Plan Ahead

Visiting Manet/Degas?

You must join the virtual queue. Read the additional visitor guidelines.

Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History Essays

The Arts of the Book in the Islamic World, 1600–1800

The technical aspects of calligraphy, painting, and bookbinding are important facets of the study of Islamic art. Treatises by sixteenth-century Persian authors Qazi Ahmad and Sadiqi Beg are the major sources on the working methods of artisans in the Islamic world. Further information on the organization of manuscript workshops and the division of labor within them is recorded in court annals and payrolls.

The production of illustrated books was concentrated in royal workshops because of the large expense involved. Many rulers were connoisseurs who collected books and paintings by famous artists. Books were also financial investments, donated toward the endowment of charitable foundations, and status symbols, presented as gifts between heads of state.

Workshops supported by rulers and members of their extended family produced copies of famous literary works, histories, and Qur’ans. Once a patron decided on a project, the director of the workshop saw it through to its conclusion. He laid out the pages, decided which parts of the text to illustrate, and chose scribes and artists based on the particular project.

The first step in creating a book was to make the paper. In the Islamic world, paper was made from rags of linen and hemp, not tree pulp. The rags were cut into strips and softened in limewater, then pounded into a pulp and soaked in a vat. To form a sheet of paper, a rectangular mold was placed into the vat and then left to dry. The water seeped out and the page hardened in the mold. Decorative touches were often added to the paper: some were tinted, some were sprinkled with gold, and others were marbled. Marbled papers were created by dispensing drops of colorant onto the surface of a water bath and running combs through the drops to create a pattern; a sheet of paper was then laid on the surface of the bath to absorb the colors. After drying, the paper was prepared to receive ink and paint with the application of a starchy solution that rendered the surface smooth and nonporous.

A scribe then prepared his ink (made of carbon boiled with gallnuts), made his pens, and pressed guidelines into the paper. He then copied the text, leaving spaces for illustrations where the director of the workshop had indicated.

After the text was completed, the pages passed to the painters. Most manuscripts were the work of a number of artists, each chosen to illustrate a particular scene; some artists, for instance, were known for their portraits, others for their battle scenes. A single page might also represent a collaborative effort, as junior artists were called upon to fill in backgrounds and landscapes. Before starting to paint, the artist laid out the composition with a very fine brush. Some elements might be copied from preexisting sketches by means of a device called a pounce. To create a pounce, the artist laid a piece of transparent paper or animal skin over the sketch to be copied and pricked holes into the top sheet around the outlines of the image below. To transfer the image to his new painting, he laid the pounce on top of the fresh sheet of paper and dusted it with charcoal powder from a cloth bag.

To create his pigments, the artist turned to nature. Mineral sources were gold, silver, lapis lazuli, ground cinnabar (for vermilion), orpiment (for yellow), and malachite (for green). These materials were expensive and substitutes were often used. Indigo was a common source of dark blue and azurite was used for a lighter blue. Verdigris produced green, and lead or a combination of mercury and sulfur created red. (Because a number of these materials are unstable or corrosive, the colors of many illustrated manuscripts have faded or tarnished, and some paints have eaten through the paper.) The pigment had to be suspended in a medium that allowed it to be brushed on to the page. Originally this was albumen or glue, which gave a glossy sheen to the paintings; after the sixteenth century, gum arabic, with a more matte finish, was used instead.

After the paintings were completed, illuminators and gilders added flourishes to the text, such as chapter headings, colored frames, and rulings. They also created frontispieces and end pages. Finally, each sheet was burnished with a hard stone or glass.

At this stage, the leaves of the book were ready to be sewn and bound. The covers were joined to a spine and a fore-edge flap that folded over the ends of the pages and tucked under the top cover. Bindings were decorated with simply tooled geometric or vegetal patterns, until the fifteenth-century Persian development of a design with a central oval medallion, pendants, and corner pieces created by the use of a mold. Half the binding was stamped and then the mold was reversed, forming a mirror image of the design in the other half. Surrounding the central medallion were arranged rich floral motifs, arabesques, and cloud bands. This style soon spread to India and Turkey. Through the sixteenth century, designs became more elaborate, with the addition of miniature figures and landscapes, and the doublures (interior covers) also came to be decorated. Patterns for these were created in cut-out leather, colored papers, and gilding. In the nineteenth century, lacquered bindings with painted designs replaced these elaborate leather works.