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Looking into Lost Persian Architecture through Safavid Manuscripts

Looking into Lost Persian Architecture through Safavid Manuscripts
Yusuf and Zulaikha (Yusuf pursued by Potiphar's wife), miniature by Behzād, 1488. Image
Yusuf and Zulaikha (Yusuf pursued by Potiphar's wife), miniature by Behzād, 1488. Image

From the 14th to the 16th century, Iran had witnessed growth and affluence under the Timurid and Safavid dynasties. During this period, many mosques, palaces and pavilions were commissioned and contributed to sites of veneration and pilgrimage. However not many of these key architectural realms survived and few historical texts exist to relay the intricacies of the architecture of that time.

What remained were some dispersed manuscripts from the Shahnameh and other renowned illustrated stories or poems that represented the moral values and aesthetics of that period. Inadvertently these initial renders became the main representation of a unique and fantastic Islamic architecture.

"Bahram Gur in the red pavilion" by Nizami, 16th Century Iran - H: 12 13/16 x W: 7 7/8 in. (32.5 x 20 cm). Image via The Walters Art Museum"Yūsuf va Zulaykhā", by the Sufi poet Jāmī. 1580, Iran. Image via The British LibraryCourtesy of the trustees of the British Library. ImageIn the “Building of Al Khawarnak- Khausa” by Nizami, there is a concise representation of bricks with the tiling drawn in different orientations, evoking the entire architectural and construction process. The composition and color balance of the piece reflect the movement in building activity.Courtesy of Noor Art & Architecture Studio+ 11

"Yūsuf va Zulaykhā", by the Sufi poet Jāmī. 1580, Iran. Image via The British Library
"Yūsuf va Zulaykhā", by the Sufi poet Jāmī. 1580, Iran. Image via The British Library

Contrary to accurate spatial depiction of the renaissance art, which was taking over the West, Timurid and Safavid artists opted for a stylized reflection of reality. Despite their familiarity with realistic visual representation, achieved through linear perspective and depth techniques, they chose to keep the illustrations two dimensional. Instead, the focus was on key Islamic art elements and materiality, giving way to human imagination to play a role in the development of the spatial understanding.


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"Bahram Gur in the red pavilion" by Nizami, 16th Century Iran - H: 12 13/16 x W: 7 7/8 in. (32.5 x 20 cm). Image via The Walters Art Museum
"Bahram Gur in the red pavilion" by Nizami, 16th Century Iran - H: 12 13/16 x W: 7 7/8 in. (32.5 x 20 cm). Image via The Walters Art Museum

In these small ink illustrations, there was an effort to describe the built structures, while omitting any explicit spatial logic. There is a sense of how things might be rather than how they are. The result is similar to a flat collage representing opulent palaces and mosques. The four guiding components of Islamic art are implemented, including Calligraphy, Vegetative forms, Geometric elements and Figures; adding dynamism and suggesting a function within the space. Various tiling patterns would then refer to different surfaces and hint to a possible layout of the building or interior. 

Nightmare of Zahhak (painting, recto; calligraphy, verso), folio from a manuscript of the Shahnama of Firdawsi, 16th Century - folio: 26.9 x 17.4 cm (10 9/16 x 6 7/8 in.). Image Courtesy of Harvard Art Museums/Arthur M. Sackler Museum, Friends of the Fogg Art Museum Fund
Nightmare of Zahhak (painting, recto; calligraphy, verso), folio from a manuscript of the Shahnama of Firdawsi, 16th Century - folio: 26.9 x 17.4 cm (10 9/16 x 6 7/8 in.). Image Courtesy of Harvard Art Museums/Arthur M. Sackler Museum, Friends of the Fogg Art Museum Fund

These manuscripts were often not larger than an A5 frame, still they contained striking design elements that might have actually been present in the real building, such as the colorful glazed mud bricks. The render is flat but alludes to the depth of the space it is depicting through the different patterns and linear rhythms. There is an intensity that comes out of it which engages the viewer, looking on to the scene from above. This creates a sort of odd space that is only formed through the suggestive imagination.

Courtesy of the trustees of the British Library. ImageIn the “Building of Al Khawarnak- Khausa” by Nizami, there is a concise representation of bricks with the tiling drawn in different orientations, evoking the entire architectural and construction process. The composition and color balance of the piece reflect the movement in building activity.
Courtesy of the trustees of the British Library. ImageIn the “Building of Al Khawarnak- Khausa” by Nizami, there is a concise representation of bricks with the tiling drawn in different orientations, evoking the entire architectural and construction process. The composition and color balance of the piece reflect the movement in building activity.

This artistic culture might also have influenced today's unique Iranian renderings, which regardless of the designer’s capacity to have everything be realistic, manifests an attention to leave inexactitudes for minds to dwell on. 

Courtesy of Noor Art & Architecture Studio
Courtesy of Noor Art & Architecture Studio

This article is part of the ArchDaily Topic: Rendering, proudly presented by Enscape, the most intuitive real-time rendering and virtual reality plugin for Revit, SketchUp, Rhino, Archicad, and Vectorworks. Enscape plugs directly into your modeling software, giving you an integrated visualization and design workflow.’ Learn more about our monthly topics. As always, at ArchDaily we welcome the contributions of our readers; if you want to submit an article or project, contact us.


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Cite: Hana Abdel. "Looking into Lost Persian Architecture through Safavid Manuscripts" 30 Apr 2021. ArchDaily. Accessed . <https://www.archdaily.com/960870/looking-into-lost-persian-architecture-through-safavid-manuscripts> ISSN 0719-8884

萨非王朝时期手稿,了解失落的波斯建筑

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