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Late Medieval Period: Art


Fostered by the Mongol invasions of the mid-thirteenth century, and inculcated with a new taste, especially for Chinese designs and motifs, a new style of art was disseminated throughout Islamic lands. This was a time of brilliant creativity, in which certain preexisting techniques reached their greatest heights and fresh modes of artistic expression were invented. This period is likewise marked by strong dynastic patrons, often foreigners in their own lands, who sought to legitimize their rule and emphasize their own acculturation through vigorous sponsorship of the arts.

Perhaps the most profound impact of the Mongol invasions on the arts of Iran was the new role of manuscript illustration, which became a significant and influential forum for courtly patronage. Beginning in the early fourteenth century, the main focus of Ilkhanid patronage was historical works and epic poems. The former were written expressly for the dynasty, whose history and achievements they glorified, while the latter represent the continuation of an existing genre, exemplified by the Iranian national epic, the Shahnama, which tells of the pre-Islamic kings and heroes of Iran.

King Khusraw Parviz Listening to Barbad the Concealed Musician
The Appearance of Sakyamuni (the Buddha) after his Death
fig. 29 Cup
Star and cross tiles

Early fourteenth-century versions of the Shahnama were copied and illustrated in Tabriz, the Ilkhanid capital, as well as in Baghdad and in Shiraz, in southern Iran. A specific style of painting is associated with each of these centers for manuscript production, yet all early fourteenth-century Shahnama illustrations share certain basic features, many of which persist in subsequent manuscript illustration. A page from an early fourteenth-century Shahnama in the collection, Khusraw Parviz Listening to Barbad the Concealed Musician (fig. 27), depicts the story of the Sasanian ruler Khusraw Parviz and the musician Barbad, who performed concealed in a tree in the hope of attracting the shah’s patronage. Here Khusraw Parviz is shown seated in a garden, surrounded by entertainers and courtiers. Although the text of the Shahnama is set in a mythic past, both ruler and members of the court are clothed in the style of the day, and their facial features and hairstyles are those of the Mongols. Similarly, in other paintings of the period, representations of architecture, furnishings, or other accoutrements reflect contemporary life. Yet these book paintings should not be regarded as, nor were they intended to be viewed as, realistic or necessarily accurate depictions; they are, first and foremost, book illustrations, meant to be understood and appreciated within the context of the accompanying text. In fact, they portray an idealized world, one in which the sky may be gold, while the colors of the landscape, though beautiful and harmonious, may include hues not found in nature. Kings, heroes, and courtly figures likewise are depicted as idealized types, and they reflect the ethnicity of the ruling elite; thus the ancient Iranian kings are recast as Mongol sovereigns.

This identification between the contemporary ruler, often himself not a Persian, and ancient Iranian kings was deliberate and significant. It is generally accepted that the Ilkhanids and their successors made use of the arts of the book to further their own political agendas, using manuscript illustration to justify and legitimize the ruling elite. In initiating a tradition of Persian illustrated manuscript production, the Ilkhanids also instituted a tradition of politically motivated patronage of this medium, which helped ensure its cultural and aesthetic importance for some three hundred years.

The museum’s collection also encompasses paintings from Persian manuscripts of the fifteenth century, such as illustrations from manuscripts of the Shahnama and from the Khamsa (Quintet), a romantic epic by the twelfth-century poet Nizami. The collection is especially rich in paintings produced in western Iran, under Turkman Aq Quyunlu patronage, but also contains manuscript illustration from Herat, where the Timurid court sponsored the creation of some of the finest examples of the arts of the book, including historical as well as literary works (e.g., fig. 28).

Even before the Mongol invasions, footed cups and bowls in silver gilt, as well as gold, were produced in the greater Iranian world. Such luxury vessels seem to have had a special place in the Mongol society, particularly among the branch of the dynasty known as the Golden Horde, where they were viewed as articles of prestige and power. A handsome silver gilt cup in LACMA's collection (fig. 29) must have once rested on a foot, to judge by the markings on its underside. Exceptionally, this example may also have had a separately attached handle, which is suggested by the break in the scrolling vegetal decoration beneath the rim and the perforation directly below.

