Divine Delusions: Visions of the Supernatural in Persianate painting.

This panel is the art historical companion to the literature panel “Wonders of the Word: Duality and Dichotomy in the Enchanted World of Epic Storytelling.” It explores the visual aspect of the supernatural world in the Qur’an, the Shahnameh, Hamzanama and other epic tales.

Revolving around the adventures of mythological, religious and historical figures, the supernatural and spiritual are a crucial component of epic manuscript painting and literature. These stories captivated their audiences with accounts and illustrations of the adventures of epic heroes with the magical creatures of the legendary Mount Qaf.

Each paper examines a different aspect and range of characters from the supernatural world. Focusing on the visual, the changing iconography of the fantastic is examined in the context of its duality and the illusory line between the real and surreal, the physical and the symbolic, the religious and areligious and good and evil. The papers follow a sequence of the visual, with the progressive inclusion of the symbolic and the spiritual.

The first examines Div iconography in the context of illustrations that expose a surprising element of humanity. It probes the Safavid and Mughal artists' vision of evil and the methods used to add a deeper dimension, character and complexity to the monstrous physicality of the demon.

The second studies the significance of the magnificent Simorgh in Iranian mythology, epic poetry, folktales and mystic literature. It traces its visual representation from the Sassanian to the present and explores the duality of its presence both as a physical creature as well as a symbolic one.

The third discusses the visual traditions of the Qurʾānic narrative associated with Ādam and interpretively charters the supernatural iconography of angels, devils, serpents and dragons.

The fourth paper, added to the panel by the organizers, examines the depiction of wondrous animals in the Inju style of painting.


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The Supernatural is a fundamental feature of Persian and Mughal miniature painting and literature. It plays a dramatic role wherein the strengths and actions of the heroes are set against sorcerers and Divs who live on Mount Qaf with angels and the Simorgh.
Divs are the visual symbols of evil. They are portrayed as vicious and contrary creatures and illustrated as hairy, ugly monsters that inspire little pathos. Of the ten Divs named by attributes in the Shahnameh, two have proper names and the rest are known by color. Div Akvan and Arzhang Div are brothers who, along with the White Div, are the villains of Rostam's most illustrated adventures. Yet, despite their outward appearance, there exists an intriguing duality that belies their repulsive physical attributes and hints at the notion that when Disney sought an image for its noble savage in “Beauty and the Beast,” it chose the Persianate Div.

This paper is a study of the Divs in the Shahnameh and the Mughal Hamzanama. The study begins with the drawings of the artist Siyāh Qalam whose demons were the inspiration for the Safavid and Mughal artists. These central Asian creatures betray an elusive depth of character that is most effectively picked up by the spectacular array of Divs in the work of the Safavid artist Sultan Mohammad. Observed with humor and pathos, his demons amuse and delight; and imbued with an endearing charisma, these colorful personalities display and evoke a range of conflicting emotions. The Divs in the Hamzanama are significantly different. Much larger, noisier and more flamboyant than their Persian cousins, together with armies of sorcerers and giants, they are a formidable presence both in the tales and in the illustrations where they are often the faithful companions of the hero and adhere to a distinct code of honor.
This paper documents the progressive change in style, vision, and taste of patrons and artists towards the depiction of the supernatural. It focuses on the comparison and development of Div iconography in Persian and Mughal painting and epic literature.
It explores the irreverent relationship of the artist with his demons and highlights the ‘zany” side of these complex creatures of evil while affirming their importance and appeal in illustrated manuscripts.

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Simorgh is a fabulous mythical bird that is found in all periods of the history of Persia, and shares features with other legendary birds. It looms large in Iranian mythology, folktale and mystic literature. It also features in cultures and traditions of a number of civilisations, and has been compared many times with other fabulous birds such as the Greek Phoenix, The Chinese Fenghuang, the Slavic Zhar-ptitsa, the Arab Qoqnus or even the Persian Homa.

In the pre-Islamic period we see the bird as a Senmurv or dog-bird prominent in Sassanian art. In the post-Islamic period it becomes a large bird with majestic plumage, brightly coloured red, orange and yellow, like a bonfire which is true to its nature. In some legends it plunges itself into flames to be consumed and reborn from its own ashes, a feature shared with the Phoenix of Western cultures as well as with the Egyptian Benou, a mysterious bird which appears once every 500 years on the occasion of its death and rebirth. Simorgh’s tears and plumage have healing powers and it is the only creature who can look directly at the sun.

