Part 2: The Nasir al-Din Shah Album, decorative features

11 February, 2021

As I mentioned in my first blog post, each muraqqa’ folio was usually created with an illustration on one side and a panel of calligraphy on the other. These magnificent paintings and fine calligraphy panels were further ornamented with beautifully decorated borders on either side of the folio. 

The 14 folios of the Chester Beatty Nasir al-Din Shah album folios can be recognised from their beautifully painted outer borders, the alterations that were undertaken in 19th century Iran, and their overall size. 

Folio size

The peculiar size of the folios, approximately 330 x 220 mm, is distinctively smaller than other albums made during the reign of Shah Jahan. Dr Elaine Wright, former curator of the Islamic collections at the Chester Beatty, says that these would typically average in size to c.389 x 272 mm. She continues to say that it is unlikely that an album around five centimetres smaller than all of the others was produced. Instead, Wright suggests the pages were trimmed down later, in Iran. [1] 

Indeed, on some folios an area without decoration is still visible around the outer edge of the folio, where it has luckily escaped the knife of the bookbinder (e.g., CBL In 50.3). However, many flowering plants in the outer borders have been trimmed. It is not possible to tell how wide the borders of the folio were originally. One should keep in mind that larger folios made during the reign of Shah Jahan may also have been trimmed down so comparing size this way is not simple – nor necessarily helpful. 

Image of Left: CBL In 50.3, Outer edge of folio with surrounding gold line; Right: CBL In 50.7, Orange flower head trimmed at top right corner.
Left: CBL In 50.3, Outer edge of folio with surrounding gold line; Right: CBL In 50.7, Orange flower head trimmed at top right corner.

Outer borders

The outer floral borders in the Nasir al-Din Shah albums at the Chester Beatty are mainly the original Mughal painted borders and show several different border styles. [2] The borders of imperial albums were sometimes produced over an extended length of time, which could explain stylistic differences within a single album. However, diversity in the borders most likely suggests the album was made by repurposing several older albums. 

Left: CBL In 50.12, Original Mughal floral border; Right: CBL In 50.12, Detail showing the use of gold.

Left: CBL In 50.12, Original Mughal floral border; Right: CBL In 50.12, Detail showing the use of gold.

The most common border is painted with striking flowering plants using naturalistic colours, outlined in shimmering gold. These beautiful flowers are all different across the pages. It is now widely accepted that Mughal artists were responding to European botanical print illustrations from around 1620, when they composed the floral borders for Jahangir and Shah Jahan’s imperial albums such as these. [3] 

Other borders of the folios are finely executed gilded landscapes with animals and birds, highlighted with touches of green and pink washes, and a foliate scrollwork border with extended gold decorations. 

Left: CBL In 50.11, Outer borders with animals in a landscape; Right: CBL In 50.3, foliate scrollwork borders.

Left: CBL In 50.11, Outer borders with animals in a landscape; Right: CBL In 50.3, foliate scrollwork borders.

These borders were produced in the imperial workshop as part of the album’s original preparation, but we do not know exactly how the artists divided and organised the work within the atelier as signatures are relatively rare.  

The outer margins were prepared as whole sheets. This is evident as there are no joints in the paper. The top and bottom margins are usually equal in size while the gutter edge margin is usually narrower than the foredge margin. It seems likely that the outer borders were prepared in advance, painted only in areas that would remain visible once the central panel was pasted onto the blank central area.  

On some of the outer borders with the flowering plants, careful planning of the painting can be observed with a very narrow undecorated area between the plants and the ruling surrounding the central panel, in an otherwise busy decorated space. In a few areas, the ruling around the central panel is painted over the painted plants, suggesting that the border decorations were painted before the ruling was added. The borders have most likely been painted around the outer edges of the sheet first and the paper of the central area was left blank as a lining for the central panel and inner borders.  

Left: CBL In 07B.28 verso, showing a small gap between the flower head and the ruled lines; Right: CBL In 07B.28 recto, showing margin design in gutter side.

Left: CBL In 07B.28 verso, showing a small gap between the flower head and the ruled lines; Right: CBL In 07B.28 recto, showing margin design in gutter side.

Image of CBL In 11A.1, ruling over flower head.
CBL In 11A.1, ruling over flower head.

The outer borders were an integral part of the album’s presentation. When damaged, repair was carried out so they could be patched carefully. CBL In 50.3 is a lovely example where a different decorated border with pink tulips has been used to repair the gutter margins

CBL In 50.3, repair to outer border using different decorated paper.

