Safavid Devotional Art in Steel, Script, and Scroll

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A Safavid pierced steel plaque, probably late 17th century, featuring a calligraphic rendering of part of a poem in praise of Muḥammad, Fāṭima, and the Twelve Imams, formerly part of a larger set distributed in a shrine or similar structure. Metropolitan Museum of Art 1987.14

Pierced metal plaques such as the one above must surely count among the most spectacular instances of Safavid art to modern eyes, with their stark contrasts, incredible fineness of detail, bold clean lines surrounding delicate ornament, and obvious evidence of extremely skilled craft. Plaques such as this one- see below for another, quite similar example- once formed part of the interior of Safavid shrines, either to one of the Twelve Imāms or to the far more frequent imāmzādehs, the descendents  of the Imāms, who were also more likely to be found in Safavid controlled territory (there were also cases of saints’ shrines of various sorts being ‘converted’ to an imāmzādeh after the rise of the Safavids). Others were found on the tombs of Safavid shahs and in the massive shrine complex of Ṣafī al-Dīn, the Safavid eponym, in Ardabil. In 1550 large number of such plaques were ordered and installed by Shah Tahmāsp I in the shrine of Imām Riḍā in Mashhad, with further production through the rest of the Safavid dynasty.

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The interior of the shrine of an Imām or an imāmzādeh, from a circa 1550 Safavid Fālnāmeh (‘book of divination’). Besides showing the internal architectural layout of a Safavid shrine, it provides a nice view of the activity that might go on there. (David Collection Inv. no. 28/1997)

So far as I know none remain in situ, a consequence of their likely original location- probably upon the grill-like structure surrounding the location of the tomb itself (see the 16th century illustration above for an idea of what such a space would have looked like). Such structures, as well as the built fabric of shrines in general, tend to be subject to great use, wear-and-tear, and continual renovation; as a result these plaques were dispersed and now reside in various museums and collections. Originally, however, they would have been visible to those making pious visitation (ziyāra) to the holy people whose tombs they adorned.

Decorative Plaque Plaque
Another Safavid pierced plaque, here extolling the last of the Twelve Imāms, also from the late 17th century. (Freer & Sackler F1997.21)

In terms of content, these plaques extoll and in some cases supplicate the prayers of the Twelve Imāms, as well as Muḥammad and Fāṭima, acting both to channel the intercessory power of these figures while linking the entombed person to the ‘People of the House.’ While devotion to the Twelve Imāms was not limited to Shi’i Muslims historically- contemporaneous Ottomans who would have regarded themselves as good Sunnis venerated the Twelve Imāms as well- such devotion was especially central to Shi’i Islam and to Safavid religious identity. These plaques signaled, to those who could read them (or have them read to them), that centrality, while also acting as inscribed requests for intercession, connecting the People of the House and their baraka to whatever shrine their names were place within. The sheer skill, time, and resources that were involved in producing such works were in themselves acts of devotion (along with the patronage of such work).

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Above and below: sections from a Safavid Qur’an scroll written in ghubār (‘dust’) script with extensive illumination (Chester Beatty Library Is 1623)

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An Ottoman Book Binding by Way of Tabriz

Binding of a copy of the Bustan of Sa‘di MSS 712
Binding of a copy of the Bustan of Sa‘di, Khalili Collections, MSS 712. Istanbul, Ottoman Empire (likely), 1530–1540. (Papier-mâché boards, painted and varnished; with paper doublures; 24.7 x 16.5cm (covers, each); 24.7 x 11cm (flap and fore-edge)

This spectacular example of book binding was probably produced in the workshops of the Topkapı Palace by artisans from Tabriz (modern-day Iran, at the time part of the Safavid Empire, though periodically contested by the Ottomans). As such it is a good demonstration of the interconnection between the Persianate world and that of the Ottomans, especially in the 16th century (Persian influence and connections would decline somewhat in the coming centuries). This cover protects a copy, executed in Tabriz in 1530, of one of the great works of Persian poetic literature, Sa’di’s Bustan (‘Garden’), which, along with other works of Persian poetry, would have a long-lasting influence on the production of Ottoman Turkish poetry. The artwork, with its intricate interlacing tendrils, delicately rendered foliage and single creature at the center, is redolent of the Persian world, and would have been immediately recognized as such by whatever connoisseurs of art would have had access to the finished product, probably in the Topkapı itself.