Layla and Majnun in School

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"Layla and Majnun in School", Folio from a Khamsa (Quintet) of Nizami

Nizami (Ilyas Abu Muhammad Nizam al-Din of Ganja)  (probably 1141–1217)

Sultan Muhammad Nur (ca. 1472–ca. 1536)


Mahmud Muzahhib


Painting by Shaikh Zada

Folio from an illustrated manuscript. Date: A.H. 931/A.D. 1524–25

present-day Afghanistan, Herat

Ink, opaque watercolor, and gold on paper


Painting: H. 7 1/2 in. (19.1 cm) W. 4 1/2 in. (11.4 cm) Page: H. 12 5/8 in. (32.1 cm) W. 8 3/4 in. (22.2 cm) Mat: H. 19 1/4 in. (48.9 cm) W. 14 1/4 in. (36.2 cm)

Credit Line:

Gift of Alexander Smith Cochran, 1913

This artwork is currently on display in Gallery 455 at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York.

One of the best-known stories of Nizami’s Khamsa (Quintet) is that of Layla and Majnun, a tale akin to that of the star-crossed lovers Romeo and Juliet. This folio illustrates their meeting at the madrasa (school) where they fall in love at first sight. In addition to the young lovers, this highly detailed painting depicts activities typical of the sixteenth century schoolyard—with children burnishing paper, practicing their penmanship, and reading various types of books. Although the story takes place in Arabia, the architectural setting is quintessentially Persian.

During this time in Central and North Asia, 1400–1600 a.d., Central and West Asia come under the control of the Timurids, who rule over a large and important region for just over a hundred years. The Shaibanids, another Turko-Mongol dynasty, seize control of the urban oases of Transoxiana and Khwarazm from the Timurids in the sixteenth century. In the eastern regions, strife dominates the steppes, with different Mongol clans gaining and losing power over short periods of time. Several of the more long-lasting convert to Tibetan Buddhism during this period.

The Timurids were the final great dynasty to emerge from the Central Asian steppe. In 1370, the eponymous founder, Timur (Tamerlane), who belonged to a Turko-Mongol tribe settled in Transoxiana, became master of this province and established Samarqand as his capital. Within thirty-five years, he subjugated all of Central Asia, greater Iran, and Iraq, as well as parts of southern Russia and the Indian subcontinent. To the west, Timurid forces defeated the Mamluk army in Syria and that of the Ottomans at Ankara (1400–2). In 1405, while preparing to invade China, Timur died. The vast empire he carved proved to be difficult to keep; his son and successor, Shahrukh (r. 1405–47), barely managed to maintain the empire's boundaries, and subsequent Timurid princes sought to establish their own kingdoms, weakening the empire with internal strife. Eventually only Khorasan and Transoxiana remained Timurid, and during the remaining years of the dynasty, these were ruled by separate branches of the Timurid family.

By bringing craftsmen from different conquered lands to his capital in Samarqand, Timur initiated one of the most brilliant periods in Islamic art. Timurid art and architecture provided inspiration to lands stretching from Anatolia to India. Though Timur's extensive empire itself was relatively short-lived, his descendants continued to rule over Transoxiana as leading patrons of Islamic art. Through their patronage, the eastern Islamic world became a prominent cultural center, with Herat, the new Timurid capital, as its focal point. Timurid rulers were sympathetic to Persian culture and lured artists, architects, and men of letters who would contribute to their high court culture. Some of these rulers were also great patrons of the arts of the book, commissioning manuscripts that were copied, compiled, and illustrated in their libraries. Due to the flourishing of manuscript illumination and illustration, the Herat school is often regarded as the apogee of Persian painting. The Timurid period saw great achievements in other luxury arts, such as metalwork and jade carving. This cultural efflorescence found its ultimate expression at the court of Sultan Husain Baiqara (r. 1470–1506), the last effective Timurid ruler.

Many Timurid princes were also prodigious builders—religious institutions and foundations such as mosques, madrasas, khanqahs (convents), and Sufi shrines were the main beneficiaries of their building programs. The Timurid period also witnessed women as active patrons of architecture. Along with their immediate successors, the Shaibanids, the Timurid cultural tradition was also partly carried on by the Ottoman, Safavid, and Mughal empires.

The term Islamic art not only describes the art created specifically in the service of the Muslim faith (for example, a mosque and its furnishings) but also characterizes the art and architecture historically produced in the lands ruled by Muslims, produced for Muslim patrons, or created by Muslim artists. As it is not only a religion but a way of life, Islam fostered the development of a distinctive culture with its own unique artistic language that is reflected in art and architecture throughout the Muslim world.

