Arts of the Book: Illustrated Texts, Miniatures
Folio From The Khawass Al-Ashjar (de Materia Medica): Hashisha Al-Hamama (the Herb Bugloss, Or Oxtongue)
13th century CE
Materials and technique
Ink and opaque watercolour on paper
24.9 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 shows two illustrations of the basal al-'unsul, a species of the sea onion found in northern Africa, which belongs to the lily family and was used as an expectorant and diuretic. On the left is the sea onion as a bulb with five large, yellow leaves, and to the right is an illustration of the fully developed plant. The verso of this folio illustrates the herb bugloss (hashisha al-hamama): numerous leaves curve in various directions from several, thin, red branches, and small white flowers spring out between the leaves.
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