Arts of the Book: Illustrated Texts, Miniatures
Folio From The Khawass Al-Ashjar (de Materia Medica): Labathun Plant
13th century CE
Materials and technique
Ink and opaque watercolour on paper
24.8 x 16.8 cm
One of the earliest scientific manuscripts to be translated from Greek to Arabic was Dioscorides’ De Materia Medica, as it is called in Latin. Pedanius Dioscorides, a Greek physician, wrote his treatise on medicinal plants in the first century CE. The manuscript was initially translated into Syriac, and then into Arabic in Baghdad in the ninth century (Guesdon and Nouri 2001, p. 118). It became the foundation for Islamic pharmacology and was copied widely. The present folio is from a rare dispersed thirteenth-century Arabic copy of the text, in which are depicted various medicinal herbs and roots with an accuracy characteristic of Arab scientific texts produced during this period. The illustrations follow the Greek model closely. The paintings do not lack artistic sensibility and, for accuracy, each specimen is depicted in its entirety from tip to root against the plain paper ground. The recto side of this folio illustrates a thick-stemmed plant with four long branches, at the end of which are delicate, almost fern-like leaves; at the top of the plant are three shoots, each with berries. This is the labathun, a plant, which when dissolved in liquid, is beneficial in the treatment of ailments such as leprosy, mange, and stones in the bladder. The verso of this folio illustrates a plant that grows on river banks, and has large, broad leaves on a short, stout, brown stem. From the top of the leaves rise slender branches with leaves and buds.
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