With its geographic spread and long history, Islamic art was inevitably subject to a wide range of regional and even national styles and influences as well as changes within the various periods of its development. It is all the more remarkable then that, even under these circumstances, Islamic art has always retained its intrinsic quality and unique identity. Just as the religion of Islam embodies a way of life and serves as a cohesive force among ethnically and culturally diverse peoples, the art produced by and for Muslim societies has basic identifying and unifying characteristics. Perhaps the most salient of these is the predilection for all-over surface decoration. The four basic components of Islamic ornament are calligraphy, vegetal patterns, geometric patterns, and figural representation.

The technical aspects of calligraphy, painting, and bookbinding are important facets of the study of Islamic art. Treatises by sixteenth-century Persian authors Qazi Ahmed and Sadiqi Beq are the major sources on the working methods of artisans in the Islamic world. Further information on the organization of manuscript workshops and the division of labor within them is recorded in court annals and payrolls.

The production of illustrated books was concentrated in royal workshops because of the large expense involved. Many rulers were connoisseurs who collected books and paintings by famous artists. Books were also financial investments, donated toward the endowment of charitable foundations, and status symbols, presented as gifts between heads of state.

Workshops supported by rulers and members of their extended family produced copies of famous literary works, histories, and Qur’ans. Once a patron decided on a project, the director of the workshop saw it through to its conclusion. He laid out the pages, decided which parts of the text to illustrate, and chose scribes and artists based on the particular project.

The first step in creating a book was to make the paper. In the Islamic world, paper was made from rags of linen and hemp, not tree pulp. The rags were cut into strips and softened in limewater, then pounded into a pulp and soaked in a vat. To form a sheet of paper, a rectangular mold was placed into the vat and then left to dry. The water seeped out and the page hardened in the mold. Decorative touches were often added to the paper: some were tinted, some were sprinkled with gold, and others were marbled. Marbled papers were created by dispensing drops of colorant onto the surface of a water bath and running combs through the drops to create a pattern; a sheet of paper was then laid on the surface of the bath to absorb the colors. After drying, the paper was prepared to receive ink and paint with the application of a starchy solution that rendered the surface smooth and nonporous.

A scribe then prepared his ink (made of carbon boiled with gallnuts), made his pens, and pressed guidelines into the paper. He then copied the text, leaving spaces for illustrations where the director of the workshop had indicated.

Pen box, 13th century
Western Iran or northern Iraq (al-Jazira)
Brass inlaid with gold and silver

H. 1 5/8 in. (4.1 cm), L. 8 3/4 in. (22.2 cm)

Gift of Mrs. Lucy W. Drexel, 1889 (89.2.194)


After the text was completed, the pages passed to the painters. Most manuscripts were the work of a number of artists, each chosen to illustrate a particular scene; some artists, for instance, were known for their portraits, others for their battle scenes. A single page might also represent a collaborative effort, as junior artists were called upon to fill in backgrounds and landscapes. Before starting to paint, the artist laid out the composition with a very fine brush. Some elements might be copied from preexisting sketches by means of a device called a pounce. To create a pounce, the artist laid a piece of transparent paper or animal skin over the sketch to be copied and pricked holes into the top sheet around the outlines of the image below. To transfer the image to his new painting, he laid the pounce on top of the fresh sheet of paper and dusted it with charcoal powder from a cloth bag.

Page from a Poetic Anthology of Works by Nizami and Others, dated 1411; Timurid
Calligraphy by Mahmud al-Husaini
Iran (Shiraz)
Ink, colors, and gold on paper

H. 10 1/2 in. (26.7 cm), W. 7 in. (17.8 cm)

Gift of Alexander Smith Cochran, 1913 (13.228.19)

To create his pigments, the artist turned to nature. Mineral sources were gold, silver, lapis lazuli, ground cinnabar (for vermilion), orpiment (for yellow), and malachite (for green). These materials were expensive and substitutes were often used. Indigo was a common source of dark blue and azurite was used for a lighter blue. Verdigris produced green, and lead or a combination of mercury and sulfur created red. (Because a number of these materials are unstable or corrosive, the colors of many illustrated manuscripts have faded or tarnished, and some paints have eaten through the paper.) The pigment had to be suspended in a medium that allowed it to be brushed on to the page. Originally this was albumen or glue, which gave a glossy sheen to the paintings; after the sixteenth century, gum arabic, with a more matte finish, was used instead.

