Books and their Ornamentation

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Muhammad Isa Waley, with contributions from François Déroche

Article contents:
The study of decoration: ends and means
Manuscript decoration and its importance in codicology
The scope of the present chapter
Sources: extent and origin of present knowledge
Manuscripts and the decorative arts
The role of decoration
Non-Islamic antecedents and parallels
The relation between illumination and other fields of decorative art
The repertoire of ornament
Elements at the beginning of texts
Qurʼan manuscripts*
Non-Qurʼanic texts*
Identification of the text on the recto of the first folio*
Indicators of commissioning patron or library*
Beginning the text on the verso of the first leaf...*

The study of decoration: ends and means

Even before the advent of the Muslim religion, decorating manuscripts was already a well-established practice in the birthplace of Islam. Very early on, its practitioners were embellishing the books they copied, a habit that stirred up a lively debate in the community concerning what was permissible and what forbidden. The best-known facet of this argument concerns the representation of living beings: their prohibition did not in practice, however, altogether preclude manuscripts with paintings from being produced. This important question continues to be discussed today and is the object of a great deal of research that has thrown up some extremely interesting findings.[1] It is important to note that whereas in the study of European manuscripts “illumination” often means (or includes) “illustration”, in Islamic studies the two are invariably distinguished.

In line with the perspective of the present volume, the following account of illumination aims above all to aid description and further understanding. It is a subject that would benefit from greater uniformity in the application of technical terms. The usage of common expressions - frontispiece[2] or sarla𝓌,[3] for example - has not yet been fixed even among specialists; depending on the author concerned, the same word may denote something different. In future it would be helpful to establish conventions governing usage, but in the meantime the guiding principle must be for writers to try to ensure that they apply their own usage consistently.

Manuscript decoration and its importance in codicology

The reader may justifiably be wondering as to the purpose and significance of the study of manuscript decoration for those interested mainly in the manuscripts themselves, and only to a lesser extent (if at all) in art history. As we shall see, however, knowledge of the subject can certainly prove useful, and on occasion even essential, to codicologists. This applies especially to identifying the geographical provenance and date of a manuscript in which this information is not provided by the copyist or by other internal written evidence; and also when evidence is being sought about the later travels and ownership history of a manuscript to which ornamentation was added not at the time of copying but at some later stage.[4]

Moreover, the evolution of the book in Arabic script, at least as regards the very finest examples, is marked by a tendency to impart a unitary decorative scheme: binding and inner covers complete, or at least reflect, the illumination within, even though the means employed - gilding, painting, filigree, etc. - are distinct. This should also be kept in mind when examining how artists approached the task of decorating manuscript books.

The presence or absence of ornamentation also furnishes an indication as to the status of the manuscript as a whole and of the person for whom it was produced. Numerous other parameters have to be taken into account, including the style of script and the type of paper, but there are occasions when the style of ornamentation (often including the binding as well as illumination) constitutes the single most reliable indication of provenance. A note of caution must nevertheless be sounded: it is not unknown for illuminations to be added to manuscripts, often long after they were copied,[5] and there are also examples of illumination (as well as of miniatures) being extracted from one manuscript and inserted into another.[6]

From a codicological point of view, all illumination deserves attention; unsophisticated, even slipshod, examples are far from devoid of interest. After all, these form the majority of surviving decorated works, and can prove invaluable for dating or for establishing the place of origin of a manuscript, as well as for allowing the scholar to gauge more accurately the quality of the production of books in Arabic script of every kind.

In addition, the materials employed in manuscript decoration represent a precious source of information on the places and conditions in which they were produced.[7] Relatively little physical and chemical analysis has been carried out to date, but it is to be hoped that their development in years to come will allow comparative studies to be carried out on larger samples of manuscripts.[8]

The scope of the present chapter

Manuscript ornamentation can be examined in relation either to the history of decorative art or to the history of the book, and the present survey will tend to concentrate on the latter. As regards the arts of the Islamic book, new fields of study have opened up and discoveries been made which cast new light not only on the craftsmanship and creative processes involved, but also on the nature and ideology of patronage as well as on the structures that nurtured the high art in which specialists in this area are primarily interested. As stated above, in the context of codicology, the examination of manuscript decoration of less exalted quality - including that appearing on commonplace texts designed for everyday use - is no less rewarding. The aim here is to provide a very brief account of the purposes, historic development, typologies and techniques involved.

