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Miniature Art

Azerbaijani miniature art, which is an interesting and rich part of the art of the peoples of the Middle East, has a special place in the history of world art. The first examples of medieval miniature art, still regarded as expressions of matchless skill, created in Azerbaijan, in the cities of Tabriz and Maragha.

Miniature art is a genre that focuses on art, especially painting, engraving and sculpture, with a long history that dates back to the scribes of the medieval ages. It was developed under the direct influence of classical Eastern poetry to indicate a small illustration used to decorate an ancient or medieval illuminated manuscript, scientific, historical and artistic works. 

The history of Azerbaijani miniature paintings, which first appeared in the form of book illustration is not determined exactly. Nevertheless, stylistic and artistic peculiarities of miniatures, painted by Abdulmomin Mahammad al-Khoyi for manuscript “Varga and Gulsha” in early 13th century (Topkapi museum, Istanbul)  and Rashid al-Din’s “Jami-at-Tawarikh” (1307 and 1314, Paris, London, Istanbul museums) show that they are based on certain traditions of the miniature paintings, which existed since the ancient times. Miniatures, painted for “Varga and Gulsha”, are considered some of the ancient patterns of this art not only in Azerbaijan but in the Near and Far East.

Calligraphy and miniature speedily spread in Maragha, Tabriz and other towns of Azerbaijan. Tabriz turned into a powerful centre of artistic creation, book art, calligraphy and miniature painting in 13th and 14th centuries. In the city of Rashidiya (named after Rashid al-Din) in the north-west of Tabriz there were two libraries, as well as a library as part of the university. At the beginning of the 14th century, this library gathered local calligraphers and the artists from East Turkestan, Central Asia and from other Eastern countries to create artistic manuscripts of religious, historical, scientific and poetic works, decorated with miniatures. Noteworthy among them are the miniatures sourced from such manuscripts of this period as Bakhtishu’s “Manafi al-Hayavan” (Benefits of Animals and their Organs as medical properties; 1297-1298; Morgan Library, New York) and Rashid al-Din’s “Jami-at-Tawarikh” (Compendium of Chronicles;1306. The manuscript is kept by the University of Edinburgh, Scotland. The version of manuscript from 1314 is kept by The Royal Society, London. And the version of manuscript dated 1318 is kept at the Topkapı Palace Library in Istanbul). The miniatures of the “Jami-at-Tawarikh” manuscripts created by various artists had paved the way for the unique phase in Azerbaijani miniature art development. 

The artistic and stylistic features of Azerbaijani miniature art were further improved in the early 15th century. The miniatures to the poem “Khosrov and Shirin” (1405-1410, Freer gallery, Washington) of Nizami Ganjavi, paintings by the great artist Abd al-Hayy to “Divan” poems of Sultan Ahmad (1405-1410, Freer gallery, Washington) and the style in the illustrations to “Mehr and Mustary” (1419) by Assar Tabrizi shows the perfection of the Tabriz school.

Miniature art began to develop in Shamakhi and Baku under the influence of Tabriz school in the 15th century. The miniatures created during that period, such as the Oriental Poetry or also well known as “Shamakhi anthology” (1468, British Museum, London) and portraits with one and two figures named “Mehtar”, “Two emirs” (Topkapi museum, Istanbul) by Abdul-Bagi Bakuvi are considered among the best miniature patterns of Shamakhi and Baku painters. 

In this regard, it is important to note that the miniatures of the late 15th century, such as the illustrations of Nizami’s manuscript “Khamsa” dated 1482 are of particular interest. Thise delicate miniatures were copied in Tabriz by Abd al-Rahim, a prominent calligrapher of the period of Sultan Yagub Aq Qoyunlu. The miniatures of this valuable manuscript are principally differ from the miniatures of the same subject of the early 15th century.

Some of the miniatures, blending artistic style peculiarities of Tabriz school of the 15th century, as illustrations painted for manuscripts “Khamsa” of 1524 (Metropolitan Museum, New York), “Shahname” (Institute of Oriental Studies, St. Petersburg), “Jami-at-Tawarikh” of 1528 (Library named after M.Y.Saltikov-Shedrin, St. Petersburg) deserve close attention.