As a by-product of the Mongol invasions and subsequent establishment of Ilkhanid rule, new motifs of Chinese inspiration – including lotuses and peonies, cloud bands, and dragons and phoenixes – became part of the vocabulary of ornament. Four star-and-cross tiles (fig. 30) demonstrate this new taste, as well as a new technique (related to mina’i) known as lajvardina, whose distinctive blue color evokes its namesake, lajvard, the Persian word for lapis lazuli. Here, the deep blue tiles were intended to form clusters alternating with the turquoise ones. Tiles such as these served as architectural revetment and were produced in molds, which accounts for the repetition and duplication of motifs (compare the two cross tiles). While the specific form and relief decoration were dictated by the molds, which could be used over and over, each tile was individually decorated. The deep blue or turquoise was applied first, and then the gold, followed by the other colors (e.g., red, black, and white), was applied and fixed in a second firing.

The bold dragon and soaring phoenix that each decorate the star tiles may have been inspired by similar motifs on Chinese pottery and especially textiles, both of which were widely exported to western Asia as luxury goods. These tiles were apparently produced in the same molds as tiles excavated at Takht-i Sulayman, the site of a ruined Mongol palace in northwestern Iran, built in the 1270s. These four tiles likewise may have been produced for the same building, where they would have been part of a grander assemblage of star-and-cross tiles surmounted by larger rectangular relief tiles, decorated in the luster technique. Such a spectacular ensemble of brilliantly colored tilework, gleaming with gold and glittering with luster, would have been worthy of a royal palace.

The collection includes several other molded relief tiles in luster and lajvardina. One such luster frieze tile, again associated with Takht-i Sulayman, displays a complicated figural scene. Others are decorated with writing and must have formed parts of epigraphic friezes that were used to decorate both secular and religious structures. As the primary building material in the medieval Iranian world was baked brick, such tile revetments provided a colorful and luxurious sheathing for the interior of the building, while less fragile and costly tiles would have covered the exterior of the most important buildings, including palaces, mosques, and other religious edifices, such as tombs.

fig. 31 Tile
fig. 32 Tile
Muqarnas decoration
fig. 33 Muqarnas Decoration

One of the most important examples of tilework in the collection is a luster panel (fig. 31) dating to the early fourteenth century and very likely a product of Kashan, the center of lusterware production. This tile panel represents the upper portion of what was undoubtedly a larger ensemble, possibly a mihrab. The panel’s molded relief decoration includes an elegant Kufic inscription that surrounds its borders. Its text, a passage from the Qur'an that refers to paradise, suggests that this mihrab may have once graced a funerary monument.

Glazed ceramic tile is one of the glories of Islamic art. In the Iranian world, where building material was a dun-colored baked brick, tile revetment provided a vivid means of embellishing important monuments. There is a tremendous amount of variety in Iranian tile decoration of the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries. Among the many diverse types the most complicated and time consuming was so-called mosaic faience, as represented by a star-shaped tile belonging to LACMA (fig. 32). Here the elements of the floral design, which would likely have been based on a paper drawing, were cut from different-colored glazed tiles that were assembled like a mosaic and fixed with mortar. The star-shaped tile thus formed would have been set in place on the exterior of the building, where it would join other such tiles or panels as part of a larger, more complicated program of design.

This tile belongs to the period of Timurid rule (1370–1506). Many members of this dynasty, both male and female, were prodigious builders who sponsored the construction of religious institutions and foundations that were often built on an enormous scale. Royal residences were also erected, although few have survived. It is therefore most likely that this star-shaped tile once formed part of the façade of a religious monument of the Timurid period, when court-sponsored buildings were, as never before, clothed in an elaborate decorative covering of brilliant glazed tile.

In addition to mosaic tiles, another type of colorful ceramic revetment was produced during this period in a technique known as cuerda seca (dry cord). Developed in Iran in the later fourteenth century, cuerda seca was designed to produce multicolored glazed tile decoration quickly, efficiently, and cheaply. To prevent the different glazes from running during the (single) firing process, the decorative motifs were outlined with a greasy pigment that burned off in the firing, leaving behind a dull, dark line.