CBL In 50.3, repair to outer border using different decorated paper. 

Calligraphy and painted panels

In the Chester Beatty folios of the Nasir al-Din Shah Album, most of the paintings date from seventeenth-century Mughal India. However, the calligraphy panels are later 19th century replacements from the workshop of Nasir al-Din Shah in Tehran.  

Mughal paintings were usually produced on good quality thick paper and the paint was applied all the way to the edges of the cut sheet. The quality of the paintings highlights the value of contemporary portraiture at the Mughal court. Major living or recently deceased figures were committed to immortal memory though portraiture, therefore careful likenesses mattered very much. [4] 

CBL In 07B.28, Detail of Mughal Emperor Shah Jahan’s Portrait.

CBL In 07B.28, Detail of Mughal Emperor Shah Jahan’s Portrait. 

Some of the paintings collected in the Nasir al-Din Shah Album folios were taken from earlier albums of various dates, so have different sizes. The opening of the finished album was preferably symmetrical in composition, with paintings of matching sizes facing each other, so it is understandable that some paintings may have been altered to fit the pages.  

This can be seen in the painted panels of folios CBL In 50.5 and CBL In 50.6 which have both been extended at the bottom of the image to make the green area appear slightly longer, probably in order to fit the existing Mughal borders. The overlap is subtle and well executed although on CBL In 50.5 it appears slightly more patchy.  

CBL In 50.5, an extended painting.

CBL In 50.5, an extended painting. 

19th century calligraphy panels have replaced all of the original calligraphy [5] in the Chester Beatty Nasir al-Din Shah Album folios. The new text is from Firdausi’s Shahnama, as well as other unidentified 19th century calligraphy, and in the true sense of muraqqa’, has been patched together to form full panels. Although these 19th century panels may seem less grand in comparison to the original Mughal paintings, we must remember that the fine Persian calligraphy originally mounted in the album would have held the same esteem and interest as the portraits did to any educated audience at the time the album was first put together in India. When the folios were restored later in Iran, the new calligraphy was also rated highly enough to be added into this context. The arts of calligraphy and painting were inextricably linked in that regard. [6] 

CBL In 07B.28 recto, calligraphy side, 19th century Shahnama text panel.

CBL In 07B.28 recto, calligraphy side, 19th century Shahnama text panel. 

In this blog we have looked at the two major components of the Chester Beatty Nasir al-Din Shah muraqqa’ folios: the decorated border and the central panel of painting or calligraphy. We are starting to understand how they were prepared as individual elements, but how were they assembled to make these intricate folios? I hope we will answer this question in our next blog post, so stay tuned!

Julia Poirier, Book & Paper Conservator

 

Many thanks to Moya Carey, Curator of Islamic Collections, for her help and advice on this post.

References

[1] Elaine Wright, ‘The Nasir al-Din Shah Album, c. 1627-1645,’ in Muraqqa‘: Imperial Mughal Albums from the Chester Beatty Library. Alexandria, VA: Art Services International, 2008, p. 144. 

[2] Elaine Wright, ‘The Nasir al-Din Shah Album,’ Muraqqa, p. 144. 

[3] https://blogs.bl.uk/asian-and-african/2014/03/mughal-flower-studies-and-their-european-inspiration.html accessed 10th February 2021; and Susan Stronge, ‘The Minto Album and its Decoration, c.1612-1640,’ in Muraqqa‘: Imperial Mughal Albums from the Chester Beatty Library. Alexandria, VA: Art Services International, 2008, pp. 83-105. 

[4] Elaine Wright, ‘Mughal Portraiture and Drawing,’ in Muraqqa‘: Imperial Mughal Albums from the Chester Beatty Library. Alexandria, VA: Art Services International, 2008, pp. 165-177. 

[5] Elaine Wright, ‘The Nasir al-Din Shah Album,’ Muraqqa, p. 147. Note 8: Godard (Godard, Y. “Un Album de Portrait des Princes Timurides de l’Inde.” Athar-e-Iran 2, 1937, pp. 179-277) reports that this album’s earlier Mughal-owned, Iranian-made calligraphy was by 17th Century Iranian calligrapher Mir Imad. 

[6] Yael Rice, ‘Between the Brush and the Pen: On the intertwined histories of Mughal painting and calligraphy,’ edited by David J. Roxburgh, Envisioning Islamic Art and Architecture. Essays in Honor of Renata Holod, Brill, 2014. 

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