Simorgh is a central character both in epic poetry and in mystical literature. While in the former, notably the Shahnama, it has a physical presence and is the saviour, tutor and guardian of Zal and subsequently of his son Rustam, in the latter it is the symbolic play on the words Si-morg, the flock of birds on a quest for enlightenment in search of their king, of which only thirty (si) reach their destination.

This paper examines the significance of the Simorgh in the art, mythology and folklore of different cultures and the ways it has been represented in different media. It further looks at the influence it has exerted on artists and the ways in which it has captured, and continues to capture, the imagination of the world.

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The Qurʾānic version of the creation of Ādam, who was singled out to teach the angels (malāʾika) the names of all things, is central for the understanding of the position of angels in Islam. It relates that God ordered the angels to prostrate themselves before the first man and first prophet in Islam and this they did, save the rebellious angel, Satan/Iblīs, who refuses to honour God’s command.

This paper will revisit the visual traditions of the paradigmatic events of the Qurʾānic narrative associated with Ādam and interpretively charter the iconography and the iconographic sources of the portrayal of its protagonists, the supernatural creatures (angels and devils), ophidian creatures (serpents and dragons) and the first of man of the creation myth and his wife, Ḥawwā.

It will appraise the role of the spiritual beings, created to obey, submit and worship God, by examining the ritual devotions and performance by the angels, the symbolism of the form and the direction of their worship, as well as their role in the articulation of sacred space in these scenes. This finds reflection in the iconographic representations of the newly created human, Ādam (in some instances together with Ḥawwā), enthroned in primordial Paradise receiving the acknowledgement of the angels (with the exception of Iblīs) who out of obedience to the divine command, in some instances; are shown to assume the position of Islamic ritual prayer (sajada). The idyllic life is brought to an abrupt end when Ādam and Ḥawwā eat the forbidden fruit (or, in Islamic tradition, the grain), and, under the gaze of the supernatural beings, are expelled from the garden of Eden; the sojourn on earth also leads to the Ādamic associations of the Kaʿba, the locus par excellence of the paradigmatic interplay of spiritual beings, ophidian creatures and the first prophet.

The concomitant clash of opposites, of benevolent and malevolent beings, is shown as constant struggle, coexistence of opposites or may hint at a transcendence of opposites. This is mirrored in the varied roles assigned to Iblīs as well as his link with the serpent, or the dragon. The review of the diverse visual traditions of elements of this conception of creation with its original conditions endeavours to unearth further metaphorical applications of symbolic pointers in Islamic religious thought, iconographic correspondences and layers of a distinct religious aesthetic vocabulary.

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Although book production was practiced in Islamic lands for centuries, illustrating and illuminating became an essential part of book production under Ilkhanid patronage. The Ilkhanid patrons, their elite, and following them--the provincial rulers--showed particular interest in sponsoring both the Islamic religious as well as Persian literary texts. One of the most heavily copied and illustrated texts of this time is the Iranian national epic, Shāhnāma, a verse account on the history of pre-Islamic kings of Persia composed by Firdausi, finished in the early years of the eleventh century. In this study, through an iconographic examination of illustrations in four Shāhnāma manuscripts produced under the patronage of the Inju rulers in Shiraz, in southern province of Fars, during the first half of the fourteenth century, I will examine the characteristics of this provincial school of painting contemporary with the Ilkhanid rule. Moreover, a comparative analysis of text and image in the scenes including the wondrous and fantastic animals reveals how closely the painters followed the text, and what other sources inspired the representations of these animals. After a close examination of the illustration on a single folio of a Shāhnāma manuscript (dated 1352-3 AD), now preserved at the Royal Ontario Museum, Toronto, I suggest that popular narrative rather than historical sources or the Shāhnāma text, itself, inspired the Inju painter in representing the animal, a horse, in the case of this painting. Unlike most of the illustrations of Shāhnāma that closely follow the text of this national epic, the image of this particular horse, the killer of Yazdigird the Sinner, does not delineate any demonic features as Firdausi describes. The occurrence of the same natural-looking horse in the same episode from other Shāhnāma manuscripts produced during the first half of the fourteenth century in Iran proposes the existence of a common belief regarding the death of this king as the historical sources attest.