The style and quality of illumination added value to the book as a treasured object

The arts of the book is among the major form of Islamic artistic expression, which also includes the art of textiles, ceramics, metal wares, glass, and woodwork. The art of the book was the most revered of all the arts perhaps due to the great respect accorded to writing the revealed Word of God. Calligraphers were among the most esteemed of artists, penning fine manuscripts of the Qur’an.

The  great respect for writing the revealed word extended into the artistic production of secular texts including literary works, scientific research, and albums of portraits, especially in Iran, Turkey, and India. Most manuscripts were also finely decorated. The visual embellishment of a written text may take two forms: calligraphy – writing the text in an elegant style, or decorating the written text by encasing it within a designed panel, to indicate or celebrate the importance of the text. Illumination serves for visual impact, guiding the reader’s eye towards significant or useful sections of text such as chapter-headings, the start of an official letter or the opening and closing pages of a volume.

 

 

In early times, the calligrapher was responsible for the illumination, but from the fourteenth century on, the crafts became increasing specialised.

Illumination
A diploma granted to Muḥammad Tawfīq Afandī in 1848-49. Image: Islamic Studies Library, McGill University

The style and quality of the illuminated page indicated the manuscript’s origin and added value to the book as a treasured art object. Artists used a wide range of designs including spiralling plants, geometric patterns, interlocking circles, and other forms.

A very sophisticated art of decoration surrounding the text developed, first in the Qur’an manuscripts and later in secular texts. A luxurious book was an object of respect as well as a collector’s item thereby leading to the development of diverse forms of decoration ranging from calligraphy, finely tooled bindings, costly paper, and intricate illumination.

Beginning in the sixteenth century, the role of the illuminator was as important as that of the calligrapher.

Page of Nasta‘liq Calligraphy Signed by Prince Dara Shikoh (d. 1659)Burhanpur, India, dated 1631–32 (border 18th century). Aga Khan Museum
Page of Nasta‘liq Calligraphy Signed by Prince Dara Shikoh (d. 1659)Burhanpur, India, dated 1631–32 (border 18th century). Aga Khan Museum

Sources:
Sheila Blair, Islamic Art (accessed February 2017)
Arts of the Book & Calligraphy, Treasures of the Aga Khan Museum (accessed February 2017)
Islamic Studies Library, McGill University (accessed February 2017)

Compiled by Nimira Dewji

 

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