Arts of the Book: Illustrated Texts, Miniatures
Folio From The Khawass Al-Ashjar (de Materia Medica): The Poppy
13th century CE
Materials and technique
Opaque watercolour and ink on paper.
Page 29.8 x 20.5 cm
De materia medica is a perfect example of the transmission of Greek and Syriac texts to the mediaeval Western world via the Arab peoples of the East and of al-Andalus. This pharmacological treatise written by Dioscorides, a physician originally from Cilicia, in the first century CE, was translated into Arabic from an initial Syriac translation by Istifan ibn Basil (Stephen, son of Basil), and revised by the Syrian physician Hunayn ibn Ishaq in Baghdad in the ninth century. It laid the foundation for later Arabian pharmacological research. When the translators did not know the equivalent of a plant name in Arabic they simply transcribed the Greek or Syriac name. Later scholars endeavoured to improve on this translation, and the many marginal notes appearing in manuscripts of De materia medica bear witness to their aim of adding corrections or new information. These annotations also provide important evidence of the circulation of texts from the East in the Western world. For example, the oldest illustrated Byzantine manuscripts of De materia medica display notes in Arabic. In its earliest version the text was already accompanied by illustrations, which also appear in the Greek and Arabic manuscripts. In most cases these are images of plants, but we also find some scenes showing the gathering of plants or the preparation of a remedy. Many manuscripts or fragments of this work have been preserved worldwide. The oldest dates from 1083 CE (Leiden University Library). The image of the poppy, like other pages from the same manuscript preserved in the collection, reflects a general tendency towards symmetry that is offset by subtle variations of detail in the position of the branches and flowers. At the same time this page indicates a certain concern for naturalism and accuracy that connects it directly with its Byzantine prototypes, while other illustrations in various mediaeval Arabic manuscripts move in the opposite direction, preferring a stylised form closer to the spirit of Islamic art. The text describes the cultivation of the flower, the process of obtaining opium from it, and that opium can be mixed with honey. One distinctive aspect of the script is worthy of mention: in places the letter sin is written with three dots below the line - a feature also found in a manuscript preserved in the museum of the Imam Reza shrine at Mashhad, produced for an Artuqid prince of Mayyafariqin in the third quarter of the twelfth century, and the source for the proposed dating of this folio.
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