After the paintings were completed, illuminators and gilders added flourishes to the text, such as chapter headings, colored frames, and rulings. They also created frontispieces and end pages. Finally, each sheet was burnished with a hard stone or glass.

Binding: From a manuscript of the Mantiq al-Tayr (The Language of the Birds) of Farid al-Din cAttar, ca. 1600; Safavid
Iran (Isfahan)
Tooled and stamped leather on paper, gold, opaque watercolor

23 3/10 x 13.1/10 in. (59.2 x 33.2 cm)

Fletcher Fund, 1963 (63.210.67)

At this stage, the leaves of the book were ready to be sewn and bound. The covers were joined to a spine and a fore-edge flap that folded over the ends of the pages and tucked under the top cover. Bindings were decorated with simply tooled geometric or vegetal patterns, until the fifteenth-century Persian development of a design with a central oval medallion, pendants, and corner pieces created by the use of a mold. Half the binding was stamped and then the mold was reversed, forming a mirror image of the design in the other half. Surrounding the central medallion were arranged rich floral motifs, arabesques, and cloud bands. This style soon spread to India and Turkey. Through the sixteenth century, designs became more elaborate, with the addition of miniature figures and landscapes, and the doublures (interior covers) also came to be decorated. Patterns for these were created in cut-out leather, colored papers, and gilding. In the nineteenth century, lacquered bindings with painted designs replaced these elaborate leather works.

Human Imagery
Contrary to the assumption that the Koran prohibits figural representation, it only warns against the creation and worship of idols to prevent idolatry. Fueled by more orthodox interpretations of Islam, however, religious disapproval of figural representation took hold shortly after the Prophet’s death in 632. In general, figural imagery is excluded from works of art and architecture made in the service of the faith, such as Korans, religious structures, and the furnishings for these spaces. On the other hand, private buildings, objects, and manuscripts created for personal use and enjoyment were frequently embellished with figurative forms.

Layla and Majnun at School

The Khamsa (Five Poems) by Nizami  

Gouache. 23.7x13.7 cm
Iran. Timurid Dynasty. 1431
Source of Entry:   First Branch of the State Hermitage Museum (former Museum of the Stieglitz School). 1924 layla and majnun in school hermitage example.jpg

This is one of the 13 miniatures illustrating the poem Layla and Majnun in the Hermitage's famous Persian manuscript of the Khamsa, an anthology of five poems by the 12th-century poet Nizami, who lived on the territory of present-day Azerbaijan. In 1431 this manuscript of the Khamsa was copied out in Herat by the calligrapher Mahmud for Sultan Shahrukh (1405-1447), son of the legendary Tamerlaine (Timur).

The tale of this couple who loved each other from childhood, the beautiful Layla and the passionate Majnun, appeared in Arabia and then spread throughout the Moslem East. Nizami was the author of the first literary version of this legend.

Before us is a school, more severe than the palace interiors in other illustrations in this manuscript. In the middle is a strict tutor, "a man of knowledge - teacher of all the sciences", with a girl and boy beside him - Layla and Majnun. The poem relates how the boys in the class repeated the lesson, while Majnun was transfixed by Layla: "Nearby him was a girl, slender as a cypress tree, beauteous as the moon."

The combination of three columns of text and the impressive miniature, with small ornamental corners in the borders, indicate that both calligrapher and miniaturist worked closely together.

Folio from a Khamsa (Quintet) by Nizami; recto: Layla and Majnun at school; verso: text

circa 1600-1610 Safavid period

Opaque watercolor, ink and gold on paper

H: 26.3 W: 15.3 cm

A School Scene

Iran, 1530–1550

Opaque watercolor, ink, and gold on paper

37.2 x 23.9 cm

Arthur M. Sackler Gallery, Smithsonian Institution

Purchase—Smithsonian Unrestricted Trust Funds, Smithsonian Collections

Acquisition Program, and Dr. Arthur M. Sackler, s1986.221
This painting illustrates a number of finely detailed scenes that take place in a madrasa (school), including a master teaching his students, a group of students copying text, a craftsman making paper, and several men cooking. The inscription on the rug is an especially appropriate phrase to accompany an image of an educational environment.

Composed by the fourteenth-century Persian poet Hafiz, it reads, “Rely not upon the place of great men, unless you have prepared the quality of greatness in yourself.” The school scenes take place in a mosque because a mihrab—a prayer niche in a mosque—is clearly visible in the enclosure on the left, and someone is calling for prayer from the top of the minaret.

