Spinning Pictures: Reading Nizami as Jami

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Institutional Affiliation : 
Columbia University
Academic Bio: 
Chad Kia has a PhD in Middle Eastern and Asian Languages and Cultures and Comparative Literature from Columbia University. His research concentrates on the relationship of medieval poetry to figurative manuscript paintings from the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries. He has studied Islamic Art at New York University's Institute of Fine Arts and was a Smithsonian Fellow at the Freer & Sackler Galleries of Art in Washington. His article on text and image in a fifteenth century manuscript at the Metropolitan Museum of Art was published in Muqarnas in 2006.

This paper reconstructs a trend in Persian manuscript painting that dominated artistic production during the early Safavid period (16th century), but was initiated in the last decades of Timurid rule in Herat when, in addition to conveying the actors and actions of a given textual narrative, manuscript illustrations begin also to include figure-types that seem to have little or no connection to the story related by the text.  Such extra-textual depictions disturb the transparency and cohesiveness of the composition and have never been satisfactorily accounted for, although they abound in post-Timurid Persian paintings. 
This paper interprets such figure-types as a complex of iconographic symbols whose referents are a much wider discourse of Sufism transcending any single literary or didactic work and extending over several centuries.  Through analyses of textual passages of works by Nizami and Jami in conjunction with the iconography of the seminal painting, “Majnun on Layla’s Tomb” from 1494 (see fig. 1), the paper will demonstrate that even as the illustration of the allegorical narrative forms a normative relation with the literal meaning of the romance of Layli and Majnun--serving as the vehicle--certain heretofore enigmatic figures within the same illustration depict the tenor, or the metaphorical referent of the story, which in this case signifies a gnostic union with the Divine.  This 1494 painting from Khamsa of Nizami (British Library, Or. 6810, f. 144v.), contains, it is argued, the first set of such depictions, which were to become prevalent in illustrations of Sufi works or any text that could be read allegorically as such.  Among what came to be perhaps a score of such figure-types, the exemplars of the two most ubiquitous are singled out: the figure of “the flute player,” ultimately referring back to Rumi’s famous exordium to his Mathnawi, revered by Jami, and the figure of “the spinner,” which activity as used by Jami and depicted in this manuscript painting may have germinated what was to become a popular metaphor for remembrance of God through repetition of words and used by the later Indo-Muslim poets.  The two figures reflect the increasing absorption of pantheistic allegories dominant in both Persian lyric poetry and the romantic epic. These figures, among others, continued to appear in manuscript illustration (figures 2, 3), increasingly irrespective of the content, helping to weaken the connection between the image and the text, and perhaps hastening the decline of the most refined traditions of the Persian illustrated book.

Academic Discipline : 
Comparative Literature
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Fig 1 Majnun On Laylas Tomb.jpg30.94 KB
Figure 2 Spinning .jpg39.41 KB
Figure 3 Flute player.jpg41.53 KB

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