The fine calligraphy is surrounded by a colourful and detailed border decorated with interlacing floral scrolls interspersed with human faces and animals’ heads; wolves, foxes and rabbits seem to be ‘biting’ the leaves of the scrolls.
While illuminated borders were a common feature in Persian and Indian manuscripts, the presence of zoomorphic figures and small animals’ heads is what makes this leaf exceptional. The combination of flora, fauna and human faces are a reference to the legendary waq-waq tree, which sprouted human heads as fruits. In Firdawsi’s Shahnamah, Iskander travels to the edges of the world and encounters this tree with human talking faces which predict his death.
This iconography is found on illuminated borders of manuscripts from the fourteenth century, but it is in the late sixteenth century in Persia, Mughal India and the Deccan that this format and combination reaches its apogee.
A copy of Sa’di’s Kulliyat in the British Library (IO Islamic 843) is illuminated with a very similar border containing human faces and animal heads (ff.35-6, 175-6 and 372-3). Its colophon is dated 1034 AH/1624-25 AD and signed by Mahmoud, a scribe from Shiraz during the reign of Shah ‘Abbas (r.1588-1629). Interestingly this manuscript ended up in India and was later acquired at the beginning of the nineteenth century by Richard Johnson, an employee of the East India Company.
For other examples of zoomorphic illuminated leaves see below:
Shahnamah, Persia, circa 1425-50. Gulbenkian Foundation, Lisbon, M.66A
Zoomorphic illumination, Persia, 1564-65. Topkapi Saray Library, Istanbul, H.2161
Farhang-i Jahangiri, Jahangir’s dictionary, Mughal India, 1607-08. Catherine and Ralph Benkaim Collection
Zoomorphic illumination, Mughal India, 17th century, sold in these rooms, 12 October 2000, lot 54, and now in the Museum of Islamic Art, Doha, Ms.301
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