The cuerda seca technique was introduced to western Anatolia in the early fifteenth century, probably by a group of Iranian master artists from Tabriz, whose work decorates an Ottoman royal mosque complex in Bursa. An important example of cuerda seca tilework, possibly from the same building complex, is in the museum’s collection (fig. 33). This ceramic revetment was molded in the form of muqarnas, stalactite- or honeycomb-like elements used as decoration in Islamic architecture. It is painted in a typical color scheme of dark blue, turquoise, white, and yellow. Muqarnas elements such as this one were produced in modular units and later set into place on building façades.

Folio of poetry
Folio of poetry
Calligraphic panel

As in preceding periods of Islamic art, calligraphy remained an important decorative element, although in the late medieval period new cursive scripts were introduced or popularized. Nastacliq, a distinctive type of hanging script, was developed during this period; it was used primarily for copying Persian poetry, not only on paper but also in inscriptions on a variety of objects. Persian texts of this period, and of the succeeding late Islamic period, were most often copied in this elegant, refined script. Poetry written in Turkic languages was also rendered in the Nastacliq script. The last great Timurid ruler, Sultan-Husayn Bayqara, whose court at Herat in the late fifteenth century was the preeminent Persian cultural center of its day, also wrote poetry in his Turkic mother tongue; these poems were collected and copied in a now-dispersed manuscript, several pages of which are in the museum’s collection (figs. 34 and 35). Here the exquisite Nastacliq calligraphy was not written with a pen but cut from sheets of colored paper and meticulously pasted onto the page, which has gold-flecked borders. This remarkable type of calligraphic paper cutout, or decoupage, is known as qitca.

By this period cursive scripts had largely replaced Kufic for inscriptions in both architectural decoration and decorative arts. The collection includes a number of excellent examples of beautiful calligraphy, one of which is an inscription on a carved wood panel from a door (fig. 36). The inscription on this panel consists of the signature of its maker: "made by Husayn ibn (son of) Master Ahmad, woodcarver of Sari" (in the Iranian province of Mazandaran, in the southern Caspian region), whose family members – including his father, brother, and uncle – evidently shared the same profession, to judge by the signatures on several other examples of wood carving. Written in Thulth, a monumental script with large, rounded proportions, the seven words of the inscription are deeply carved in three horizontal registers and set against a scrolling leaf background; the tall, vertical letters of the lowest register are elongated so that they intersect with the letters of the lines above.

fig. 37 Lamp
fig. 38 Candlestick
Cupboard Door
fig. 39 Cupboard Door
Textile with astrological symbol
fig. 40 Textile with Astrological Symbol

As already indicated, inscriptions in Islamic art served twin functions: to inform and to decorate. Such is the case with a sumptuous enameled and gilt glass oil lamp, produced in Mamluk Syria or Egypt (fig. 37). Today, though the lamp has been removed from its original setting, its boldly rhythmic Thulth inscriptions, as well as its distinctive decoration, help to reconstruct its context. The Arabic inscription on the neck of the lamp quotes from a very famous verse in the Qur'an (xxiv.35), in which the light of God is likened to the light from an oil lamp. This indicates that the lamp was in fact produced for a religious setting. Only the first few words of this section of the verse have been transcribed ("God is the Light of the heavens and of the earth"), but they are a sufficient a reminder of the entire verse, of which the lamp itself is a tangible visual re-creation.

The Mamluks were prodigious patrons of the arts who took a special interest in building religious foundations, which they supplied with all manner of beautiful furnishings, including lamps such as this. According to the inscriptions on the lower part of the lamp, it was commissioned "By order of the most noble authority, the Exalted, the Lordly, the Masterful, holder of the sword, Shaykhu al-Nasiri," a former mamluk of the Sultan al-Nasir Muhammad. This Arabic inscription supplies the name and titles of the person who commissioned the lamp, but there is also a heraldic device, known as a blazon, repeated on the upper and lower sections of the lamp, which specifically pertains to its patron. Taking the form of a circular medallion bearing a red cup set between a red and a black bar, the blazon refers to Shaykhu’s former status as a royal cupbearer. He is known to have built a mosque and a khanqa (Sufi monastery) in Cairo in the mid-fourteenth century, and this lamp was most likely made for one of these structures.

