A historic exhibition of reproductions of miniatures has opened in the Citadel in Herat where many of the pictures were painted in the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries. At that time, Herat was a centre of Islamic art and culture. In the decades that followed, as dynasties fell or moved, the miniatures were scattered, eventually ending up in collections across the world. One hundred of these tiny, precious paintings have now been photographed and enlarged using a special process that gives the reproductions what one of the organisers called “a sheen, a sparkle, a precision of detail… that enables whole crowds of people to see them.” AAN’s Kate Clark looks at what makes this particular homecoming so special.Posters announcing the miniatures exhibition on the Citadel in Herat (Photo: Michael Barry 2017)
A rather extraordinary exhibition opened in Herat on 2 December 2017: reproductions of one hundred miniatures, treasures of Islamic civilisation, went on display in the historic Citadel. The paintings largely date from the fifteenth century when Herat was the seat of the powerful Timurid court. Artists, at the time, illustrated calligraphic texts of poems with meticulously painted scenes. They drew on the poets of the region for inspiration: Ferdowsi, who wrote the Shahnameh in Ghazni in the tenth century, Sadi, from Shiraz in modern-day Iran, and the Herati Jami. The most famous miniaturist of them all was Kamal al-Din Behzad (roughly 1450-1535) whose workshop in Herat attracted artists from the region. As in early Renaissance Europe, the wealth of artistry was also the consequence of enlightened patronage. Queen Gawharshad, wife of the ruler, Shahrukh, was a key connoisseur or poetry and miniatures.
With the demise of the Timurid dynasty, the court of the successor Mughals based themselves in Kabul after 1507, and subsequently in Agra in present-day India. Many of the miniatures that had been created in Herat went along with these moves, while others were taken to Tabriz, now in Iran. For the first time since, the miniatures can again be viewed on Afghan soil, in the splendid setting of the citadel of Qala-ye Ikhtyaruddin that was the seat of power of Timurid rulers and, after falling into disrepair, was restored between 2007 and 2010.
The eastern Timurid sultan, Husain Mirza of Herat, consults a holy man outside the city, with the Citadel in the background, illustration by Behzad of Nizami’s Alexander Romance, Herat 1494; original in the British Library. This and the following miniature are from a precious volume that belonged in the 16th century to the fabulous collections of the eastern Timurid rulers Babur and his son Humayun in Kabul. It was taken by Humayun to India in 1555 and from there to Britain three centuries later. (Photo: Michael Barry 2017)
Among those viewing the exhibition, Shirazuddin Siddiqi from Kabul, described how the restored Citadel, “one of the most magnificent Timurid monuments in Afghanistan and a heritage for humanity,” had “desperately needed the return of its own spirit.” Seeing the miniatures in the Citadel, he said, was like the restoration of “its soul.” There is a harmony and grace in the Herat School miniatures, as Professor Michael Barry, a global authority on Medieval Islamic art whose idea it was to hold the exhibition, (1) describes:
They created in brilliant mineral pigments – lapis for blue, malachite for green, orpiment
for yellow, cinnabar for red and lavish gold and silver – a fairy tale world. Figures float across backdrops of flower gardens or brilliant architecture – all conveying the deepest spiritual ideas of Sufism.
The spiritual significance of these paintings was evident at the time. The greatest painter of them all, Behzad, “was endorsed by the highest spiritual authorities,” said Barry, “his paintings considered sacred.” Another of the organisers, Rohullah Amin, Director of the American Institute of Afghan Studies in Kabul, said he struggled to find the vocabulary to describe the paintings.
It is meticulous, fine work, done when there were no magnifying glasses – quite amazing. The painters show beards, eye-lashes, eye brows. And they are also phenomenal summaries of stories, Sufi religious sentiments and philosophy, all in one image. So sophisticated, so rich, Each image is like a book.
After paying a 20 Afghani (about 30 cents) admission fee to the Citadel, members of the public can now view masterpieces that were painted for kings and queens. They can actually see them far better than the original patrons may have done, making out details that, in the originals, are barely visible to any but the sharpest eye. Having been widely dispersed between different collections or pages of manuscripts over the years, the miniatures can now be seen side by side. Professor Barry, whose research located many of the paintings that have now been brought together in Herat, said all of this makes the Herat exhibition a landmark.
