For Muslims, the Qur’an constitutes the very word of God. As Sara Plumbly, Head of Islamic & Indian Art at Christie's London, explains, the imperative to clearly and elegantly transcribe these words has made calligraphy the ‘oldest and most revered of the arts of Islam’. According to some, indeed, calligraphy is considered ‘the epitome of Islamic art’.
On 27 April, Christie’s will bring to auction an extraordinary group of Qur’ans that demonstrate the evolution of the copying of the Qur’an across the centuries. Taken together, these beautiful works reflect a real range both in terms of calligraphy and illumination.
One outstanding piece, a Kufic folio on blue vellum, comes from one of the most important early Qur’ans that we know of today, with calligraphy copied in gold and outlined by red. ‘There is ongoing debate as to the precise attribution, but it is generally accepted that it was copied in the 9th century, in Tunisia,’ Plumbly explains. ‘The roundels, which would have marked every verse of the Qur’an, would originally have been a vivid, sparkling silver, and the whole thing would have been even more lavish that it appears today.’
Two Qur’ans, produced in Morocco in the mid-16th to early 17th century, were copied in a style of script known as maghribi, typified by distinctive downward loops. Both pieces give the names of the patrons who commissioned them, which, says Plumbly, reveals ‘that there was a real interest in the production of luxurious Qur’an manuscripts at that period’.
Qur'ans could be as expansive in size as they could be minuscule. The former is reflected in a single line from one monumental Qur’an — the so-called Baysunghur Qur’an, copied circa 1420 — which would have contained some 800 bifolios. As Plumbly explains, ‘it's really unlike anything else that's been produced before or since.’
The giant Baysunghur Qur’an contrasts sharply with a 19th-century example from Qajar Iran, written in ghubari script. Here, Plumbly explains, ‘the scribe has shown real dexterity by trying to make the text as small as he possibly can. It’s really quite remarkable to think that in just 30 pages the scribe has managed to copy the entire Qur’an, with amazing attention to detail and skill of the hand.’
Qur’ans, of course, were often incredibly lavish. One beautifully illuminated example, copied in Shiraz, central Iran, in the Safavid period (circa 1550-80), features two different scripts on gold-sprinkled paper. ‘It's the most lavish of commissions, only really made for the most illustrious of patrons,’ the specialist says.
Each of these exceptional pieces will be offered in Christie’s Art of the Islamic and Indian Worlds sale, on 27 April in London. You can view all the lots in the sale below.