, were
applied first. These were followed by the landscape colors, and then details—such
as flowers, facial features, elements of costume, and architecture—and, finally,
touches of gold were added.
The last step in the making of a manuscript was to gather and sew the pages into a
binding. Ornamented with stamped, painted, and gilt decoration, the leather binding
enveloped the manuscript like a decorative skin. Such elaborately produced books
were clearly worthy vehicles for royal patronage. This use of an essentially private
art form as a dynamic expression of legitimacy and imperial prestige, dating back to
the Ilkhanid dynasty, spread elsewhere in the Islamic world, most notably to Mughal
The collection includes paintings from several other sixteenth-century manuscripts
that were produced in Shiraz or in Bukhara, both important regional schools. By the
late sixteenth century single-page compositions, the work of one individual, began to
replace the collectively painted manuscript, perhaps because even the wealthiest
patrons could scarcely afford lavishly illustrated books during this period of
economic decline in Iran. Court artists no longer worked exclusively for imperial
patrons, nor were they tied to a royal atelier. Single-page paintings remained in
vogue even during the reign of Shah cAbbas, who initiated a period of economic
expansion and artistic revival, sponsoring the production of some lavishly illustrated
In the new style of painting that developed at Shah cAbbas’s court in Isfahan,
portraiture was paramount. More generic representations than exacting likenesses,
such portraits depicted not only sophisticated and refined courtly figures but a
variety of other types as well, including mendicants, soldiers, foreigners, and
peasants. By the mid-seventeenth century, translucent washes of color applied over
drawings, emphasizing boldly calligraphic lines, had replaced the rich opaque colors
previously favored. Compared to earlier periods in Iran, the late sixteenth and
seventeenth centuries produced numerous signed and dated works, and the names
of artists were preserved in contemporary literary sources. The museum’s collection
is especially strong in seventeenth-century painting and drawing from Isfahan in the
form of elegant single-page compositions that depict a broad spectrum of Safavid
society. These pages would have been bound in albums along with calligraphic
compositions. One such work, a tinted drawing of a man with a pitchfork (fig. 52), is
inscribed with the name Riza-yi cAbbasi and dated 4th of Safar 1044 A.H. (July 11th,
1634 A.D.). Riza-yi cAbbasi (d. 1635) was one of the most outstanding and prolific
artists in the history of Persian painting. As the preeminent painter at Shah cAbbas’s
court, he was awarded the sobriquet cAbbasi.
Although many paintings and drawings are inscribed with Riza’s name, not all of
them are by the hand of the master. At times they may be entirely or partially the
work of one of his students. This may be the case with the Los Angeles drawing,
which was perhaps begun by Riza but completed by his son and student, to whom
he inscribed the piece. The fur lining of the man’s coat lacks the fine, downy texture
(produced by hundreds of tiny brushstrokes) that characterizes Riza’s undisputed
works. Nonetheless, the eccentric subject matter—a well-dressed man carrying a
gardener’s tool—the emphasis on line over color, and the accentuation of the
curved contours of the clothed figure to impart a sense of movement are features
typical of Riza’s manner, which took hold in seventeenth-century Isfahan.
The most important and enduring symbol of the empire’s return to prosperity under
Shah cAbbas was his capital, the new city of Isfahan, with the great Maydan-i Shah,
or Royal Square, as its focal point. In addition to the mosques, public buildings, and
palaces constructed around the Maydan, numerous other edifices were erected in
Isfahan and its environs to house and serve this cosmopolitan capital’s growing
population, which included significant Jewish and Armenian communities.
