The paintings in this manuscript include:
The slave girl appears before the secretary of the ‘Abbasid caliph
The Caliph al-Ma’mun, dressed in black, and the daughter of Fazl
The Samanid ruler Nasr ibn Ahmad departs for Bukhara after hearing Rudaki’s verses
‘Unsuri recites a quatrain for Sultan Mahmud of Ghazna
The author recites two couplets for Sultan Sanjar bin Malikshah
Azraqi recites a quatrain for Tughan Shah bin Alp Arslan, who is playing backgammon (nard)
The shamsa at the beginning of this manuscript has the title Majma' al-Nawadir, 'The Compilation of Rarities' which is the original title of the Chahar Maqalah. For a translation of the work see Browne, 1921.
Written in the middle of the 12th century for a member of the Ghurid family of Bamiyan, the Chahar Maqalah, ‘the Four Discourses’, discusses the four professions essential for the Prince's court - those of secretary, poet, astrologer and physician. After describing the natural qualities and training required for each, Nizami 'Arudi relates anecdotes, mostly exemplifying the vicissitudes of life in the profession and the conditions that lead to success. Our manuscript is extremely rare in that it appears to be a unique illustrated copy of the work. The complete paintings are all in the first two sections – those describing the secretary and the poet – and are illustrated with figures including the Samanid ruler Nasir bin Ahmad, Sultan Mahmud of Ghazni and Tughan Shah bin Alp Arslan, presumably setting a context for these tales.
With their courts in Tabriz and Baghdad, the Jalayrids were important patrons of the arts of the illustrated book and behind some of the most impressive manuscripts to survive from the later part of the fourteenth century. Our manuscript, which is dated to 1383 AD, was produced at the very beginning of the reign of Sultan Ahmad (r.1382-1410) when the capital was in Tabriz. His reign saw lavish patronage of the arts and literature, setting high aesthetic standards for the Jalayrid’s successors, the Timurids (Abolala Soudavar, Art of the Persian Courts, New York, 1992, p.50). Survivals of Jalayrid painting are extremely rare, but often have a distinct Byzantine flavour akin to that of late 13th to early 14th century Mamluk painting, but more robust.
One can closely compare the painting of the Caliph al-Ma’mun in our manuscript (illustrated right) with a painting of ‘An attempted murder frustrated’ from a Khalila wa Dimna attributed to Tabriz, 1360-74 – the pages of which are now preserved in a large album which was formerly in the Ottoman Imperial Palace of Yildiz and is now in the University Library, Istanbul (F.1422, f.11v; Basil Gray, Persian Painting, Geneva, 1977, p.38). Gray refers to the pages from this manuscript as among the most remarkable work of the whole century. The hexagonal blue tiles that line the walls in both our painting and that of the Khalila wa Dimna are absolutely identical, and indeed of a type that one might expect of 14th century Tabriz. In both paintings these tiles are lined with a band of gold dots on black ground followed by a larger border with red palmettes on gold ground. The floral design that surmounts the door behind the attempted murder is again very closely related to that which is painted on a silver or grey ground at the point where the curtains come together above our caliph. The use of contrasting blocks of design next to each other is also a feature shared by the two paintings. These similarities are such that it is clear that the two paintings were a product of the same school, possibly the same workshop.
The script of our manuscript differs to the Topkapi one, in that it is copied in a neat pseudo-nasta’liq whereas the Topkapi manuscript is copied in a straight naskh. A Jalayrid painting in the Kier Collection, attributed only to the late 14th century, shares this feature (III.28; B.W. Robinson et al, Islamic Painting and the Arts of the Book, London, 1976, p.143, pl.17). It depicts two figures on a terrace which is again set with tiles similar to those found in our manuscript. A similar style of calligraphy is also found on the reverse of a painting of the Archangel Gabriel painted in Jalayrid Baghdad in the late 14th century and sold in these Rooms, 21 April 2016.
The illumination at the beginning of our manuscript – in both the title page and the shamsa on the folio that precedes it - is executed with a distinct elegance and precision. It bears close resemblance to that found on a sura heading from a Qur’an section copied in Jalayrid Baghdad in around 1370 (Soudavar, op.cit., pp.50-51, no.19).
Our manuscript appears to be unfinished. Like a manuscript commissioned for Sultan Muhammad bin Baysunghur, sold in these Rooms, 10 April 2014, lot 5, it has some paintings which are fully worked, some which are half painted, and spaces left for yet more. The unfinished nature of the manuscript tells us a considerable amount about the assembly of such works. The text is completely written within the panels ruled in gold and blue and the colophon signed and dated. The first three paintings are completely finished to a high standard. The following three have been painted, with much of the background block colour and sketched details such as the faces – indicating that the artist first painted the background and then turned to the more critical parts with the faces left to the very end. It may have been that there were a succession of artists who worked on a painting with the most junior working on the background, and the most senior inserting the faces. There are then nine further spaces left for more paintings at the end of the manuscript, indicating that the artists worked methodically from the beginning to the end.