The creation of a manuscript involved many steps, several of which are illustrated in this piece. First, artists needed to make paper, a process depicted in figure 1. After it had dried, the paper was dyed and then burnished and polished with a hard stone, like the one held by the youth in the center of figure 2, to create a very smooth surface, after which the paper was sometimes flecked with gold. Lines were then pressed into the paper to establish the areas in which the text was to be copied by calligraphers in the manner of the scribe in the bottom left-hand corner of figure 2. If the page were to include illuminations and paintings, once the text was transcribed it was passed on to artists who created elaborate decorations around the text, after which the finished pages were gathered together, bound into protective covers, and trimmed to size. The entire process was supervised by a librarian in charge of coordinating each phase of production and ensuring that the manuscripts were fully and properly copied.
Several completed manuscripts can be seen on the carpets in the upper part of the painting.
(I could not find the details of the painting that they are discussing. The links were gone.)

The Role of Women in Islam

Throughout the history of Islam, which spans some fifteen hundred years, women rose to power in diverse regions, acting as regents and rulers who gave audiences, received petitions, signed edicts, made administrative policies, and even commanded armies. They minted coins bearing their titles and decreed that their names be proclaimed in Friday prayers (khutba), thereby legitimizing their right to rule according to Islamic law. Some of these rulers were of slave origin, purchased for the masters of the harem, while others were of royal descent, born to kings and queens. Imperial wives, daughters, and mothers also sat in on the meetings of the council of minister, served as ambassadors, and negotiated diplomatic treaties.

Powerful Muslim women made their appearance at the dawn of the Islamic era. Khadija (died 632), Muhammad’s first wife, was a wealthy woman engaged in trade and an avid supporter of the Prophet’s movement, as was the second wife, Aisha (died 678), who shared his revelations, held council, and even commanded an army, leading soldiers from her camel. The Prophet’s daughter Fatima, wife of the fourth

caliph, Ali, and mother of the martyrs Hasan and Husayn, presented the eulogy when her father died, and one of her descendants founded the Fatimids, the dynasty named for her.

According to the Koran, men and women are equal before god, and both sexes share equal rights and responsibilities within the faith. Islam sees a woman, whether single or married, as an individual who reserves the right to own and dispose of her own property and earnings, and she is permitted to either keep her family name or adopt her husband’s when she marries. Both men and women are expected to dress in a simple, modest, and dignified manner, but the dress in some Islamic countries reflects local customs more than it does religious principle. Likewise, the treatment of women in some areas of the Islamic world reflects cultural practices that are inconsistent with, if not contrary to, authentic Islamic teachings.

Persian Miniatures

The art of Persian miniatures began in Islamic Iran in the fourteenth century. These tiny illustrations of both historic and romantic manuscripts were commissioned by the wealthy rulers of Iran. Persian miniatures showed scenes of battles, dragon slayings and other epic events. Daily life in the royal courts of Iran was also portrayed in these small paintings. No matter what the topic, there was always a lot of action displayed in the miniatures. When the topic of the miniatures was religious, the Prophet Muhammad and his family were pictured as solid forms filled in with gold. Angels and other people were clearly shown, with understanding that the artist did not intend to compete with Allah for the glory of creation.
The Persian miniature illustrations were not realistic. They were flat and two-dimensional, without shadowing. Every surface of the illustration was covered with geometric and floral designs. Walls, clothes and buildings were lavishly decorated with arabesques and calligraphy. Each miniature seemed to be set in the spring due to the abundance of flowers blooming across the page. An elaborate border of gold surrounded each painting.
Although very small, Persian miniatures were very expensive. Only the richest rulers could afford to pay for books illustrated with the amazing paintings. Real gold and silver leaves were used to accentuate details in the scenes and in the borders. The bright colors that glowed like jewels on the page were made from crushed minerals, like lapis lazuli, and made into paint. Also, miniature artists were highly trained and extremely well paid for their work. It could often take up to a year for an artist to complete a single painting.


a page of a book or manuscript.


colorful illustration, often including gold or silver, that decorates manuscripts.


a book or text written by hand.


a theme or visual image repeatedly employed in a work.


a natural form altered to emphasize visual aspects, such as color and shapes.

visual unity

a state in which all parts of a work of art form a coherent whole.


rich in resins and tannic acid and have been used in the manufacture of permanent inks (such as iron gall ink) and astringent ointments, in dyeing, and in tanning.

