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A Masterpiece of Arab Painting - The 'Schefer' Maqāmāt Manuscript in Context

[A Masterpiece of Arab Painting Cover]

Without doubt this is the best known Arabic manuscript among scholars of Islamic art, apart from perhaps the Ibn al-Bawwāb Qur'ān. Yet - relatively recently - it has been one of the least studied. It was acquired by the Bibliothèque Nationale de France (Ms arabe 5847) towards the end of the 19th century along with many other Islamic manuscripts which had been collected by Charles Schefer. But not until 1984 was a serious analysis of the manuscript undertaken.

Apart from its importance as probably the major achievement of Arab painting the manuscript is a historical document of the utmost significance thanks to its detailed colophon. This gives the full name of the scribe and tells us that he both wrote and illustrated the text in Ramaḍān 634/May 1237. It does not say where, but it is generally presumed to have been Baghdad. It is one of only two precisely dated illustrated Arabic manuscripts from the first half of the 7th /13th century.

The Maqāmāt of al-Harīrī (d.516/122) is one of the best-known works of Arabic literature. It is unquestionably 'an exploration and exposition of the niceties of the Arab language and history'. Yet its illustrative potential seems slight. Why, in the first quarter of the 7th / 13th century after the text had been in existence for over a hundred years, did it suddenly - and apparently without gestation - begin to be illustrated? Why and how did this impenetrable work of Mediaeval Arabic philology and linguistic acrobatics dressed up as a collection of picaresque tales, become the vehicle for such extraordinarily lively, life-like and technically competent paintings? They were not simply amusing, satirical and even irreverent depictions of the Mediaeval Arab bourgeoisie and officialdom, but true social documents with visual information on all aspects of legal and governmental procedures, costume, fashion, domestic utensils and architecture.

This study of the 'Schefer' Maqāmāt manuscript looks at the work of the scribe-illustrator, Yahyā ibn Mahmūd al-Wāsitī in detail and compares it with two contemporary lesser known copies of the Maqamat in St Petersburg and Istanbul. It also draws in other important manuscripts which can be associated with Baghdad: British Library Or. 1200 and John Rylands Library, Manchester 680. The latter has never been examined until now and throws new light on the 7th/13th century manuscripts as it is a late copy of a profusely illustrated Maqamat manuscript , now lost but an 'ancestor' of the Schefer St Petersburg and Istanbul copies. The author suggests how the text is related to the illustrations and shows how the cycles of miniatures developed and altered in the course of the first half of the 7th/13th century. This book will be of interest to teachers and students of Islamic art, history and culture.


David James studied fine art, art history and Arabic at the University of Durham. He worked in Omdurman, Dublin, Cairo and London. He was the author of several works on the art of the Islamic book and mediaeval Arabic histories of Islamic Spain and numerous articles in scholarly publications. The present work on Arab painting is based on material collected for a post-graduate dissertation at the School of Oriental Studies, University of Durham.

260 x 200mm, 226pp., 54pp colour, hardback
ISBN 978 1 907318 08 5
May 2013


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