Decoded: 17 things you can read in this Safavid court painting
Specialist Andrew Butler Wheelhouse brings to light the secrets of an Islamic work of art
This painted illustration appears in a manuscript that was once owned by Abbas I, the fifth Safavid Shah of Persia, who reigned from 1588-1629. The black impression that appears in the margin is the seal of Shah Abbas, and confirms that he gave the work to the shrine at Ardabil. It is dated AH 1017, or 1608-09 AD.
Sa’di’s story tells of a dervish — a Sufi religious figure — who arrives at a river at the same moment as the poet. Sa’di pays for his crossing, but the dervish, who has no money, is left behind. During the crossing, Sa’di feels remorse at the dervish’s fate. When he hears laughter, however, he turns to see him crossing the river on his prayer rug.
The dervish is depicted wearing a conical hat, which would have been woollen — indeed, the word Sufi actually comes from the Arabic word for wool. Dervishes typically follow an itinerant, monk-like existence, living in poverty.
The dervish holds a strand of traditional prayer beads, or tasbih, which are moved around by the hands during worship, not unlike rosary beads in the Christian tradition.
The dervish floats behind Sa’di on a white prayer rug — the three quatrefoil shapes pointing in the direction of Mecca. Just below, a clay tablet, turbah or mohr, is used by Shia Muslims in prayer — the Safavid dynasty having established Shia Islam as the state religion of Iran.
Though Sa’di pre-dates the painting, the medieval poet is dressed in the fashions of the early 1600s, his large turban sporting a flowing train of fabric. Contrastingly, two other figures wear long caps with fur trim, much closer in style to the headgear of the 15th century — the same period when the calligraphy of the text was copied.
On the boat, an inscription in black reads waqf, or ‘pious endowment’, confirming — like the Shah’s seal — that the manuscript was given as a gift to the Safavid shrine. Such a practice was not uncommon, and would have been a show of wealth. The shrine itself was filled with treasures, with one room notably devoted to costly Chinese porcelain.
The boat is based on a European sailing ship, with three masts and a raised stern at the back. At the time this work was made, Persians would have come into contact with the Portuguese, who had set up outposts in the region as part of their trading Empire. The shape of this boat shows the contact between these two worlds.
The artist who created this painting had probably seen cannons on Western ships — although he had perhaps not fully understood how they would have been integrated into the ship’s design. Here, a figure in a red hat loads a cannon in preparation for potential attack.
The passengers on the ship represent a number of different ethnicities, with their costumes offering some clues. Behind the man loading the cannon, for example, is what appears to be another Sufi, wearing a cloak whose texture suggests wool, and carrying a form of walking stick that suggests an itinerant lifestyle.
To the left, a figure manipulates the sail, transcending the boundaries of the image to cross into the margin. This is a common device in manuscript painting — the artist literally intending to create an image that ‘jumps out’ at the reader.
The figure depicted in green at the back of the boat is the poet Sa’di (1210-1291/2), one of the greatest figures in Persian literature. This painting illustrates one of his poems, entitled the Bustan, or Orchard — a series of short, moral anecdotes comparable to Aesop’s fables.
In Islamic painting, birds are often depicted in mating pairs; here, we see the purple head of the male duck alongside the female. The motif was incredibly important in Sufi imagery, representing the link between the divine and a human soul.
Billowing above the boat, the flag features illumination typical of works from the Safavid period, including gold palmettes and foliage. Its practical function, however, is to serve as a windsock, indicating how those in the boat should angle its sail.
If you look closely at the orange rock forms, a figure emerges, with breasts and the head of a bird. Others surround it, in the purple, and perhaps even the green ground; in fact there is a whole mosaic of hidden figures. The tradition is one first begun in Chinese painting.
The grey sea on which Sa’di’s ship sails would originally have been a vibrant silver, which has now oxidised to become darker in tone. Made from a silver solution mixed with gum Arabic, the precious material indicates just how lavish a manuscript this is.
On the reverse of the painting is a manuscript by a calligrapher known to have been working in the 15th century. The painting would have been added to the calligraphy because the latter was valued so highly.