Like the royal buildings on the great Maydan, palaces and mansions constructed
nearby or elsewhere in the city were lavishly sheathed with tiles. The collection
includes several examples of such tile revetment, decorated in the cuerda seca
technique. An innovation of this period, found in palaces and other structures
(excluding mosques), was the use of individually painted square tiles that were
combined to form a larger pictorial scene. This is demonstrated by a tile panel,
perhaps from the mid-seventeenth century, which forms half of a pair of spandrels
that once were set above a doorway or arch (fig. 53). Here, amid a tranquil floral
landscape filled with birds, a lion attacks a stag, a motif that can perhaps be
interpreted as a visualization of a contemporary poetic metaphor for the arrival of
In the early seventeenth century Shah cAbbas donated the great imperial collection
of Chinese porcelains to his ancestral shrine at Ardabil in Northwestern Iran. The
size, scope, and quality of this gift attest to the strong taste in Iran for imported
Chinese blue-and-white porcelains, which had had an impact on indigenous Iranian
pottery, as well as other decorative arts, since the fourteenth century. cAbbas’s gift
may have encouraged a new wave of seventeenth-century imported Chinese
porcelains, which in turn inspired Safavid potters to emulate the blue-and-white
wares. A distinctive blue-and-white pouring vessel in the Los Angeles County
Museum of Art (fig. 54) very likely belongs to the second half of the seventeenth
century, a period when only the decoration and not the shape of Iranian ceramic
wares was influenced by Chinese prototypes. The floral blossoms and lively flying
birds, and the stylized bridges spanning rocks above the foot, mimic the Chinese
wares, while the specific shape, with curvaceous body and long spout, is borrowed
from late fifteenth- and sixteenth-century Iranian metalwork. This elegant vessel
demonstrates the Islamic artist’s remarkable and characteristic ability to
imaginatively adapt and combine different styles and forms, producing something
completely new in the process.
A some what less common type of ceramic ware and one whose decoration avoided
Far Eastern designs is luster-painted pottery, which seems to have experienced a
revival in Safavid Iran. Most of these objects—all vessels—are relatively small in
scale by comparison with earlier periods. Rather than Chinese-inspired decoration,
the luster wares bear delicate but densely rendered floral designs and brief
landscape vignettes with spiky-leafed trees and occasionally birds and animals. The
most notable such example in LACMA's collection is a shallow dish whose coppery
luster decoration is dominated by a spiky-leaf tree perfectly configured to echo the
circular form of the vessel (fig. 55).
No discussion of Islamic art, however brief, would be complete without some mention
of carpets, which are perhaps the best-known Islamic art form throughout the world.
Most famous of all Islamic carpets are those from Iran. Because of their fragile
nature, it is only from the sixteenth century onward that Persian carpets have
survived in any quantity, although woven carpets have a long history in the Middle
East. The Los Angeles County Museum of Art is fortunate to possess one of the
most renowned Persian carpets, the so-called Ardabil Carpet (fig. 56), whose better-
known mate hangs in London’s Victoria and Albert Museum.
Brought to England sometime in the late nineteenth century, the carpets were
reported to have come from the Safavid shrine at Ardabil. There is still a good deal
of speculation about where and for whom such sumptuous court carpets were
commissioned. The outer borders and a section of the lower field were believed to
have been removed from the carpet now in Los Angeles in order to repair the one
now in London. The Los Angeles carpet was subsequently given a new outer
border. Apart from these differences, the two carpets are virtually identical.
According to their dated signatures, this matched pair of carpets were made in
1539–40, by a certain Maqsud of Kashan, who may have been the designer who
prepared the patterns and oversaw the project; or he may have been the person
who commissioned the carpets. Predominantly blue, red, and yellow, the overall
composition of the carpets—based on a central medallion with radiating pendants,
with quarter medallions repeated in the corners—is ultimately derived from
contemporary and earlier bookbinding and manuscript illumination, as is typical of
many so-called medallion carpets. The Ardabils, however, include a unique design
element in that lamps are depicted projecting from the top and bottom of the central
medallion. Medallions and lamps are set against a dense field of flowers that grow
from scrolling leafy vines.
The Los Angeles Ardabil and its pendant in London are exceptional works of art, not
only on account of their unique design and well-preserved colors but also because
each is signed and dated. Inscribed just above the signature and date is a Persian
couplet from a ghazal, or ode, by the renowned fourteenth-century lyrical poet Hafiz,
whose words heighten our appreciation even today:
I have no refuge in this world other than thy threshold
My head has no resting place other than this doorway
For original article and photos, please visit the link below on the Los Angeles
Museum of Arts, LACMA: