Picturing the Depicted

This panel was compiled by the Conference Program Team from independently submitted paper proposals


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This paper explores the visual representations of cooking and objects of eating and drinking as means for the transmission of cookery methods and of culinary cultural practices and memories in Safavid Iran. Scholarship has elaborated on culinary arts and their dissemination through discursive means — mainly of medieval and early modern cookery treatises. On the evidence of the objects — the utensils and vessels for serving as well as eating and drinking — art historical studies have also greatly advanced our understanding of materials, shapes and decorative specificities of the corpus of luxury objects of utility. The intersection of the two branches, for instance, has contributed to our understanding for the emergence of vast serving plates in Safavid Iran when rice became a main food staple mainly in elite circles. And in both cases of scholarship, we have often drawn from depictions of such objects in mural and book paintings to support general assumptions about status and utility of vessels. Neither group (cookbook or art), however, has explored the objects or their representations as visual meditions in the processes of making culinary knowledge and of its transmission as cultural memory. This investigation builds upon two sets of observations underlying recent research I have undertaken: 1) Safavid urban-court production of culinary objects represent statistically greater typological diversity than we find in surviving objects from comparable environments in Ottoman and Mughal realms; 2) 'taste' is among the sense perceptions that are evoked not only in poetic terms but more importantly in Persian painting and culinary objects. At the intersection of food, object and taste lies, this paper suggests, the cultural transmission of a historically situated sensory experience. With a focus on urban elite in Safavid Iran, this paper treats visual representations of cookery, and their related objects, as a collective of non-inscribed practices for the 'popular' transmission of culinary knowledge.

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‘Ayyārān play an important role in a number of Persian prose romances. Only in a few instances such figures entered polite literature where, as can be expected, they were not easy at home. The transplantation from prose romance to romantic mathnavī resulted in a major transformation of the ‘ayyār figure. The changes, however, were not only due to the incorporation into a different genre but also reflected the supplanting of the ‘ayyār by the shāṭir that took place in the real world.

The paper analyses the changes in character and function of the ‘ayyār in the mathnavī Jamāl va Jalāl as it is preserved in the manuscript O Nova 2 at the Library of Uppsala University. It is based upon visual evidence as well as on textual, thereby taking into account that the 33 miniatures in O Nova 2 represent an early-16th-century interpretation of a text which was most probably composed in the early 15th century.

The author, Muhammad Nazlabadi, explicitly states that Jamal’s efforts to find his beloved Jamal describe the mystical quest, and that the ‘ayyār with the telling name Faylasuf symbolises love (‘ishq). This Faylasuf still successfully deals with the perils encountered on the journey as this happens in the prose romances. However, he is no longer provided with the support net of comrades that made him an independent actor but has to rely on help from Jamal and other fairies as well as on his new ability as a sorcerer.

While the text transforms the ‘ayyār into a kind of fairy the illustrations don’t visualise his daring actions but portray him nearly exclusively as the omnipresent servant: running in front of his prince, taking care of the horse, unloading pack animals. Still not formally dressed he appears on most miniatures as a shāṭir.