Miniatures of Azerbaijan: guide on understanding medieval drawings


Polina Lubimova, art expert, The State Hermitage Museum’s specialist in culture and art of Islamic countries tells the story of Azerbaijan’s miniature painting and its influence on art, architecture and carpet weaving.

The history of book miniatures in Azerbaijan and neighboring lands, which historically have been culturally united, is quite interesting. Its roots go back to the 14th century when a designated school of miniature painting was opened in the city of Tabriz (today - the administrative center of Iranian province called East Azerbaijan). Tabriz became the landmark center of portrait art, book publishing, calligraphy and miniature painting for the entire Middle East. Its school developed upon the synthesis of Persian miniature painting, eastern-Asian impulses and Chinese-Uyghur influences

Vivid colors and modest conciseness - they were destined to unite here, at the bottom if the Eynali mountain. The new style was seen particularly well in the famous manuscript “The Great Tabriz Shahname” or, in its other name, “The Demotte Shahname” - after the merchant who discovered the manuscript and sold it page by page.

In the 15th century the “Turkmen style” started to develop in Azerbaijan, together with the Tabriz style. Artists working in it created miniatures both within the walls of the Tabriz school and in other famous art and culture centers like the medieval Shemahi - the center of knowledge and a crossroad of many paths, which carried ideas and trends.

One of the most prominent representatives of Azerbaijan’s miniature painting of that period - Baku’s artist Abdul-Bagi Bakuvi. Strong far-eastern influences could still be seen in his works, but, at the same time, the faces of his characters became more Turk-like. He paid a lot of attention to details - clothing patterns, textile ornaments. He was also very interested in textures and combinations of materials - reflecting it with outmost accuracy in his works.

Researchers consider the Safavid dynasty’s epoch as the peak of the Tabriz school. Starting with the 16th century, the artistic elite was formed in Tabriz - with artists brought from Herat forming its core. The Herat school of miniature painting is a genuine miracle of the Timurid Renaissance. The first painter of Herat - Kamal ud-Din Behzad - created a workshop which kick-started the next breakthrough in the history of middle-eastern miniature painting - it received a realistic beginning. Behzad’s paintbrush brought life itself - with its unmistakable charm - into this art. While creating illustrations to epic tales and love poems, chronicles and didactic textbooks, Behzad infused them with snapshots of his era, well-depicted scenes from ordinary life and humor. He loved people - with all their feelings and emotions. He loved the world and appreciated it. He loved details and wonders which formed our everyday lives - and he transferred it to his apprentices. The painters of Herat created new art. In which miniature paintings connected the real world with a different realm - the world of the word.

The artists of that time were seen as valuable assets and great trophies. There is an anecdotal legend - when the Ottoman Turks were crushing the Sefevides’ army, the Shakh hid Behzad and calligrapher Shakh Mahmud Nishapuri in a cave, like a treasure. Shortly after Behzad was named as head of Shakh’s library - “kitabhane”. It was in libraries where the bulk of the work on decorating books with valuable miniatures was taking place.

Miniature painting united books, decorative-applied arts, calligraphy and even architecture. The majestic palace of Sheki Khans in Sheki is a genuine example of mutual synthesis of architecture and art, made in the spirit of books’ miniatures. The facade of the Sheki palace is decorated with a whole bunch of scenes - hunting, legendary battles and a kaleidoscope of geometric and floral motifs. Just like on a book’s pages.

Miniature painting and principles of painting, which it had been creating within its realm for centuries, found itself not only in architecture, but also in carpet-weaving. There is a whole direction within it - artistic carpets.

Researchers single out “Dordfacil” carpets which can be “read” as a book. This type of Azerbaijani carpets stems from Tabriz (hardly a coincidence?). Classic “Dordfacil” carpets split into four zones, each illustrating a certain season of a year. But over time, artists who created these carpets started introducing various book plots into them. And it comes as no surprise – starting from the 16th century blueprints for the most complex and luxurious carpets, which eventually became diplomatic gifts, were created by miniature painters at the - “kitabhane”.

When mass printing of books began, hand-made books became an even bigger luxury and treasure. Skills of a miniature painter started losing their demand. The 18th and the 19th centuries are considered as the downfall era of the miniature painting art. Its language simplified and lost exquisite decorativeness, became almost schematic. Similar trends can be observed in painted ceramics of that time. For this specific style of depictions and the primary field of its spread, this type of ceramics was even branded as “Bazaar ceramics”. Unfortunately, traditions of the classic school were genuinely destroyed. Luckily, not forever.

In the 1970s Leningrad, monumental mosaic panels were created based on sketches by the acclaimed artist Mikail Abdullayev. At the turn of 1977, these panels were installed at the re-opened station named after the great poet and thinker Nizami from Gyandzha. Mikail Abdullayev designed the project consisting of 19 panels, illustrating famous poems from Nizami’s “Khamse”. On them we could see Leili and Medzhnun, eternally loving each other, the wonderful Shirin, the great Iskander, the wise tsar Anushirvan and the brave warrior Bahram.

These monumental images seemed to have been born in a different time and embodied a different spirit – the spirit of new Soviet art. But in these exquisite golden backgrounds, complex color combinations and deliberate distortions of landscape perspectives we can feel something very familiar – the methods of book miniature painting.

In our days, miniature painting was reborn and continued living on the works of modern-day artists. Mikail Abdullayev gave new scale to miniature painting, fulfilling its principles in his monumental mosaics. Miniature painting also remained in the world of books – getting a very special representation in the works of Nusret Gadzhiev. His miniatures are very touching in their lines, exquisite in color, precise in conveying the feelings and emotions of characters. Its world is cozy, confined and magical. In it, you would want to forget oneself and lose track of time and pages.