Because of the centuries-long history and wide geographical diffusion of Islamic illumination, it is of course out of the question to deal with the material in exhaustive fashion in a few pages. Instead, the focus will be on a limited number of examples whose purpose is to illustrate the main thrust of the argument. This chapter will take more account of manuscripts from outside the Arab world than some of the other essays in the Handbook. Many significant developments in the art of illumination took place in Iranian and Turkic regions, India and elsewhere; also, great quantities of copies of Arabic texts survive that were written and decorated in these and other regions.

Sources: extent and origin of present knowledge

As specialised research in the field of manuscript studies advances, it may be anticipated that future discoveries will be made that will extend knowledge and improve understanding. Indeed there are grounds for believing that even new sources will eventually come to light. First among written sources come technical manuals and treatises composed by and for the craftsmen. None of the known extant works is more than 5oo years old, but they contain valuable information about techniques as well as about noted artists and their oeuvre. Important research has been carried out in this field by Yves Porter and others.[9] In a few cases, such as the celebrated treatise in Persian by Qāḍī Aḥmad,[10] the reader will encounter biographical (or pseudo-biographical) information on distinguished artists and also on the forms and techniques associated with them.

A second important corpus of sources is constituted by archival documents and inscriptions concerning the organisation of the tradesmen and their workshops. Scholars such as Īraj Afshār, Annemarie Schimmel and Wheeler Thackston have also traced scattered literary references to the production and decoration of manuscripts, in poetry as well as prose, and compared them to extant examples. Such allusions seem to have been more numerous in the Persian-speaking domain, one of the regions where the art of illumination reached a peak of refinement. It may be added, at the risk of stating the obvious, that the predominant means employed by craftsmen in teaching their arts to apprentices under them were direct verbal instruction and practical demonstration; ‘trade secretsʼ were often jealously guarded. Today, knowledge of traditional methods has been deepened by the insights of present-day craftsmen and -women in both the Muslim world and the West, and also through the practical work and growing experience of specialist conservators, both of which have given a new lease of life to age-old techniques.

Perhaps the most important source, though, consists of internal evidence gleaned from illuminated manuscripts themselves and from related documents. As with other forms of art, minute examination and comparative research by specialists has yielded a mine of information. There is a wealth of evidence from colophons and other texts that give concrete details about the activities of individual illuminators (as well as on scribes and other craftsmen) which awaits methodical presentation, analysis and interpretation by scholars.

Manuscripts and the decorative arts

In the following account, the applications, the forms and, so to speak, the genres of manuscript illumination (tadhhīb;[11] modern Turkish tezhip) will be treated more thoroughly than the history of the art. Nevertheless, it may be appropriate to consider certain aspects of illumination in relation to the decorative arts, since they bear some relevance to the origins of this art form and to the cultural milieu in which it was practised.

The role of decoration

At this point, an elementary yet fundamental question arises: why did - indeed why do- craftsmen add decoration to manuscripts? Account must first be taken of the repute and significance of the book prior to the onset of printing and mass-production. In the sense that it is a handmade artefact, every manuscript can lay some claim to uniqueness. Furthermore, even when little illumination was added, in the Middle Ages high-quality copies were considered as luxury objects because of the scarcity of the materials employed and because of the time and skill necessary to produce them. In these days of huge print-runs and global distribution networks, a certain effort of imagination must be exercised to understand the extraordinary mystique that once attached to fine books. This aura was felt not only by connoisseurs but also by many of the illiterate majority - as well as by those who deliberately burnt books. The prestige associated with quality books as artefacts and as vectors of a given text is reflected in patronage, both individual and institutional. To own books or to pay for their production conferred renown on literati and laymen alike. Many fine manuscripts contain illuminated panels commemorating the patron or patronessʼs ownership or else their bestowal on an institution as a pious endowment.

