Safavid Devotional Art in Steel, Script, and Scroll

1987.14
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.

Copyright_David-Collection_Copenhagen_28-1997_web.jpg
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).

CBL Is 1623
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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If the Safavid steel plaques were resolutely public, the above Qur’anic scroll probably was not, but would have instead been intended for individual consumption, if it was to be examined by human eyes at all. Completed in 1

CBL Is 1623
Detail, cropped and flipped vertical.

But it’s not just the Qur’an: the tiny script forms decorative patterns and calligraphic texts, a number of which are contained within ‘plaques’ which echo, no doubt deliberately, the pierced steel ones that were being produced and installed in shrines around the Safavid world at the time this scroll was made. The contents of the calligraphic plaques and other decorative calligraphic features are, unsurprisingly, almost the same: invocations of Muḥammad, Fāṭima, and the Twelve Imāms, their names and titles spanning the ‘architecture’ of the Qur’anic scroll much as they would have spanned literal built spaces at the time. The resonances must surely have been deliberate, not only linking the Qur’anic text to the People of the House via their names and honorifics but also through visual reference to the artistic forms then in use in their shrines, and hence to the shrines themselves and the holy people there entombed. And again, great skill was involved in executing these calligraphic ‘plaques,’ physically rigorous in a different way from cutting pressed steel but rigorous all the same and hence also an act of bodily devotion.

There is another point of commonality between these two sites of Safavid devotional art: both serve to entangle devotion to the Twelve Imāms (as well as Muḥammad and Fāṭima, we ought not forget) with other sources of holiness: the steel plaques would have been found within various shrines, some more directly connected to the Imāms than others, while the calligraphic ‘plaques’ are in fact literally made out of Qur’anic text (combined with neutral space) in addition to being a part of a Qur’an manuscript. Instead of one source of sacred power and meaning, both artistic forms were meant by their patrons and creators to channel and connect many such sources. Among other aspects, it is such attention to complex interconnectivity that marks these objects of devotion as distinctive to the Safavids, for whom devotion to the Imāms grew increasingly central over the course of the dynasty’s rule. Objects like these then can be seen as also being components in the transition of the Iranian lands from majority Sunni (whatever exactly that meant pre-Safavid) to the Shi’i majority we now often take for granted as always having been there, but which in fact required much social and cultural work, including these magnificent works of devotional art.

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Shaykh Ṣafī Spends the Night in a Deadly Shrine

Miniature from a copy of Jafar al-Sadiq’s Falnama. “Scene From a Mausoleum” Iran, Tabriz or Qasvin; c. 1550.jpg
A Safavid era saints’ tomb (or perhaps the tomb of an imām or imāmzade), presumably far less deadly in effect than that of Abū Zur’at. From a c. 1550 Falnama (David Collection, Inv. no. 28/1997)

While I can’t profess to ever having actually watched more than a few minutes of it, I do know (thank you internet) that the Syfy show Ghost Hunters, which ran for several years and was one of the most popular offerings that Syfy ever launched, revolved around a team of ‘paranormal investigators’ combing around allegedly haunted spaces in search of posthumous spiritual activity. Using various electronic devices to register the traces such entities are imagined in modern parapsychological reckoning to leave, they traversed ‘haunted’ places, mostly at night, trying to ‘make contact,’ while also creating a pop culture phenomenon.

Seeking out a dangerous structure and grappling with the malignant forces- spirits and otherwise- therein was a not uncommon practice for medieval and early modern Muslim saints, too, though their purposes and techniques were a world away from that of the Ghost Hunters duo. The manāqib texts describing ‘Abd al-Qādir al-Jilānī, the archetypical medieval Muslim saint, feature his actions against the jinn in particular spaces and places. Somewhat later, the great Ottoman Egyptian sufi and saint ‘Abd al-Wahhāb al-Sha’rānī, for instance, was described by his hagiographer as having wrestled with the jinn (for more on the following story and al-Sha’rānī’s relation with the jinn, see this post: Two Ways of Dealing with the Jinn in the Ottoman World):

He once slept, God be pleased with him, in an abandoned entrance hall (qā’a) which belonged to one of his friends. He lit a lamp for him and locked the door and left him alone. Then a group [of jinn] came to him and extinguished the lamp and raised a din in the entrance hall around him until morning. Then he left them. During this time [that is, during the night] he said to them, ‘If I grasped hold of one of you he would not be able to free himself from me, not even the Red King!’ Then he went to sleep, and slept until morning, not a hair on his head being disturbed even though they remained around him. [1]