Even where the paintings exist, light destroys them, so they are kept in the dark. So only a technical breakthrough, whereby we could reproduce these paintings on metal – which gives them a sheen, a sparkle, a precision of detail – and enables whole crowds to see them, taking the position of kings. Even if you have a completely preserved manuscript, you can only display one or two pages, but in this system, we can see the whole book. It is very palpable. You see the pictures on the wall, instead of just surfing through them on a computer.
Boys and girls in school in a mosque, from Nizami’s romance of Layli and Majnun, illustrated by Behzad, Herat 1494; original in British Library. (Photo: Michael Barry 2017)
Responses to the pictures
Rohullah Amin was struck by how familiar the faces in the paintings are, like people you would see on the streets of Herat today, “They tell you a lot about the past,” he said and that informs the present. When some people say to other people ‘You don’t belong to this land,’ these pictures say that everyone belongs to this piece of land, shares its resources, shares an identity. They tell us who we are and where we came from.”
For Amin, the exhibition also pointed to “our rare, amazing history” and the country’s central position in the world historically: “A merchant could travel to Beijing, Istanbul, Tabriz or Venice and Herat was in the middle. Barry, who is both an art historian and someone who has spent decades working on humanitarian and human rights projects in Afghanistan, says the recognition of Herat and Kabul’s place in Islamic culture is important for Afghans and the world.
They were not provincial, or out-of-the-way centres. They were hearths of creativity. They were not simply recipients of cultural influences from neighbouring Iran or India, or mere footnotes of the civilisations of Iran or India as they are often represented. They were the dynamic centres from which such civilisations radiated. Something that takes my breath away is when in museums in Europe and north America, things are labelled as “Herat (Iran),” as if the people of this city did not exist. One can’t pretend a kingdom called Afghanistan existed in the fourteenth century, but the people of Kabul and Herat are the legitimate heirs of what their ancestors created, as much as anywhere else in the world…Part of reconstructing this ravaged country is to remind Afghans of what their ancestors were able to achieve, as a way of reinforcing morale to confront he present and the future.”
For Shirazuddin Siddiqi too, the exhibition has had a wider significance, an appreciation of how Islamic art includes the figurative. Amin also felt the same: “Our religion and culture and society was not what the Salafists say today,” said Amin. “It was tolerant.”
Ahmad Shah Durrani at the Battle of Panipat in 1761 (detail), original in the British Library (Photo: Michael Barry 2017)
The Herat School in the world
The influence of the Herat school extended well beyond the territory of what is now Afghanistan. In 1545, when the Mughal emperor Babur’s son Homayun retreated from India to Kabul in the face of dynastic rivals, he was, said Michael Barry, “smitten” when he saw the miniatures that had been taken forty years previously from Herat to Kabul. He invited the surviving artists from Herat and further afield, including Tabriz in Iran, to come to Kabul where a new academy was established. These artists would later follow Humayun back to India and train a generation of new artists. “So the Mughal style,” Barry told AAN, “is daughter of the school of Kabul and granddaughter of the school of Herat.” The name of Herat also persisted in wider Islamic culture. “The Mughals in India, the Ottomans in Istanbul and the Safavids in Iran,” said Barry, regarded Herat as the model of perfection, like Florence is for Europeans.” Even more recently, Barry said, when the French impressionist, Henri Matisse saw Behzad’s miniatures for the first time in 1903 in Paris, he was overwhelmed by their beauty. “They completely changed his manner of painting and through Matisse and his colour and composition, the Herat school has influenced all modern art.”
Babur’s Gardens in Kabul with all the princes of the House of Timur, by Mir Musawwir and his son Mir Sayyid Ali (founders of the Mughal school of art), Kabul, around 1550, original in the British Museum (Photo: Michael Barry 2017)
More exhibitions planned
For those who cannot get to Herat, a second exhibition of miniatures is already planned for Kabul, to be held in Bagh-e Babur around Nawruz 2018 and with a focus on what was painted in the city. It will conclude with a reproduction of the epic Late Mughal depiction of Afghanistan’s founding king, Ahmad Shah Durrani, at the Battle of Panipat in 1761. Other exhibitions could also take place in other Afghan cities themed with their location – miniatures illustrating Jalaluddin Rumi’s poetry in Mazar-e Sharif, or of the Shahnameh in Ghazni. The beauty of showing high quality reproductions, artworks in their own right, means that many further exhibitions and locations are now possible.
(1) The American Institute of Afghanistan Studies was the key organisation behind the exhibition, with the French and American embassies funding it.
This article was last updated on 9 Mar 2020