In a previously published article,[12] the present writer proposed a classification of Islamic manuscript illumination based on function under four categories, according to the type of text or document concerned. Before examining the various forms of illumination, we shall consider this typology only briefly, since such a classification is too restrictive to serve as a basis for more advanced analysis, and many manuscripts fall into more than one of the pre-set categories. It should be borne in mind that beauty and utility do not necessarily represent separate considerations: in illumination, as in all creative enterprises, they often go hand in hand (illus. 39, 40).

In the European manuscript tradition, practical utility figured high among the purposes of ornamentation: headings and initials in colour or gilt and with or without decor helped the reader negotiate his way through the text. The same applies to the Islamic book: the reader of the Qurʼān and other texts, be they religious or profane, has even greater need of signs to indicate the beginnings of chapters or other textual units. However, whereas ornate initial capitals are among the most important decorative elements of Christian book illumination, Arabic script has no capitals. The Muslim reader looks out for, but does not always find other indicators to aid ‘navigationʼ through the text. Orthography is a further factor. To avoid ambiguity or difficulties in reading, signs were invented to differentiate between short vowels for which no graphemes proper exist in the alphabet; these signs were occasionally made more prominent by the use of colour, and could even be transformed into an independent decorative element. Other manifestations of ornament for the sake of utility will be considered in a discussion of the different kinds of texts to which illumination was applied.

Ornamental aspects

This category appears, for example, in literary works where the embellishment of a text may relate to its nature as a work of the imagination. In a collection of narrative poems, for example, the form of the decorative panels on the title page resembles an arched doorway giving access into another world; the frontispiece can thus be compared to a magic carpet that transports the mind to far-flung or make-believe lands. Occasionally a short encomium to the author or his work figures in the illuminated panels of the opening to the text.

Religious aspects

As in the Occident, manuscripts were often decorated in ways designed to imbue the reader or beholder with reverential awe and a sense of the ineffable beauty of the spiritual world. The first works to be illuminated by Muslims were copies of the Qurʼān: mention has already been made of the practical reason behind this choice. Chrysography (writing in gold ink) is not especially rare, and numerous Qurʼānic manuscripts have survived which contain the entire text copied in letters of gold outlined in black. In many relatively modest volumes, important words or phrases, such as Allāh or other Divine Names, are highlighted in gold. Better known and more significant is the utilisation of illumination in decorating the opening of a Qurʼānic text and the margins of each page. Monographs have been devoted to the study and evaluation of illuminations such as these, which have come to epitomise Islamic art.[13]

Socio-political aspects

Thirdly, book decoration can also be a manifestation of political position and/or social standing. Besides manuscripts whose decoration stems from charitable impulses or self-aggrandisement on the patronʼs part, there is also illumination applied to official documents, decrees and letters of state, whose status as well as beauty is enhanced by illumination. What applies to manuscripts proper is equally true of documents such as royal decrees or correspondence. Since every official letter (or document of this type) was inextricably associated with the personage in whose name or for whose benefit it was issued or promulgated, close links exist between geographic region and decorative style, evidence that helps to determine the spatial distribution and time frame of the illuminations involved.

Practical aspects

Numerous texts were designed by and for professionals in some particular domain: they were occasionally embellished in order to assist in understanding their contents. Examples of this phenomenon include works on scientific or technical subjects, in which decorative elements may make the text and/or the accompanying illustrations easier to grasp. Illuminated diagrams, star charts, terrestrial maps, technical drawings, tables of numbers or other data all fall into this category.

Non-Islamic antecedents and parallels

Illumination of an Ottoman alphabet primer, first half of the 19th century. Istanbul, Topkapı Sarayı Müzesi, EH 435, f. 1vo.
73. Illumination of an Ottoman alphabet primer, first half of the 19th century. Istanbul, Topkapı Sarayı Müzesi, EH 435, f. 1vo.

