Researching precious manuscripts at the Bodleian Library, Oxford

View of Oxford’s old Bodleian Library buildings from the terrace of the Weston Library building

For the past six months I have been engaged in a Fellowship at the Bodleian Library’s Centre for the Study of the Book, University of Oxford. I have been researching a stunning group of illuminated manuscripts made in Iran and Iraq during the second half of the fifteenth century. You can see more about the specifics of the research in my blog dedicated to the manuscripts: “Making Masterpieces for a Prince of the Black Sheep”.

Opening pages of the Bodleian Library’s Manuscript Elliott 251, a fifteenth century copy of the Masnavi of Rumi

The idea to undertake a Bahari Visiting Fellowship in the Persian Arts of the Book at the Bodleian came to me as a result of my involvement with the library’s Department of Conservation and Collection Care, where I worked with senior conservator Marinita Stiglitz on a number of seminars focussing on the materials and pigments used in historical manuscripts.For example,in 2015 we had collaborated with David Margulies to run a research seminar entitled “Exploring Ultramarine”, which you can read all about in the department’s blog.

One of the manuscripts we examined during the seminar was a lavish copy of the Masnavi of Jalal ud-din Rumi. This, along with the library’s famous and beautiful copy of the first ever illuminated copy of the Ruba’iyat of ‘Omar Khayyam, was made in the 1460s for a Turcoman prince called Pir Budaq Qaraqoyunlu. Something about the special quality of the illuminations in the ‘Omar Khayyam alerted me to a manuscript I have long admired at the British Library, also made for the same patron, and I realized that this was a group of manuscripts that I really wanted to study in greater depth.

The study of the material aspects of manuscripts, including research into how they were made and what pigments and materials were used in their making is called Codicology. That, and the circumstances in which they were made, and the reasons why they were later collected and treasured, were all questions I have been motivated to explore.

The circumstances of their creation are particularly interesting, and having trawled some contemporary historical references, I have discovered a narrative so rich with hubris and pathos that it reads like an opera score!

I am sitting in the Bodleian’s department of Heritage Science, examining colours in the manuscripts under a microscope.

Pir Budaq was the favourite son of a warlord king who challenged the prevailing Timurid power of the time. Trained as a warrior, and accompanying his father in the chess-board politics of constant campaigning that stretched from Central Asia to Iraq, he challenged his father’s authority, bringing upon himself his ultimate execution by his own father.

Pir Budaq’s period of governorship as one of the potentially greatest patrons of the book arts of his time,  accompanied by much turmoil, lasted less than ten years, and the manuscripts that have come down to us are very few. Despite their rarity, they are all the most drop-dead masterpieces of book production, calligraphy and illumination, and are valued as part of the most treasured collections of the few institutions that hold them.

Bodleian’s Manuscript Elliott 251, The Masnavi of Rumi, folio 103b, an interior chapter heading.

I feel very privileged to be allowed to get so close to these beautiful books, and I am learning a huge amount about the working processes of the 15th century master illuminators who adorned them. The virtuoso filigree work or “Arabesques” in the example above has inspired me to a closer analysis of its design grammar, which I hope will in turn inspire some new art on my part.

Here are some analytical drawings that I have made so far:

Notes on the illuminated friezes in Bodleian’s Manuscript Elliott 251 (copyright of Anita Chowdry)

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