Painted about 1480, this illustrated folio is from a manuscript of the Divan of the renowned fourteenth-century poet Hafiz of Shiraz. It depicts a ring of sufi dervishes (Islamic mystics) playing music to accompany another group of dervishes performing the celestial dance (sama‘). The mystics in the foreground, who have achieved a state of trance and self-abandonment, are rendered with particular sensitivity. The special care taken in depicting a variety of figural types, expressive facial features, natural movements, and intense emotions sets this work apart from earlier paintings produced in Timurid Herat.
Costume plays a central role here in imparting emotion and spirituality to the scene. As in other Timurid and Safavid paintings, sleeves serve as a metaphor for the emotional state of the wearer, expressing contemplation, reverence, trepidation, and intoxication, both physical and spiritual. Some move in time with the music and rhythm of the dervishes’ mystical dance. Others—belonging to those who stand in contemplation or have succumbed to dizziness and trance—hang limp, crossed one over the other.
Mystical scenes such as this were a popular theme of sixteenth- and seventeenth-century illustrated manuscripts. The naturalism of the painting and its muted palette are all features of the socalled Bihzadian style of Herat. Although there is no concrete evidence supporting an attribution to Bihzad, this painting embodies many of the qualities of paintings assigned to the master. The question of Bihzad’s authorship has, in general, been a topic of much discussion among scholars of Persian painting. Some believe that the attribution of any work to him can be somewhat problematic and misleading because, in all probability, paintings were almost always a result of a collaborative effort, making it difficult to ascertain the extent of involvement of the master himself. The dearth of signed works by Bihzad and the presence of numerous false signatures on paintings attributed to him further complicate matters. Other scholars have assigned works to the master on the basis of style, palette, composition, and approach to painting. In any case, this soulful painting remains among the most moving, spiritually charged representations of dervishes engaged in a celestial dance produced in late medieval Iran.
Maryam Ekhtiar in [Ekhtiar, Soucek, Canby, and Haidar 2011]
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