Eastern miniature art reached the peak of its development in 1530-1540s due to Tabriz school. A lot of valuable manuscripts in the view of artistic aesthetics and mastery were worked out in this period. Manuscripts “Shah and Darvish” with three delicate small miniatures (The Library named after M.Y.Saltikov-Shedrin, St.Petersburg), “Shahname” with its 258 miniatures (1537; some of them are in the Metropolitan Museum of New York, the rest in the Houghton collection, New York) and world-famous “Khamsa” with its 14 rare miniatures (1539-1543, British Museum, London) are considered masterpieces of book art and miniature painting in the East due to rich artistic design and delicate decorative adornments.

The florescence of manuscript production reached its peak in the 16th century. The Safavid Palace, with its well-stocked library and artistic workshops for the production of illustrated manuscripts, became the center of activity of prominent calligraphers, artists, painters in miniature, designers, bookbinders and other masters of book art. It should be noted that the book has always been of particular importance in the East due to the growing public interest. It is noteworthy that  the period of the reign of Shah Ismail and later Tahmasib, is also remarkable in the history of book art by its such genius and talented artists and calligraphers as Sultan Muhammad, Agha Mirak Isfahani, Mir Musavir, Mir Seyid Ali, Sultan Muhammad’s son Mirza Ali, Dost Mohammad, Muzaffar Ali, Shah Mahmud Nishapuri, Sheikh Muhammad, Behzad, Qasim Ali, Sheikhzadeh and others.

Stagnation of Azerbaijan book and miniature art is observed at the beginning of the 17th century. Miniatures which decorated manuscripts and engravings in the 18th and 19th centuries were schematic and simple tie in drawing, composition and color. The illustrations, painted by Avazali Mughanli for “Kalila and Dimna” (1809), by Mirza Aligulu for “Shahname” (1850), by Mir Mohsun Navvab for “Bahr ul-hazan” (1864), by Nadjafgulu Shamakhili for “Yusif and Zuleykha” (1887; these works are in the Manuscripts Institute of the Azerbaijan Republic Academy of Sciences) and for other books prove decay of classic miniature art for figurative expression means.

Rich traditions of classic miniature and its artistic style peculiarity were creatively used in the later stages of development of Azerbaijan’s fine arts. Usage of classic miniature art peculiarity more expanded, painters’ creative researches in painting, graphics, particularly in book illustrations resulted in successful works in the following development periods. One of the modern artists Mikayil Abdullayev (1921-2002) created some valuable works, related to classic heritage in painting, graphics, monumental painting and theatre design. Illustrations created by a painter for “Kitabi-Dada Gorgud” (1962 and 1979 editions), mosaics on the basis of works by Nizami in the Nizami station of Baku underground draw attention. Works by People’s Artist Arif Huseynov have a considerable thematic range in expressing his creative perception of folk tales, as mysterious as the art of miniature itself. Noteworthy among them are “Azerbaijani Fairy Tales” and “Novruz Holiday”. Altay Hajiyev, Rafis Ismayilov, Nusrat Hajiyev and Orkhan Huseynov are modern artists in the miniature genre who followed in the miniature tradition and represented the old artistic principles in new forms.

The 15th session of the Intergovernmental Committee for the Safeguarding of the Intangible Cultural Heritage was held in Paris on December 14-19, 2020 (for the first time in a virtual format due to the global pandemic). On December 16, the nomination document “Miniature Art” prepared jointly by Turkey, Azerbaijan, Iran and Uzbekistan was discussed and decided to include this cultural element in the UNESCO Representative List of the Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity. The adoption of such an important decision for our country was possible due to First Vice-President of the Republic of Azerbaijan, President of the Heydar Aliyev Foundation, UNESCO Goodwill Ambassador Mehriban Aliyeva’s support and the joint activities of the Ministry of Culture and the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, the Permanent Mission of the Republic of Azerbaijan to UNESCO and the National Commission of the Republic of Azerbaijan for UNESCO.