The story I have featured today comes from the monumental Persian menāqib of Shaykh Ṣafī al-Dīn, the eponym of the famed (or infamous, if you had asked an early modern Ottoman!) Safavid ṭarīqa, on which see an earlier post. As mentioned there, at this point, still early in Shaykh Ṣafī’s life, the saint was in possession of almost boundless and hard-to-control spiritual powers, not unlike a superhero in modern imagination, forced to make sense of and usefully make use of new and perhaps frightening super-powers. This story picks up in Shiraz, to whence Ṣafī has gone, ostensibly to meet his merchant brother, but really to seek out holy men who might be able to guide him and help him cultivate his powers. He has just come ‘onto the scene’ as a holy man in his own right, and is now seen beginning to ‘mingle’ with the hidden saints of the city:

Story (ḥikāyat): [Shaykh Ṣadr al-Dīn], God perpetuate his baraka, said: after this, the friends of God who were hidden in that place began to mix with and accompany the shaykh, God sanctify his inner secret, each one practicing a trade (ḥirfat), such as greengrocer and baker as well as others, hidden behind the curtain of the domes [referred to in the hadith] My friends are under My domes, none know them save Me,’ though manifest to the sight endowed with the hallowed light of clarity.

The shaykh, God sanctify his inner secret, spent most of his time in the Mādir-i Sulaymān Mosque, the shrine of Shaykh Abū ‘Abdallāh Khafīf, and the shrine of Shaykh Abū Zur’at Ardabīlī, God be merciful to him, devoting himself to acts of worship. However, during that time it was such that if someone tarried for even a moment in the shrine of Abū Zur’at, God be merciful to him, from the evening prayer to morning, they would find him dead and bury him in the cemetery.

When the shakyh, God sanctify his inner secret, wanted to spend the night awake in prayer in that place (mīkhāst keh shab dar ān jā iḥyā konad), the people tried to forbid him since those who went in at night did not come back out but died. The shaykh however said, “We are from the same city, the two of us, and so no harm will come to me from him!” So he spent the night there, busying himself with acts of worship, and declared [later]: “Light steadily came forth up from his pure tomb and descended into my throat, while rays of light from his tomb came forth and streamed up and out of the little windows of the shrine, like the fire in a blacksmith’s forge coming forth through its cracks and openings.” The shaykh was in that place from the ishrāq prayer until the rising of the sun, light steadily streaming forth from the tomb and descending into his throat.

The shaykh’s companions had already purchased a length of burial shroud, sweet herbs for sprinkling on a body, and the implements for a funeral bier, and had stationed themselves outside of the shrine of Abū Zur’at until the moment that came in to retrieve the shaykh and set about on his funeral bier and burial. But instead they beheld the shaykh immersed in light in prayer, and, standing to greet them, he went outside with them. Such were the traces that the light had left upon his blessed face that it was impossible for anyone to look upon his blessed face! [2]

Who was Abū Zu’rat? And what made his shrine so dangerous? The story does not elaborate, either because it was not of interest to the hagiographer, or because the story of this shrine- which does not seem to exist any longer- was so well known at the time. Either way, the idea of a ‘dark saint’ is not too unusual, though hardly common, and points to the fuzzy boundaries between sainthood, the occult, and so-called ‘folk beliefs.’ Most importantly, the story argues for Shaykh Ṣafī’s sainthood, suggesting that the dangerous occupant of the shrine’s tomb was either waiting for the shaykh, or that only Shaykh Ṣafī had the spiritual power to take in the surge of divine light welling up from Abū Zu’rat without being killed thereby. At any rate, not unlike modern instances of spirit-hunting, the encounter made a good story, complete with the wonderful image of the saint’s friends posted outside waiting with the requisites of burial, which of course they did not end up needing.

Notes:

[1] Muḥammad Muḥyī al-Dīn al-Malījī, Tadhkirat ūlī al-albāb fī manāqib al-Shaʻrānī Sayyidī ʻAbd al-Wahhāb, 130. Translated by Jonathan Parkes Allen, 2018.

