A book of poems, a work of art Allegory: The Smithsonian is exhibiting 28 magnificent paintings that illustrate the moral lessons of a 500-year-old Persian book.


January 04, 1998|By Robert Ruby | Robert Ruby,SUN STAFF

WASHINGTON -- There was a long time ago a young prince who wanted to show the world his intelligence and refined taste. Instead of ordering construction of a grand palace, he commissioned the making of a book.

The prince was Sultan Ibrahim Mirza, who in the mid-1500s governed part of what now is Iran. His book is as wondrous as a fairy tale -- and a reminder that Iran's history consists of more than its current disputes with the United States.

The volume made for him has the text of a Persian literary classic called "Haft Awrang" ("Seven Thrones") and illustrations. This particular book was intended to be held close, like a lover, and was for an audience of one person, perhaps two.

"Haft Awrang" is seven poems, each an instructive allegory about love and the path to selfless love for God. Calligraphers and painters labored nine years to copy the rhymed text and create 28 paintings to illustrate the moral lessons of the poetry.

They are on display at the Smithsonian's Freer Gallery of Art in Washington through March 29.

Very little is taboo in this book. Almost every possible kind of sexuality, from courtly love to bestiality, is depicted or alluded to.

You meet the devil, a small figure who sports a trim white beard and wears a pointed cap, painted red, gold and blue.

You glimpse the prophet Mohammed, seated on his stallion Buraq as they ride to heaven, the prophet's face concealed beneath a white veil and his figure surrounded by golden flames.

The scenes are of a world so dense with characters and action that, as in life, you are unsure what is crucial, what is dross:

There is the painting in which four young men stand on the roof of a covered market. Outside the market, a baker weighs a measure of flour for a woman.

A child holds onto the woman's sash and looks fearfully at a barking dog. Two pairs of men dressed in bright leggings and fine robes talk among themselves.

A bearded peasant points to a lame, emaciated donkey and talks with a better-dressed man, who points to the same animal. A man rides a second donkey into the scene from behind lavender boulders.

Another man rides a third donkey out of the frame. A fourth donkey is led out of the covered market. A handsome young gentleman rides a prancing dappled horse.

The wind blows dark swirls of clouds. A shepherd tends a herd of goats.

The story centers on the peasant with the emaciated donkey. As a reader of "Haft Awrang" would know, the peasant has taken the animal to market to be sold, and the well-dressed salesman extols the donkey's nonexistent virtues.

Almost everyone laughs at the salesman's pitch, and the person who does not is the peasant. Hearing the animal praised, the peasant naively wants to keep it.

It is a story about the dangers of flattery; it is a reminder that the only worthy praise is directed to God.

Sultan Ibrahim Mizra had wanted something both sumptuous and serious. "The idea was to sort of pull out all the stops," says Marianna Shreve Simpson, author of the definitive study of the manuscript and curator of Islamic Art at the Walters Art Gallery.

The sultan's calligraphers dusted the sheets of paper with gold, then polished them with stone.

The artists were the greatest of their day, such as the calligrapher Mahmud al Nishapuri. He was said to have enjoyed his craft so much that during summer nights he would sit in the light of the moon and write until dawn.

Mizra also wanted to impress the shah. In addition to being ruler of Persia, the shah was his uncle, his father-in-law and a bibliophile.

"I think it was another sign of his coming of age, and his establishing himself in his family and showing himself to be a sophisticated person," Shreve Simpson says. "I think he was trying to prove something to his uncle."

The reader encounters stories about frustrated love, caravans across the desert, a turtle that flies across the sky and proofs of the existence of God.

Seen through a magnifying glass, every horse has teeth, almost every leaf on every tree has veins, every depiction of a tapestry and tile has an accurately repeated pattern. You cannot quite feel the folds of the turbans.

It wasn't just for show but to be truly read.

"There's something about the level of detail that tells you that," says Massumeh Farhad, associate curator of Islamic Near Eastern Art at the Freer. "It was very much a personal, private experience."

Holding this book, holding it close, you could travel the world.

Marianna Shreve Simpson will lecture on the paintings and manuscript at 6 p.m. Wednesday at the Freer Gallery, Independence Avenue at 12th Street SW, Washington.

Pub Date: 1/04/98

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