In discussing Greek and Latin manuscripts surviving from late Classical and Byzantine times containing decorative features, Richard Ettinghausen expresses agreement with Adolf Grohmannʼs contention that a form of panel found in some of the earliest examples of Islamic illumination derives in fact from a classical prototype, the ansa or tabula ansata, a shape resembling a kind of tray with wedge-shaped handles.[14] Historians of art have also discerned the influence of wall paintings and artefacts from Central Asia or early Persian book painting and illumination. There is an interesting parallel to Islamic decorated text openings in a Soghdian manuscript from Central Asia preserved at the British Library: a scroll that unrolls to reveal at the very beginning a kind of title-piece design including depictions of ducks. Studies on the Manichaean book and its decoration tend to suggest that there might be a grain of truth in legends that tell of rivers of liquid gold and silver pouring from pyres of lavishly illustrated and illuminated manuscripts burnt by the conquering Muslims. Art historians have also convincingly traced lotus flowers to Indian models and other decorative features, such as cloudbands, to a Chinese origin. The palmette motif in the margins of numerous ancient Qurʼān manuscripts seems to have come from Sassanian Iran. Finally, there exist close similarities between certain motifs in Coptic textiles and in early Qurʼāns, a significant example being the eight-pointed star.

Farther west, and a few centuries later, the history and development of manuscript and book decoration in Europe and that of Islamic illumination unfolded along very different lines. Yet, in its formative period, Christian book illustration in the Near East seems to have influenced that of Iraq and Iran. In more recent centuries too, there were times and places where an interchange of sorts occurred, particularly when European rococo elements found their way into the decorative repertoire of Muslim artisans and illuminators (illus. 73). On the other hand, Islamic motifs, like their European counterparts, sometimes exerted palpable influence on the work of Jewish, Armenian and Eastern Christian illuminators generally. Better-known examples include some of the fine Hebrew manuscripts from the Yemen.[15]

The relation between illumination and other fields of decorative art

The question then arises as to whether the similarities that often appear between elements of design and decoration on manuscripts and in other specimens of Islamic art should be interpreted as coincidences or as borrowings. If they are indeed borrowings, was the illuminator more often lender or borrower? How are the various ornamental motifs and elements to be ‘readʼ or ‘interpretedʼ in terms of symbolism and cultural ideology? These fascinating questions fall outside the scope of this study, but the curious reader is advised to consult specialised studies on the subject by art historians, in particular those written by Eva Baer[16] (on types of ornamentation, their organisation in applied art and architecture and the connections between the various art forms), and by Oleg Grabar[17] (for the role and the interpretation of ornamental elements in Islamic art).

To summarise, there exist many numerous and often striking parallels - but not at all necessarily causal relationships - between manuscript decoration and ornamentation on ceramics, textiles, and metal objects, on wood or stone sculpture and even on modern posters and lorry bodywork. Ettinghausen[18] has suggested that manuscript illumination was a kind of ‘mother artʼ, and as such was often an inspirational source of designs for artisans working in three-dimensional media. Quite apart from the parallels he cites as evidence for this thesis, it is clear that it would have been easier to innovate while working in two rather than three dimensions, if only for technical reasons.

The repertoire of ornament

Unsurprisingly perhaps, considering the time-frame and extent of the geographical area involved, illuminators and decorators of Islamic manuscripts were able to draw on an immense vocabulary of decorative elements. In the embryonic stages of the study of Islamic art, stylistic classification based on dynastic history proved more or less adequate; this is no longer true today, since scholars, in their quest for trends and influences, now focus more closely on minor details while at the same time encompassing broader horizons.

Elements are incorporated into a considerable number of different forms or units, from minuscule text dividers to full-page decorations, As a result, presentation of the typology and nomenclature of the components will inevitably end up by being rather lengthy in comparison with the treatment of other aspects.

