Through all the reach of Islam, from Granada to Delhi and Samarkand, kings and nobles used geniuses and slaves to raise mosques and mausoleums, to paint and fire tiles, to weave and dye silks and rugs, to beat metal and carve wood and ivory, to illuminate manuscripts with liquid color and line. The Il-Khans, the Timurids, the Ottomans, the Mamluks, even the petty dynasties that ruled the frailer fragments of Islam, maintained the Oriental tradition of tempering pillage with poetry, and assassination with art. In rural villages and urban palaces wealth graduated into beauty, and a fortunate few enjoyed the nearness of things tempting to the touch or fair to see.
The mosque was still the collective shrine of Moslem arts. There brick and tile composed the lyric of the minaret; portals of faïence broke into flashing colors the ardor of the sun; the pulpit displayed the carved contours or inlaid intricacies of its wood; the splendor of the mihrab pointed the worshiper to Mecca; grilles and chandeliers offered their metal lacery as homage to Allah; rugs softened tiled floors and cushioned praying knees; precious silks enveloped illuminated Korans. At Tabriz Clavijo marveled at “beautiful mosques adorned with tiles in blue and gold”;43 and at Isfahan one of Uljaitu’s viziers set up in the Friday Mosque a mihrab in which prosaic stucco became a lure of arabesques and lettering. Uljaitu himself raised at Sultaniya a sumptuous mausoleum (1313), planning to bring to it the remains of Ali and Husein, the founder saints of the Shi’a sect; the plan miscarried graciously, and the Khan’s own bones were housed in this imposing cenotaph. Immense and majestic are the ruins of the mosque at Varamin (1326).
Timur loved to build, and stole architectural ideas, as well as silver and gold, from the victims of his arms. Like a conqueror, he favored mass, as symbolizing his empire and his will; like a nouveau riche he loved color, and carried decoration to extravagance. Charmed by the glazed blue tiles of Herat, he drew Persian potters to Samarkand to face with gleaming slabs the mosques and palaces of his capital; soon the city shone and sparkled with glorified clay. At Damascus he noted a bulbous dome swelling out above the base and then tapering upward to a point; he bade his engineers take its plan and measurements before it fell in the general conflagration; he topped Samarkand with such domes, and spread the style between India and Russia, so that it ranges now from the Taj Mahal to the Red Square. When he returned from India he brought back so many artists and artisans that they raised for him in three months a gigantic mosque—the “Church of the King”—with a portal 100 feet high and a ceiling upheld by 480 pillars of stone. For his sister Tchouchouk Bika he built the funerary mosque that became the architectural masterpiece of his reign.44 When he ordered a mosque to honor the memory of his chief wife, Bibi Khanun, he supervised the construction himself, threw meat to the workers in the excavations and coins to assiduous artisans, and inspired or compelled all to work con furia until winter halted building and cooled his architectural fire.
His descendants achieved a maturer art. At Mashhad, on the way from Tehran to Samarkand, Shah Rukh’s enterprising wife, Gawhar Shad, engaged the architect Qavam ad-Din to build the mosque that bears her name (1418). It is the most gorgeous and colorful production of Moslem Persian architecture.45 Minarets carrying exquisite “lanterns” guard the shrine. Four lordly arches lead into a central court, each faced with faïence tiles “never equaled before or since”46—a splendor of time-defying color in a hundred forms of arabesque and geometrical patterns and floral motives and stately Kufic script, all made more brilliant by the Persian sun. Over the southwest “Portico of the Sanctuary” a dome of blue tiles rivals the sky; and on the portal, in large white letters on a blue ground, is the proud and pious dedication of the Queen:
Her Highness, the Noble in Greatness, the Sun of the Heaven of Chastity and Continence .... Gawhar Shad—may her greatness be eternal, and may her chastity endure!... from her private property, and for the benefit of her future state, and for the day on which the works of everyone will be judged, with zeal for Allah and with thankfulness .... built this great Masjid-i-Jami, the Holy House, in the reign of the Great Sultan, the Lord of Rulers, the Father of Victory, Shah Rukh.... May Allah make eternal his Kingdom and Empire! And may He increase on the inhabitants of the world His Goodness, His Justice, and His Generosity! 47
The mosque of Gawhar Shad was but one of a complex of buildings that made Mashhad the Rome of the Shi’a sect. There the worshipers of Imam Riza, in the course of thirty generations, have accumulated an architectural ensemble of arresting splendor: graceful minarets, dominating domes, archways faced with luminous tiles or with plates of silver or gold, spacious courts whose blue and white mosaic or faïence return the greeting of the sun: here, in an overwhelming panorama of color and form, Persian art has wielded all its magic to honor a saint and awe the pilgrim into piety.
