Arts of the Book: Illustrated Texts, Miniatures
Calligraphy By Isma’il Jalayir
Qajar, circa 1860-70 CE
Materials and technique
Ink and gouache on paper
35 x 53 cm
Seeming to emerge from a strange landscape bathed in ethereal light, the letters of an invocation to 'Ali ibn al-Husayn, better known as Zayn al-'Abidin, the Shia imam, stand out. The ha and the sin of his father’s name, Husayn, the second Shia imam, who was martyred in Karbala (Irak) in 680 CE, divide the page in two with their long diagonal. The “cuts” of the ya of 'Ali and the final nun of ibn and Husayn form a perfect line alternating with three alifs. On the lower line, the dance of the pen tips - two and one and two again - marks the cadence of the writing. Unfortunately, the page has been trimmed slightly and so the date (on the bottom line to the left) is missing. This page could be likened to another calligraphy attributed to Isma'il Jalayir based on the same model of an inscription in nasta'liq writing style on a blurred background, illustrated with a number of sketches. At the top of the page is an almost unreal architecture which transmutes the models of classical Western architecture: columns, domes and porticos could conjure up an ideal city or an earthly or heavenly palace. In the “cut” of the ya of 'Ali nestled in an ovum are 'Ali, facing front and carrying on his knees the Dhu’l-fiqar sword which the Prophet gave him, flanked by his two sons, Hasan and Husayn. This “spiritual investiture” scene certainly throws light on other scenes: the two Sufis to the right of the word 'Ali, the hunting and beat scenes which could also depict a symbolic pursuit. In the timeless and vaporous landscape, a sun rises directly above the letter lam of 'Ali. The letters appear to be basking in the glow of that light. Jalayir’s style is vaporous, impalpable, with delicate superimpositions, as photographic images. He was trained in the Dar al-funun, in Tehran, and learned calligraphy from Mirza Ghulam Riza. The mark of this progressive institution is clearly felt here: photography, proudly adopted by the sovereign Qajars, was taught as of 1860 CE, along with lithography. The signature of this hearth of new technologies and styles, which was Dar al-funun, is visible in Jalayir’s work through the skilful mix of calligraphy - archetypal Islamic art - and painstakingly precise miniature painting, to the extent that its vaporous appearance resembles contemporary photographs developed on albumen paper. On the other side, one can see the floating image of a bearded man wearing an Astrakhan hat, painted with light strokes in grey monochrome, recalling the lithography that became fashionable under the Qajars.
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