Two Calligraphic Roundels (MMA nos. 1985.240.1 and 1991.233)
Carved sandstone and painted-wood calligraphic roundels like these examples are typically found on the spandrels of the arched portals, niches, and interior walls of sixteenth- and seventeenth-century buildings in the Deccan region of India. The carved inscription in thuluth script on MMA no. 1985.240.1 repeats "Ya ‘Aziz," one of the asma al-husna (ninety-nine names of God), eight times in mirror image. The roundel is stylistically related to several carved black basalt examples on the spandrels of the late sixteenth-century Qutb Shahi guesthouse Shaikhpet Sarai (caravanserai) in Hyderabad, built under Muhammad Quli Qutb Shah (1580–1611). Similar painted roundels in crimson, brown, and gold outlined in black are also found in the southern hallway of the Bahmanid tomb of Ahmad Shah Wali (r. 1422–36) at Ashtur, near Bidar, which may have served as an earlier source of inspiration for the later examples. The presence of traces of red pigments on the Museum’s sandstone example suggests that it was also once painted in a similar palette.
A carved-wood roundel, MMA no. 1991.233, from the first half of the seventeenth century contains two of the asma al-husna, first written vertically and then in mirror image and repeated eight times around the roundel. The composition springs from two rows of flamelike lappets. Remains of red, blue, yellow, and green paint on this roundel, as well as gold and possibly silver leaf, indicate an originally vibrant palette of decoration, which was likely refinished periodically. While not many wood roundels survive, this one is related to a group of now heavily repainted examples affixed to the upper walls of the Badshahi ‘Ashurkhana in Hyderabad (a Shi‘i shrine commemorating the martyrdom at Karbala of Husain, the Prophet’s grandson, erected in 1593–96 with tiles added in 1611), also built under the patronage of Muhammad Quli Qutb Shah. The building is well known for its large, fine, cut-tile mosaic decoration, particularly the tear-shaped medallions and images of ‘alams (Shi‘i processional standards) in a distinct Deccani palette covering its interior walls. In fact, a number of the cut-tile mosaic calligraphic medallions on the two sides of the central niche containing the ‘alams resemble the carved sandstone and basalt roundels discussed here.
Although calligraphic roundels in mirror image are primarily found on architecture, they are also seen in other media, such as metal ‘alams, several of which are preserved in the Badshahi ‘Ashurkhana. In a few isolated cases, they appear as illuminations on album pages, as seen in a gold calligraphic roundel in mirror image that is outlined in black and framed by inscriptions containing a hadith of Imam ‘Ali in praise of fine penmanship.
Calligraphic roundels are not exclusive to the Deccan or northern India. They are found on the exteriors and interiors of buildings as early as the fourteenth century as far west as Egypt and Turkey and as far east as Iran. However, the compositional characteristics of Deccan examples distinguish them from the others in their persistent use of calligraphy in mirror image (muthanna).
Although the origins of this form remain unclear, the type probably entered the Deccan from Iran and Ottoman Turkey in the fifteenth century with the influx into the region of talented Iranian Ottoman calligraphers, painters, and artisans. The work of these artists was eventually assimilated into the local aesthetic, giving rise to an extended period of creativity and intense artistic exchange that endured into the seventeenth century—as seen in these two Qutb Shahi roundels from Hyderabad.
Maryam Ekhtiar in [Ekhtiar, Soucek, Canby, and Haidar 2011]
1. I would like to thank Marika Sardar for sharing images of this building with me.
2. See Yazdani, G[hulam]. Bidar: Its History and Monuments. London, 1947. For a detailed discussion of this structure, see Philon, Helen. “The Murals in the Tomb of Ahmad Shah near Bidar.” Apollo 152, no. 465 (2000), pp. 3–10.
3. See, for example, Michell, George, ed. Islamic Heritage of the Deccan. Bombay, 1986, chapter on Gulbarga, fig. 17, chapter on Bidar, fig. 11, and chapter on Bijapur, fig. 10. I am grateful to my colleague Navina Haidar for sharing the photographs of these buildings, and her expertise, with me.
4. Sotheby’s Doha, Hurouf: The Art of the Word, December 16, 2010, p. 116, lot 89.
5. Calligraphic roundels and other architectural elements in mirror image are seen as early as 1385 in Artuqid buildings in Mardin, Turkey, and later in Ottoman mosque architecture, such as the Uç Serefeli Mosque (1438–47) in Edirne. For other Ottoman examples, see a carved marble panel from the qibla wall of a sabil, or fountain, and a woven silk textile panel with niches and suspended mosque lamps in O’Kane, Bernard, ed. The Treasures of Islamic Art in the Museums of Cairo. Cairo and New York, 2006, p. 217, fig. 184, and pp. 212–13.
6. See Yazdani 1947 (reference in note 2 above).
Cousens, Henry. Bijapur and its architectural remains: with historical outline of the Adil Shahi dynasty, Imperial series/ Archaeological Survey of India, vol. 37 (1916). ill. pls. XIII - LIV, for the medallions in the spandrels of the West Door in the tomb of the Ibrahim Rauza, dated 1633 but possibly earlier.
Welch, Stuart Cary. The Islamic World. vol. 11. New York: The Metropolitan Museum of Art, 1987. p. 153, ill. fig. 118 (color).
Schimmel, Annemarie. "Islamic Calligraphy." Metropolitan Museum of Art Bulletin, n.s., vol. 50, no. 1 (Summer 1992). pp. 54, 56, inside back cover, ill. fig. 67 (color).
Burn, Barbara, ed. Masterpieces of the Metropolitan Museum of Art. New York; Boston: The Metropolitan Museum of Art, 1993. p. 79, ill. (color).
Metropolitan Museum of Art Bulletin vol. 43 (1995–1996). p. 13, ill. p. 13 (b/w).
Ekhtiar, Maryam, Sheila R. Canby, Navina Haidar, and Priscilla P. Soucek, ed. Masterpieces from the Department of Islamic Art in The Metropolitan Museum of Art. 1st ed. ed. New York: The Metropolitan Museum of Art, 2011. no. 278A, pp. 390-392, ill. p. 391 (color).