Our Focus Painting

The painting Layla and Majnun at School was made during the sixteenth century by an unknown artist. It is believed that the artist was Persian and that the painting was done during the Safavid period. This image originally appeared on a leaf of the Khamseh of Nizami, a manuscript written by the Persian poet Niazami. Although the identity of the artists who created this work is not known, this painting was done in the style of Shaykh Kadeh.

Rhythms is created is this artwork by repeating the motif of a person. Although the people are in different positions and wearing different outfits, the repetition creates a rhythm that draws the viewer’s eyes through the artwork. There are also many patterns in this illustration. Look closely at the walls and floors of the classroom. Every surface is decorated with a pattern. The origin of the artwork is indicated by the Arabic text across the top of the work.

The identity of the artists is unknown, but the style is that of several of the most skilled artists of the Safavid period, including Shaykh Kadeh, Mir Musavvir, Sultan Muhammad and Mirza Ali. The painting is similar in style to other works included in the Khamseh of Nizami.

This painting was created using ink, colored pigments, and gold applied to paper.

Critical Thinking:

  1. Examine one of the patterns in the painting used for this lesson. What is the motif?

  2. Trace the line of people with your finger. Explain whether this movement is curving or diagonal.

  3. Find two places in this illustration where a pattern is repeated.

  4. Where is the movement leading our eyes? Where do your eyes naturally stop?

  5. Find a place in this painting where you see rhythm. Where is the rhythm that you see?

  6. Look at the students in the illustration. Describe what they are doing.

  7. Indentify the teacher in the painting.

  8. Discuss which language is represented in the painting.

  9. Compare to school today in Afghanistan, Iran or Iraq. Compare to our schools.


1. Creating a Miniature Painting—this could take more than one class. Maybe have them sketch a small detail of their class room and then paint it. Or they can take more time to draw and paint on their own later. This should be more about a miniature than about painting.


1. poster paints, a variety of colors

2. a variety of small and medium round and flat brushes

4. small paint containers, such a mini-muffin pans or cups

5. heavy white paper, poster or watercolor, relatively small squares or rectangles

6. fine, black felt tipped pens

7. metallic gold paint or markers


1. Show students examples of the art, reviewing its characteristics.

2. Students select a story to illustrate and make a sketch. Explain that just as the Persian miniatures illustrated poems, stories or historical events, the students will select a fairy tale, poem or even a special event in their own life to portray. Make a pencil sketch to include very precise details, as shown in the samples. 5. Use washes of paint for the largest parts of the background.

6. Paint the smaller areas of your picture. Paint the smallest details with very small brushes and possibly thin black felt pens.

7. Now the fun -- highlight selected details with the metallic gold paint, using small brushed or gold markers.

8. Create a decorative border to surround your picture. Decorate it with arabesque or geometric designs, and use more gold paint for a finishing touch.

Tempera paints, also known as poster paints, is a good choice of paint to use for these paintings. It is a water-based paint and usually is opaque, although it can be thinned with water. When very thin, it becomes a wash and is used to cover relatively large background areas with light color. Because they are water-based, the bright colored tempera or poster paints mix and clean up easily. I will buy some tempera paint powders for you to use throughout the year. Please mix them in your class room, not the media room.

2. Drawing in miniature


1. pencil

2. paper with black miniature square outline
Brainstorm with the students a list of common fairy tales. Identify exciting events from the fairy tales.

Using the last page in this lesson plan, copy it for each student. Have a student pass out one to each student. Then ask them to create a drawing in miniature inside the black box on that sheet. Have them draw a scene from a fairy tale, one from school or of their house within that square. If they have time they can create an elaborate border for their scene.

When they are finished you can ask them to talk about the ease of using such a small space for their images.

3. Using text in art

This is a more modern take, but easier to do maybe. You can find some fun texts from fairy tales or popular books for them to use.

Students should choose a secular or religious text that is particularly meaningful to them to use. It could be a favorite short poem. The first step is to have students practice writing their text as a decorative element. They could use thin markers or a pen. Students can use whatever language they want to express their text. Next students will design a context for the calligraphy text. This context should integrate the text with the design. The design can be abstract or realistic.

Students will create a collage on which the text will be written. Students should consider color, form, symmetry, etc., when they create their works. The collages should be on heavy stock paper or illustration board. Some materials to consider are tissue paper, rice paper, paper that has been painted, and fabric. Once the collage is complete students should write their chosen text in the area of the collage they have left for this purpose. They could write the text on another piece of paper, which they then include in the collage.


Although showing them the process of paper making could be fun for this art work, I do have another artist later in the school year that this activity would work for even better. We are going to look at modern paper artists and some of them also make their own paper.

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