Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History Essays

The Mantiq al-tair (Language of the Birds) of 1487

This illustrated manuscript of Farid al-Din ‘Attar’s mystical poem Mantiq al-tair (Language of the Birds) is one of the most important illustrated manuscripts from Timurid Persia (ca. 1370–1507) and a highlight of the Islamic collection at the Metropolitan Museum of Art.

This manuscript has several distinctive features. It was initiated under the Timurid court atelier in Herat and completed in the Safavid court atelier in Isfahan. It contains illustrations that are often attributed to the celebrated painter Bihzad, who served the Timurid monarch Husain Baiqara (r. 1470–1506) and a nobleman, Mir ‘Ali Shir Nava’i (1441–1501), and is one of the few extant illustrated manuscripts of the Mantiq al-tair.

As the colophon states, this manuscript was completed on the first day of the fifth month of the second year of the last ten years preceding 900, that is, A.H. 892 (April 25, 1487), and several illustrations were attached. Although four illustrations can be dated to the late 1480s, for some reason the manuscript was not completed. More than a hundred years later, at the beginning of the seventeenth century, it came into the possession of Shah ‘Abbas (r. 1587–1629), whose artists remounted the folios and added a frontispiece and four contemporary illustrations in a new binding. Shah ‘Abbas then presented the manuscript to the Ardabil shrine in 1608/9.

‘Attar (ca. 1142–1220), the author of the Mantiq al-tair, is one of the most celebrated poets of Sufi literature and inspired the work of many later mystical poets. The story is as follows: The birds assemble to select a king so that they can live more harmoniously. Among them, the hoopoe, who was the ambassador sent by Sulaiman to the Queen of Sheba, considers the Simurgh, or a Persian mythical bird, which lives behind Mount Qaf, to be the most worthy of this title. When the other birds make excuses to avoid making a decision, the hoopoe answers each bird satisfactorily by telling anecdotes, and when they complain about the severity and harshness of the journey to Mount Qaf, the hoopoe tries to persuade them. Finally, the hoopoe succeeds in convincing the birds to undertake the journey to meet the Simurgh. The birds strive to traverse seven valleys: quest, love, gnosis, contentment, unity, wonder, and poverty. Finally, only thirty birds reach the abode of the Simurgh, and there each one sees his/her reflection in the celestial bird. Thus, thirty birds see the Simurgh as none other than themselves. In this way, they finally achieve self-annihilation. This story is an allegorical work illustrating the quest of Sufism; the birds are a metaphor for men who pursue the Sufi path of God, the hoopoe for the pir (Sufi master), the Simurgh for the Divine, and the birds’ journey the Sufi path.

One of the eight illustrations, The Concourse of the Birds (63.210.11), is the only illustration that depicts the main story. The remaining seven illustrations belong to anecdotes told in the story as precepts. Recent study has revealed that this manuscript originally consisted of sixty-seven folios and had nine illustrations. Since many text pages and illustrations had been lost or damaged, Safavid artists added or replaced fifteen text folios, four illustrations, and a frontispiece in order to reconstruct the manuscript. However, an illustrated Timurid folio is still missing. It may have been supplemented at that time or removed later.

While the Safavid illustrations provide straightforward pictorialization of the text, the Timurid illustrations include many motifs that await study and analysis. The latter’s complex riddlelike nature is consistent with Persian poetry of the late Timurid period, which is characterized by a taste for intricacy. Rulers and influential men at the Timurid court held literary gatherings called majalis (sing. majlis) and enjoyed solving poetic riddles with rhetorical devices such as homonymic puns. The participants of a majlis may have found pleasure in deciphering the Timurid illustrations of this manuscript.

At the end of the fifteenth century in Herat, many aristocrats and high officials patronized art and literature. Possessing rare and luxuriously illustrated books was one of the key pastimes of the nobility. Some had their own ateliers, but no one is known to have operated an atelier equal to that of either Husain Baiqara or Mir ‘Ali Shir Nava’i.

The quality of the illustrations and the fine calligraphy accompanying the illuminations indicate that this manuscript was produced in a leading atelier. However, the colophon suggests that its patron was not the ruler, Sultan Husain Baiqara, but rather Mir ‘Ali Shir Nava’i, a sophisticated poet-statesman who had his own atelier, patronizing many poets, scholars, calligraphers, musicians, and painters, including the celebrated Bihzad and Mirak Naqqash. He was so impressed with ‘Attar that he wrote the Lisan al-tair, in imitation of ‘Attar’s Mantiq al-tair. This manuscript clearly demonstrates the close connections between painting, poetry, and Sufism at the end of the fifteenth century.