Cultural Selection: The Art of Manuscript Bookmaking along the Silk Roads


We invite you to read our weekly Cultural Selection articles, which adhere to preselected themes. Knowledge and appreciation of these subjects help to preserve, disseminate, and promote elements of our common heritage of the Silk Roads.

The art of manuscript bookmaking in Central Asia belongs to a Silk Roads heritage with origins spanning centuries, with only some elements of the technique surviving today.  Cities such as Baghdad, Bukhara, Heart, Samarkand, Shiraz, Isfahan, and Tabriz were renowned centers of such production between the 8th and 16th centuries. The development of this craft is closely tied to the art of calligraphy, illumination, and miniature painting.  Traditionally, the creation of such a manuscript was a long, arduous process, involving an exceptionally high degree of skill and expertise by the calligrapher, decorative artist, and binder in the “kitab-khana”, or court workshop.  Decorative artists focused heavily on the layout of the text, form and shape of the letters, calligraphy style, and composition of the page, as a whole. The colophon, which framed the calligrapher’s name, as well as the individual commissioning the manuscript, were usually rectangular.  As the art of book design evolved, so too, did the decorative ornamentation associated with its production.  Since this type of artistic creation was a costly endeavor, it could only fully flourish under patronage, and in major cultural centers.

Manuscript illumination consisted of the embellishment of the initial and endmost folios, as well as the artistic layout of all borders and text.  The initial folio of the artistically decorated ex-libris included a round or oval medallion at the center where the name of the manuscript’s owner was inscribed.  These medallions or rosettes, were often 8- or 12-pointed stars, capped by elongated cartouches. The “sar-lawh” (frontispiece) was usually composed of an ornamental element.  It could also portray royal audiences or hunting scenes. The “sar-lawh” performed a semantic and symbolic function, providing a visual entry point into the world of literary and artistic narration. They embellished the title of the manuscript or beginning of a text, and they also provided attractive, ornate decoration for the initial pages. The inside pages of a book could be embellished with various minutiae.  This included frames consisting of parallel lines of gold, red, and blue that would both encapsulate and highlight the text. Moreover, elaborately decorated margins often consisted of gold spray, geometric patterns, sprawling vegetation, outlines of animals and birds, and appliquéd or incrusted detailing. One of the most significant changes that occurred in the 14th century was the positioning of the picture or miniature in relation to the text, with the picture occupying a larger portion of the manuscript page.

Reciprocity of information between various cultural centers, as well as the implementation of previous traditions were essential in the development of the art of manuscript bookmaking.  Every component of the artistic process, including calligraphy, decoration of the margins, miniatures, and the chapter headings, created one harmonious unit. Thus, craftsmen ventured to produce a consistency of color, form, and regularity between painting and calligraphy.   Moreover, it was essential to implement the planar principle, which governed the organization of space, and match it with the planar ornamentation of all decorative aspects.  As the art of manuscript bookmaking and bookbinding evolved, red, dark blue, and gold grounds began to appear in the medallions, overlaid with tracery.  During the 15th century, scenery began to be portrayed on the Herat bindings.  These also featured Chinese elements with symbolic figures like dragons, phoenixes, and ducks.  The transnational fluidity of the art of manuscript bookmaking and artistic designs, especially medallions, was apparent in its production in various cultural centers, and continued to expand through neighboring regions.  Despite differences in regional production, each aspect and decorative element of the process was meant to create harmony. In the past, the miniature played a secondary role in early illuminated manuscripts.  Thus, the art of manuscript bookmaking still remains an evolving art form in contemporary society, intimately tied to the traditions of the past that have been passed down through generations.   


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