[3] Ibn Bazzāz Ardabīlī, Ṣafvat al-ṣafā: dar tarjumah-ʼi aḥvāl va aqvāl va karāmāt-i Shaykh Ṣafī al-Dīn Isḥaq Ardabīlī, ed. Ghulām Riẓā Ṭabāṭabāʼī Majd (Tabriz: G.R. Ṭabāṭabāʼī Majd , 1373 [1994]), 98-99. Translated by Jonathan Parkes Allen, 2019.

Ardabil Carpet

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Print Culture Remixed: Safavid Painting Across Confessional Boundaries

Hayrapet Jul'ayec'i bible
Fig 1.: Manuscript Bible, illustrated by Hayrapet Jul’ayec’i, 1649 in New Julfa. (“Matenadaran” Mesrop Mashtots Instutute-Museum of Ancient Manuscripts, ms 189) .

The four images in this post- two from Western Europe, two from the Safavid Empire- paint a picture of the inter-connectivity of places, religious communities, and cultural traditions of early modern western Eurasia, inter-connectivity that took place without any single power or region dominating, as would be true from the nineteenth century forward. These images also illustrate the problems with the language of ‘influence,’ as well as the fact that religious communities and traditions that were at odds in some respects could still participate in shared cultural paradigms and draw upon the work and concepts of others in creative ways. In particular these images demonstrate the complicated place of ‘print culture’ in a Eurasian context, printed texts co-existing and interacting with non-print modes well through the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries.

In this first pair of images, Fig. 1 and Fig. 2, illustrating the first chapters of Genesis, the Armenian illustrator Hayrapet Jul’ayec’i has drawn upon the images of Johann Theodor de Bry for his own illumination of the Bible. The relationship is obvious upon even casual examination, such that one might be tempted to call the Armenian paintings ‘copies.’ But slightly closer examination reveals something more subtle going on. Jul’ayec’i has followed the general form and many of the details of de Bry’s engravings, but has done so in a transformative way: the images have been placed in a new arrangement, one that proceeds in chronological order from left to right, the borders dividing the scenes employing motifs with deep roots in Armenian illumination. Most significantly, Jul’ayec’i has rendered these scenes in color, in brilliant color which calls to mind earlier illumined Armenian Bibles. The entire production has furthermore been placed within a manuscript Bible, instead of the printed Bible of de Bry. The reference to de Bry, and by extension, Western European art conventions, remains unmistakable- but in rendering them in the bright splashes of Armenian painting they have been translated and re-appropriated (there is literal translation as well- note the inclusion of Armenian text in Jul’ayec’i’s painting). ‘Remix’ is one way of thinking about such a piece, the form remaining but the interpretation rendered making the piece an effectively new creation, the mood and resonances it conveys departing dramatically from the original ‘cited’ imagery, even as the new art depends on the original to some degree.

Biblia Sacra vulgatæ, pages 2 & 3
Fig. 2.: Biblia Sacra vulgatæ, pages 2 & 3, engravings by Johann Theodor de Bry, Mainz, 1609 (General Research Division, The New York Public Library).

What is particularly notable about Jul’ayec’i’s art, and that of the many other Armenian artists and manuscript producers who employed similar techniques vis-a-vis print culture circulating in Armenian communities (which in itself reminds us that it was not unusual for a Bible printed in the Netherlands to end up in the Safavid lands), is that Armenians were not themselves strangers to print culture. The first Armenian book was printed in 1512, with an increasing pace of printing in a number of presses across the vast Armenian world of western Eurasia. Simultaneously, Armenians produced, sponsored, and purchased manuscripts such as that from which contain Jul’ayec’i’s illuminations. Print culture was useful for some things, while manuscript culture and its associated arts continued to play an important role, from liturgical texts to diaries to magical scrolls. And just as manuscript arts and traditions left their imprint in Armenian print culture (and many other iterations of print culture across early modern Eurasia), the new possibilities that printing opened up could find their way into manuscript production.

In the Safavid world, Armenians were not the only people creatively adapting and ‘remixing’ Western European print culture material. Persian-speaking Muslim artists, such as the seventeenth century painter Muhammad Zaman, were also making interesting use of imagery circulating out of Western Europe. Witness Zaman’s rendering of the iconic scene of Judith with the head of Holofernes:

MSS 1005
Fig. 3.: Judith with the Severed Head of Holofernes, Muhammad Zaman, c. 1680,
Isfahan, Safavid Iran (Khalili Collections MSS 1005).

