“Treasures of Herat” by Barbara Brend

King Khosrow and Queen Shirin King Khosrow and Queen Shirin

Royal patronage gave impetus to great works of art. In a period when artists’ craft required years of apprenticeship, when the raw materials included costly powders and rare preparations, when collaboration among a large number of artists was required, the final result is practically a celebration of the presiding monarch. So it is with two manuscripts from the British Museum, covered in Treasures of Herat, Addendum 25900 and Oriental 6810. They represent the apogee of the Herat school of art, under the last great Timurid ruler, Sultan Husayn Bayqara (1438-1506).

The Sultan’s Herat was a city of palaces and pleasure gardens, of learned gatherings and poetry competitions. The Timurid rulers united much of Iran after a long series of wars, and pursued a conscious policy of cultural promotion in order to make Herat a fitting capital for Iran, inviting talent from other cultural centers like Shiraz, Samarkand and Esfahan. Bibliophilia represented an important part of their program. They collected literary manuscripts, copied them on a large scale in beautiful, illustrated editions. Their selection of manuscripts to copy created the canon for Persian literature today. It is through their efforts that we enjoy authoritative editions of Sa’di, Hafez and Nezami.

The Timurids likewise gathered the best painters of the age and gave them unlimited means to produce the finest illustrations for these books. The time was ripe for creating masterpieces. As Barbara Brend explains in Treasures of Herat, increased connoisseurship of painting developed already in the 14th century, as Iranians became familiar with Chinese and European art. From this encounter arose a more complex use of space, finer brush drawing, and more observed, more personal details. This new art was more demanding than that preceding it, and for the first time chroniclers and memorialists take note of the names of the artists who mastered the technique. Though we don’t have a Vassari to detail the lives of the artists, a surprising number of contemporary sources confirm the names of the masters, including Shah Muzaffar, Mirak and Behzad. Behzad in particular came to be seen as the representative genius of this school. Misattributions to him started almost in his own lifetime.


Treasures of Herat: Two Manuscripts of the Khamsah of Nizami in the British Library, Barbara Brend (Gingko Library, July 2022)
Treasures of Herat: Two Manuscripts of the Khamsah of Nizami in the British Library, Barbara Brend (Gingko Library, July 2022)

Brend’s Treasures of Herat performs a deep dive on the two manuscripts, providing unique insights into the purpose and the means used to produce them. Both were probably destined to serve as prestigious diplomatic gifts. The choice of Nezami, a story-telling poet who combines pleasure with didacticism, would be consistent for this purpose. Readers would have known the text by heart. The enjoyment came from contemplating the familiar scenes and experiencing both confirmation with the expected and delight in the unexpected within the illustration.

herat3aThus, a page signed by Behzad illustrates Nezami’s story of the young man who discovers skinny-dipping beauties in his garden’s reflecting pool. The subject is a favorite with book illustrators. Here the execution is masterful. Behzad groups the nymphs into complicit pairs—their glances and hands are expressively offered to one another. Alone the love-addled young man pines besides the water basin. A strangely intent figure—the painter? the viewer? looks out, half hidden, from behind a latticed window. This is the punchline in the picture, the original and unexpected.

In another famous bathing scene, King Khosrow of Iran espies the Armenian Queen Shirin at her rustic toilette. Sitting waist deep in a pond, she has enveloped her nether parts with a blue veil, as she rinses her long, black tresses. This painting beguiles the viewer with the evasive glances exchanged between the two protagonists. They remind one of Maggie Chan and Tony Leung in In the Mood for Love. Providing additional modesty for the lovers is a jewel-like oriental plane tree, whose angular, burnished, autumn leaves entice our eyes from the heavens to the lovers and then back. This folio was probably added to the album after the Safavids conquered Herat and carried off the library to Tabriz, where a new, more decorative sensibility prevailed. The unusual plasticity of the figure of Shirin, both the roundness of her breasts and of her face reflects repainting by an Indian artist in the following century. The album evolved under the influence of its owners.


Though a print version of the book was not available at review time, Gingko’s usual standards of reproduction are presumably maintained. Each folio page is produced in full, usually along with one close up version that allows the reader to follow the finer points of Brends’ exposition. Comparisons to other works, reproduced in some books in black and white, are provided here in color. So the overall effect is both pleasing and instructive.

Treasures of Herat includes a number of useful and unusual elements of content. The books themselves, their binding, the decoration, inscriptions and ownership-seals give a thorough sense of the magnificence of the production. Various owners, including Mughal Emperors Akbar and Shahjahan, penned their appreciation of these books on their end papers. Shahjahan even estimated its value—5,000 rupees for one (a Mughal soldier was paid 300 rupees a year). Moreover, Brend’s summary of the tradition of Persian painting and survey of other royal 15th-century manuscripts makes Treasures of Herat a valuable introduction to the topic, even though her target audience is probably academia and collectors.

David Chaffetz is the author of Three Asian Divas: Women, Art and Culture in Shiraz, Delhi and Yangzhou (Abbreviated Press, November 2019). His forthcoming book Horse Power will be published by WW Norton in 2023.