Bold calligraphic bands of Thulth became the main decorative element on Mamluk metalwork in the fourteenth century, as is also evident on brass candlestick in the museum's collection once inlaid with silver and gold, which is circumscribed by a prominent inscriptional band divided into two sections by two large medallions bearing a smaller radial inscription (fig. 38). The inscribed texts supply the name and titles of the Mamluk sultan al-Salih 'Imad al-Din Isma'il (r.1342-45). LAMCA's Islamic holdings are especially rich in the arts of the Mamluk period, including a rare wooden cupboard door inlaid with elaborately carved ivory and wood geometric designs (fig. 39) and an embroidered silk on linen textile fragment decorated with the symbol for the zodiacal sign Sagittarius (fig. 40). The collection, however, is particularly notable for its Mamluk ceramics, whose color scheme and designs reached out beyond the confines of the Mamluk empire.

fig. 41 Tile
Nasrid panel
fig. 42 Nasrid Panel
Textile fragment

As already indicated, the Mongol invasions of western and eastern Asia in the early and mid-thirteenth century had an immeasurable impact on contemporary societies. Although the Mamluks halted the Mongol forces in 1260 at 'Ayn Jalut (Spring of Goliath) in Palestine, the new Chinese-inspired artistic language that had developed in Greater Iran as a consequence of Mongol rule easily penetrated Mamluk art and culture. Direct contact through imported Chinese objects such as textiles and blue-and-white porcelains in the fourteenth century also helped to disseminate a fresh visual vocabulary to Mamluk artists. In addition to outright imitations produced in late fourteenth- and fifteenth-century Syria, fourteenth-century Chinese blue-and-white porcelains also stimulated Mamluk potters to produce tile revetment in cobalt blue (and sometimes black, occasionally with turquoise or green borders) on white ground. The decoration of these hexagonal tiles typically combines Chinese-inspired vegatal motifs with an Islamic preference for symmetry and geometric designs (fig. 41).

The great palatine city, the Alhambra, is the most singular artistic achievement of the Nasrid dynasty of Spain. The Alhambra – the name, a corruption of al-Hamra (the red), may refer to the color of its walls – is situated high on a hill overlooking the city of Granada. Conceived as both a well-fortified palace and a royal city, the Alhambra was protected by heavy stone walls and towers on the exterior, which conceal an elaborate succession of intricately decorated rooms, courtyards, gardens, and fountains on the interior.

The colorful and rich interior of the Alhambra is reflected in the museum’s collection by carved stucco architectural elements (fig. 42), luster tile decoration, and textiles of the period. One textile is decorated with complicated patterns set against a bright red ground (fig. 43). This is an example of the lampas technique, in which multiple, independent designs could be woven in a single cloth on a draw loom. The patterns, as preserved in this fragment, are composed of a band of pomegranates, alternating with a row containing gold-outlined shields surmounted by crowns. Several larger pieces from the same cloth, in other collections, reveal the complete set of designs: The band of pomegranates is repeated, and the row of shields is replaced by a row of crowned rampant lions. The shields are inscribed: "Glory to our Lord, the Sultan," a phrase that is found on a number of other textiles of the Nasrid period. Similar shields inscribed with the dynastic motto: "There is no conqueror save God" are a more common decorative feature of Nasrid art, as on the stucco architectural element (fig. 42).

Many Nasrid textiles, like this one, survive only as fragments; others passed into Christian hands, were converted into church vestments, and were preserved in that form. Three large silk curtains of the period have survived, and these attest to one of the ways sumptuous fabrics were used. The Los Angeles textile and other related pieces may have once formed a similar wall hanging that added to the luxurious ambiance of the Alhambra.

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Image in top banner:
Tile, Greater Iran, fifteenth century; fritware, glazed, cut to shape and assembled as mosaic; framed: 24 1/4 x 23 1/2 x 2 3/4 in. (61.6 x 59.69 x 6.99 cm); The Madina Collection of Islamic Art, gift of Camilla Chandler Frost, M.2002.1.19

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