Zaman’s depiction of this scene incorporates material from an etching of a painting by the fifteenth century Italian artist Andrea Mantegna (fig. 4). But just as his Armenian contemporary had done with de Bry’s etchings, Zaman has transformed the scene. It is now in bright and vivid color, reminiscent of more traditional forms of Persianate miniature (which itself had long been in dialogue with Armenian painting). Just as Jul’ayec’i reframed his source material, Zaman has not only filled out the scene around Judith and her maidservant with lush vegetation, vivid flora, and a scene of a camp and a city in the background, but in keeping with the conventions of Persianate art he has embedded his painting within a series of frames, frames that are as much a part of the painting as the main image itself. Particularly strikingly, he has filled the upper panel with realistic flowers, flora typical of alpine Eurasia such as primroses and irises. The result is a striking contrast between the delicate beauty of the flowers and the gory sight of Holofernes’ head being held aloft, a somewhat incongruous scene. What would Zaman’s viewers have taken away from this painting? Would they have known to what it was referring, whether in terms of story or in terms of the source in Andrea Mantegna’s depiction? The Western European elements, as in the Armenian imagery above, are unmistakable, diverging as they do from the canons of Persianate art: yet they have been rendered into a Persianate style and frame (literally and figuratively). Some of the meaning is retained, while other aspects are transformed- for instance, it is possible that most viewers would not have known the story itself, leading them to imagine their own story or to connect the image with stories they did know. Continue reading “Print Culture Remixed: Safavid Painting Across Confessional Boundaries”

Fire Poured Out From Heaven: Muslim Saints’ Shrines in Safavid Miniature Painting

Miniature from a copy of Jafar al-Sadiq_s Falnama. “Scene From a Mausoleum” Iran, Tabriz or Qasvin; c. 1550
Miniature from a copy of Jafar al-Sadiq’s Falnama. “Scene From a Mausoleum”
Iran, Tabriz or Qasvin; c. 1550 (David Collection, Inv. no. 28/1997)
“Prayers in a Mosque” Miniature from Kulliyat-i Mawlana Ahli Shirazi (Collected Works of Mawlana Ahli Shirazi) Shiraz, Iran; c. 1550
Miniature from Kulliyat-i Mawlana Ahli Shirazi (Collected Works of Mawlana Ahli Shirazi)
Shiraz, Iran; c. 1550, David Collection, Inv. no. Isl 161

As any long-time reader of this blog will know, one of my primary areas of scholarly interest is the history of saints and sainthood in the Islamic world, primarily within Islamic traditions but also in Christian and Jewish traditions practiced within or in contact with Islamicate cultures. The very fact that ‘Muslims have saints’ often comes as a surprise, with the usual follow up question being something along the lines of ‘Just what is a Muslim saint like?’ The answer, of course, varies from place to place and time to time, with the usual caveats that Muslims saints ‘look’ both like and unlike saints in other religious traditions, and that some forms of Islam, especially in the modern world, largely reject sainthood (similar to some forms of Christianity after the Protestant Reformation).

One difference between Muslim modes of understanding and depicting saints and sainthood and those found in many other traditions such as Christianity and Buddhism is the relatively low-key role of visual depictions in describing saints and in venerating them or inscribing their memory. While it is not true to say that Islam across the board lacks iconographic traditions, explicit uses of icon-like depictions for veneration has historically tended to be limited to either to depictions of non-human items and places, described in last week’s post, or in a rather supplemental manner (for private devotions or in the context of a shrine), such as has become common in contemporary Shi’i devotion (though certainly not only Shi’i- for instance, see this example from resolutely Sunni Morocco). The two miniatures above fall into another category altogether: in both we have something quite rare, namely, artistic renderings of practiced devotion to saints. These two images, both of which were produced in Safavid Iran while it was still in the long process of transitioning from a Sunni polity to a Shi’i one, give us a pretty good visual idea of what tomb veneration looked like in an early modern context- while they come from the Persian world, we know from literary evidence that the practices and architectural elements depicted in them would have been shared with other regions, including the neighboring Ottoman lands. The images are hence worth a closer look. Continue reading “Fire Poured Out From Heaven: Muslim Saints’ Shrines in Safavid Miniature Painting”