In the centre, in mirrored-form: ‘I have put my trust in my Creator’
In the border, in Kufic: A hadith of the Prophet (one with a variation): ‘Believer in the mosque is like fish in water and the heretic in the mosque is like a bird in the cage'
It is most likely that these tiles were created under Timurid patronage (1389-1501). Known for their extensive architectural projects, the Timurids were responsible for building many religious institutions. It is difficult to say for which monument these tiles would originally have been intended since so many have been destroyed by earthquake and other natural as well as man-made disasters, but it is possible that they were part of a mosque or madrasa as they compare closely to the impressive prayer niche now in the Metropolitan Museum of Art (inv. no.39.20). Originally forming part of the courtyard of the Madrasa Imami, in Isfahan, the Metropolitan mihrab panel is dated 754 AH/1354-55 AD. Comparisons with the present panels can be drawn with the distinctive palette, notably using various shades of blue and turquoise cut-glazed tiles into which the white and ochre inscriptions are laid. Both examples mix a more fluid, naskh calligraphic style with more angular Kufic. The present mihrab panel even features a mirrored-form of calligraphy at its centre. The text itself, comprising chapters of the Qur’an as well as a particular Hadith from the Prophet: ‘The Believer in the mosque is like a fish in water and the heretic in the mosque is like a bird in the cage’ allows us to speculate as to their likely architectural context. Although this phrase does not appear in Persia, it was used under the Ottomans, suggesting a possible foreign influence. The scribe’s name: ‘Abu’l-Qasim al-Hasan al-Tusi, which appears on lot 107, also allows us to contextualise these tiles, and potentially trace them back to the town of Tus, North East of Mashhad, the birthplace of Firdausi and the Haruniyah, so named after Harun al-Rashid. The decorative scheme of the Haruniyah’s impressive entrance echoes closely the arrangement of these tiles.
Further examples include the architectural fragments from the Shrine of Zayn al-Mulk, Isfahan, dated to 1480-81, now respectively in the Arthur M. Sackler Gallery and the Brooklyn Museum (inv. no.77.196.3). These and other dated examples help to establish a chronological framework from the late fourteenth to the end of the fifteenth century for the production of these pieces, and although Persia represents the most likely place of creation, Central Asia must also be considered. Notable comparisons can be drawn with the Gur-I Amir in Samarqand (circa 1405-15): compare, for instance, a calligraphic panel in the State Hermitage Museum, Leningrad, inv. AFR-4992 (T.W.Lentz and G.D. Lowry, Timur and the Princely Vision, Persian Art and Culture in the Fifteenth Century, Los Angeles County Museum of Art, 1989, cat. no.8). Another close example is a panel from the entrance iwan of the madrasa of Ulugh-Beg ibn Shahrukh in Samarqand, circa 1417-20, which relates closely to the illuminated frontispiece from an anthology copied for Iskandar-Sultan ibn Umar-Shaykh, Shiraz, dated 813 AH/1410-11, underscoring the dissemination of an imperial style across the Persian and Central Asian lands ruled by the house of Timur Lenk (ibid. p.140, fig.44 and fig.45).
Tiles of such monumental scale, superlative quality and impeccable provenance rarely feature at auction. The last two notable works were sold in these rooms, 11 October 2006, lot 126 and 4 October 2011, lot 41. All of these examples, and notably the present lots, bear witness to the scale and ambition of the great building projects that flourished under Ilkhanid and Timurid patronage in the late fourteenth and fifteenth centuries.