From Azerbaijan to Afghanistan a thousand mosques rose in this age out of the soil of Islam, for the poetry of faith is as precious to man as the fruits of the earth. To us of the West, imprisoned in the provinces of the mind, these shrines are but empty names, and even to honor them with these curt obeisances may weary us. What does it mean to us that Gawhar Shad received for her chaste bones a lovely mausoleum at Herat; that Shiraz rebuilt its Masjid-i-Jami in the fourteenth century; that Yazd and Isfahan added resplendent mihrabs to their Friday Mosques? We are too far away in space and years and thought to feel these grandeurs, and those who worship in them have little taste for our Gothic audacities or the sensual images of our Renaissance. Yet even we must be moved when, standing before the ruins of the Blue Mosque at Tabriz (1437–67), we recall its once famed glory of blue faïence and golden arabesques; and we are not unmindful that Mohammed II and Bajazet II raised at Constantinople (1463, 1497) mosques almost rivaling St. Sophia’s majesty. The Ottomans took Byzantine plans, Persian portals, Armenian domes, and Chinese decorative themes to form their mosques at Brusa, Nicaea, Nicomedia, and Konia. In architecture, at least, Moslem art was still in apogee.
Only one art—a David before Goliath—dared stand up to architecture in Islam. Perhaps even more honored than the makers of mosques were the masters of calligraphy and the patient miniaturists who illuminated books with the infinitesimal calculus of the brush or pen. Murals were painted, but from this period none survives. Portraits were painted, and a few remain. The Ottomans publicly obeyed the Biblical and Koranic prohibition of graven images, but Mohammed II imported Gentile Bellini from Venice to Constantinople (1480) to make the likeness of him that now hangs in the London National Gallery. Copies exist of alleged portraits of Timur. In general the Mongol converts to Islam preferred the traditions of Chinese art to the taboos of the Mohammedan faith. From China they brought into Persian illumination dragons, phoenixes, cloud forms, saintly halos, and moonlike faces, and mated them creatively with Persian styles of limpid color and pure line. The mingling modes were closely kin. Chinese and Persian miniaturists alike painted for aristocrats of perhaps too refined a taste, and sought rather to please the imagination and the sense than to represent objective forms.
The great centers of Islamic illumination in this age were Tabriz, Shiraz, and Herat. Probably from the Tabriz of the Il-Khans come the fifty-five leaves of the “De Motte” Shah-nama—Firdausi’s Book of Kings—painted by divers artists in the fourteenth century. But it was at Herat, under the Timurid rulers, that Persian miniature painting touched its zenith. Shah Rukh engaged a large staff of artists, and his son Baisunkur Mirza founded an academy devoted to calligraphy and illumination. From this school of Herat came theShah-nama (1429)—a miracle of glowing color and flowing gracenow so carefully hidden and religiously handled in the Gulistan Palace Library at Tehran. To view it for the first time is like discovering the odes of Keats.