Among other purposes, illumination serves to organise the text; it thus naturally articulates key points of contact between text and non-text, such as the beginning and the end of a manuscript. In these zones, illumination may perform specialised functions complementary to those already mentioned.

In order to simplify the account that follows, reference will be to the foliation of an imaginary ‘standardʼ manuscript. In practice, though, the numbering of the folios can differ from this standard owing to the presence of additional folios before what would in the standard format be f. ɪ, or else due to the disappearance of the latter. Sometimes only the folio containing evidence of ownership or 𝓌aqf status was removed, leaving (for example) only the left-hand page of the decoration of two facing frontispieces of the manuscript. Unfortunately, instances of this kind of vandalism are not rare.

Elements at the beginning of texts

The approaches adopted by illuminators in the past were highly diverse, as were the tasks they undertook and the means or media they used. Some manuscripts contain only the types of illumination described below, whereas in others the text opening has more than one ornamented page.[19] The forms of decoration described here are therefore not always mutually exclusive. Moreover, a manuscript is not invariably a single textual unity, and it is not unknown for a second or third within it to start at a point other than an initial folio. In order to highlight the new content for the reader, the illuminator may put in the appropriate place a decoration similar to those mentioned below.

Qurʼan manuscripts...

*The remainder of this article is exclusively available in the printed version of the related book. The book is available in both electronic and printed formats within Our Publications in the following link:

[1] For an initial approach, see J. Wensinck [T. Fahd], EI2 IX, pp. 889- 892, s.v. ‘ṣūra’.

[2] This term should be reserved for a title accompanied by decoration, though the meanings given it by authors are much more varied.

[3] Gacek, AMT, p. 67. Certain authorities hold that the sarla𝓌is a reasonably large illuminated panel placed at the beginning of a text or section of a text; it contrasts with ‘un𝓌ān, a word applied to bands occupying less than a quarter of the surface area of the page. Here, the term sarla𝓌refers to a title band or heading.

[4] M. I. Waley, ‘Problems and possibilities in dating Persian manuscripts’, Mss du MO, pp. 7-15.

[5] One example among many is a Tīmūrid copy of Jāmī’s Yūsuf υa Zulaykhā (MS. London BL Or. 10903).

[6] MS. London BL Or. 13014 (al-Jāḥiẓ’s Risāla fi madḥ al-kutub) contains a ‘borrowed’ basmala.

[7] See Chapter ‘Instruments and preparations used in book production’.

[8] See also Chapter ‘Instruments and preparations used in book production’.

[9] Y. Porter, Painters, paintings and books (New Delhi, 1994).

[10] Calligraphers and Painters, transl. V. Minorsky (Washington DC, 1959).

[11] Gacek, AMT, p. 51.

[12] M. I. Waley, ‘Illumination and its functions in Islamic manuscripts’, Scribes, pp. 87-112.

[13] See especially M. Lings, The Quranic art of calligraphy and illumination (Westerham, Kent/Brooklyn, NY, 1976).

[14] R. Ettinghausen ‘Manuscript Illumination’, SPA, pp. 1943-1944; see also T. W. Arnold and A. Grohmann, The Islamic Book (Leipzig, 1929), p. 25.

[15] See for example two folios of the Pentateuch from the Yemen dated 874/1469, reproduced in J. Gutmann, Hebrew manuscript painting (New York, 1978), pls. 1 and 2.

[16] E. Baer, Islamic ornament (Edinburgh, 1998).

[17] O. Grabar, The Mediation of ornament (Princeton, NJ, 1992).

[18] Ettinghausen, op. cit., p. 1938.

[19] See MS. Paris BNF suppl. persan 1525; q.v. Richard, PARIS 1997, p. 106, no. 62.

Source note:
This article was published in the following book:
Islamic Codicology: An Introduction to the Study of Manuscripts in Arabic Script _ English version, 2005, Al-Furqan Islamic Heritage Foundation, London, UK, pp. 225-254.
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