Late Islamic Period
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Late Islamic Period: Art


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.

fig. 44 Jar
Dish with Artichokes and Tulips
fig. 46 Tile
Tugra (imperial monogram) of Sulayman the Magnificent

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 latter two 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.

Textile, possibly a cushion cover
fig. 48 Textile, Possibly a Cushion Cover
Two Dragons Entwined on a Spray of Stylized Foliage
fig. 49 Two Dragons Entwined on a Spray of Stylized Foliage
Games Board
fig. 50 Games Board
fig. 51 Box
Ornament from a Janissary’s Cap
fig. 52 Ornament from a Janissary’s Cap
Nushirvan Receives an Embassy from the Khaqan
fig. 53 Nushirvan Receives an Embassy from the Khaqan
Nushirvan Receives an Embassy from the Khaqan
fig. 54 Combat between Khusraw Parviz and Bahram Chubina


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 emphasizing pure line, the anonymous artist was 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 skillfull 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, sometime in the early seventeenth century a mirror image copy of the LACMA drawing was made, which is now preserved in the Louvre.

Luxury wooden objects – furniture and furnishings as well as architectural fittings inlaid with precious materials such as ivory, ebony, silver, gold, mother-of-pearl, and tortoiseshell – were produced in limited quantities for the Ottoman court beginning in the early sixteenth century. A rare and spectacular games board from the first half of the sixteenth century in LACMA’s collection provides a wonderful example of this medium (fig. 50). When open, it offers a backgammon board rendered in ivory and ebony inlays with details of silver and tiny mosaics; when closed, it provides two more gaming opportunities, including an ivory- and ebony-inlaid chess board.

By the second half of the sixteenth century Ottoman woodworkers had begun to employ inlays of mother-of-pearl and tortoiseshell, two materials that are very hard to work with. The tortoiseshell was generally laid over metal foil to give it a lustrous quality, and mother-of-pearl plaques were frequently inlaid with black mastic to further emphasize their luminosity. Both techniques were used to enhance a boldly decorated box at LACMA (fig. 51), which, like other such surviving boxes, was likely intended to store a precious manuscript. The main decoration is of a type known as chinatamani, which was particularly associated with Ottoman court art. In this appealing design, three circles (sometimes accompanied by a double wavy line) are arranged to form an endless repeat pattern.

The military supremacy that had helped make the Ottomans 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 an ornament such as the rare silver gilt example in LACMA's collection (fig. 52). 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. 53) 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 royal audience.

LACMA’s collection includes a page from another dispersed royal Safavid manuscript of the Shahnama (fig. 54), produced for Shah Isma‘il II (r. 1576 –77) in Qazwin, then the capital of Iran. The painting depicts the contest between the shah Khusraw Parviz, and Bahram Chubina, a would-be usurper, who would soon be defeated with the aid of the Byzantine army. It bears a contemporary attribution to the artist cAli Asghar, whose son Riza-yi cAbbasi was the foremost painter of the seventeenth century (see fig. 55).

These Shahnama manuscripts 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 of 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 India.

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 manuscripts.

Man with pitchfork
Tile panel for a spandrel
Pouring vessel
fig. 58 Bowl
The Ardabil carpet

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 with 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. 55), is inscribed with the name Riza-yi cAbbasi and dated 4th of Safar A.H. 1044 (July 11th, A.D. 1634). 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 brush strokes) 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. 56). 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 spring.

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. 57) 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 somewhat 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. 58).

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. 59), whose better-known mate is displayed 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. 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

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Text by Linda Komaroff, PhD, curator of Islamic art.
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