The real Keats of illumination—the “Raphael of the East”—was Kamal al-Dim Bihzad. He knew in life, and reflected in art, the terrors and vicissitudes of war. Born at Herat about 1440, he studied at Tabriz, then returned to Herat to paint for Sultan Husein ibn-Baiqara and his versatile vizier Mir Ali Shir Nawa’i. When Herat became the center of Uzbeg and Safavid campaigns Bihzad moved again to Tabriz. He was among the first Persian painters to sign their works, yet his art remains are literally few and far between. Two miniatures in the Royal Egyptian Library at Cairo, illustrating Sa’di’s Bustan, show some theologians debating their mysteries in a mosque; the manuscript bears the date 1489, and the colophon reads: “Painted by the slave, the sinner, Bihzad.” The Freer Gallery in Washington has a Portrait of a Young Man Painting, copied from Gentile Bellini and signed “Bihzad”; the fine hands reveal the two artists—portrayer and portrayed. Less certainly his are the miniatures in a British Museum copy of Nizami’s Khamza,and in the same treasury a manuscript of a Zafar-nama, or Book of the Victories of Timur.
These relics hardly explain Bihzad’s unrivaled reputation. They reveal a sensitive perception of persons and things, an ardor and range of color, a vivacity of action caught in a delicate accuracy of line; but they can hardly compare with the miniatures painted for the Duke of Berry almost a century before. Yet Bihzad’s contemporaries felt that he had revolutionized illumination by his original patterns of composition, his vivid landscapes, his carefully individualized figures almost leaping into life. The Persian historianKhwandamir, who was near fifty when Bihzad died (c. 1523), said of him, perhaps with the prejudice of friendship: “His draughtsmanship has caused the memory of all other painters in the world to be obliterated; his fingers, endowed with miraculous qualities, have erased the pictures of all other artists among the sons of Adam.”48 It should chasten our certitudes to reflect that this was written after Leonardo had painted The Last Supper, Michelangelo the Sistine Chapel ceiling, and Raphael the Stanze of the Vatican, and that Khwandamir had probably never heard their names.
The art of the potter declined in this epoch from its finesse in Seljuq Rayy and Kashan. Rayy had been laid in ruins by earthquakes and Mongol raids, and Kashan devoted most of its kilns to tiles. New ceramic centers, however, rose at Sultaniya, Yazd, Tabriz, Herat, Isfahan, Shiraz, and Samarkand. Mosaic faïence was now a favored product: small slabs of earthenware, each painted in one metallic color, and glazed to a brilliance that only needed care for permanence. When patrons were opulent, Persian builders used such faïence not only for mihrabs and decoration, but even to cover large surfaces of mosque portals or walls; there is an arresting example in a mihrab—from the mosque of Baba Kasin (c. 1354)—in the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York.
The metalworkers of Islam maintained their skill. They made bronze doors and chandeliers for mosques from Bokhara to Marraqesh, though none quite matched Ghiberti’s “gates to paradise” (1401–52) in the Baptistery of Florence. They forged the best armor of the age—helmets conically shaped to deflect descending blows, shields of shining iron encrusted with silver or gold, swords inlaid with golden lettering or flowers. They made handsome coins, and such medallions as that which preserves the pudgy profile of Mohammed the Conqueror, and great brass candlesticks engraved with stately Kufic script or delicate floral forms; they cast and adorned incense burners, writing cases, mirrors, caskets, braziers, flasks, ewers, basins, trays; even scissors and compasses were artistically chased. A like superiority was conceded to the Moslem artist-artisans who cut gems, or worked with precious metals, or carved or inlaid ivory or wood. The textile remains are fragmentary, but the miniatures of the time picture a vast variety of beautiful fabrics, from the fine linens of Cairo to the silken tents of Samarkand; indeed it was the illuminators who designed the complex yet logical patterns for Mongol and Timurid brocades, velvets, and silks, and even for those Persian and Turkish rugs that were soon to be the envy of Europe. In the so-called minor arts Islam still led the world.