BOOK COVERS - Aga Khan Museum
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The Aga Khan Museum: Arts of the Book: Manuscripts, Folios, Bindings - Safavid, late 16th century CE	 Place your mouse over the image
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Arts of the Book: Manuscripts, Folios, Bindings

Object name
Book Covers


Safavid, late 16th century CE


Materials and technique
Lacquer with powdered gold and mother-of-pearl

27.7 x 16.7 cm

Accession number


The use of 'lacquer' painting - in fact made waterproof and very shiny from applying a varnish - for papier mâché binding boards goes back to the last quarter of the fifteenth century. The development of this technique for binding manuscripts produced in Herat during the rule of Husayn Mirza (1470-1506 CE), seems to have resulted from the importation of Chinese lacquered objects whose vitrified appearance and the rich contrast of golden decoration on a dark background inspired imitations. From the last years of the fifteenth century on, colour ranges became richer for the treatment of the background and decoration through the use of a deep red colour and pearl or shell dust, covered with red varnish to accentuate the coloured background. Polychromy continued to evolve during the sixteenth century, whilst animal scenes, sometimes involving humans, could cover the entire outer board which would gradually resemble a miniature page. This theme was reserved for binding boards used for poetic or literary works. This sample, decorated with an animal theme picture repeated on the two outer boards, reflects this development while maintaining a colour assortment restricted to yellow, orange and red on a black background. These colours were emphasized with gold and pearl dust, and the contours outlined with a gold line contrasting with the dark background. The undulating frieze framing the picture, achieved through the juxtaposition of ‘chi’ clouds painted in black on a gold background, could be seen on all the early lacquer bindings produced in Herat and continued to be frequently used as a border motif throughout the sixteenth century. Inside the central field, a primary register depicts a pond on which banks two deer drink and revel in, seemingly undisturbed by any predator. Two flowering trees, which take up most of the available surface area, spread their branches, overlapping each other. On their branches, a sparrow and two pheasants seem to be exchanging vehement words, while in the restricted space of the upper corners two ducks fly hastily amid swirling clouds. Between the branches, the dark background is punctuated by small tufts of grass and flowery grebes leaving space on the top for small spiralling clouds, suggesting the end of the earth. This piece of sky in the top part of the landscape is a common feature in Persian miniatures. Similarly, all the elements of the scene have their match in numerous pages of miniatures and marginal decorations. These are some of the recurring elements of an idealised nature which is characteristic of Iranian miniatures. Moreover, the principal elements of this landscape are presented in pairs (twin trees, two deer, and two pheasants); their doubling, like the replication of the same composition on each of the two boards, could represent the mirror and doubling theme that was so dear to mystical Persian poetry. The whole picture gives an impression of balance and serenity, which is not the most sought after effect in the animal scenes of binding boards, usually divided into several dynamic sketches depicting animal fights and predators chasing their prey. Related lacquer bindings of the mid-sixteenth century are found in the Bibliothèque nationale, Paris (Mss. Or. Suppl. Pers. 1962 and 1171 and 129; see Stanley 2003, pp. 190-91; Richard 1997, pp. 169, 179, and Bernus-Taylor 1989, pp. 165-66) and in the Victoria and Albert Museum, London (Haldane 1983, no. 94).

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