MACFEST: Persian Miniature Painting – La Mancunion


The groundbreaking, award-winning Muslim arts and culture festival is on! This Manchester-based international festival promotes social inclusion through the celebration of Islamic culture. It was first launched in 2017 by Qaisra Shahraz MBE, an award-winning campaigner and acclaimed novelist who featured in the Power 100 list of the UK’s most influential Muslims.

Festival events range from art to cuisine, from music to Muslim diaspora heritage. This year, MACFEST is hosting events through July 2021, most of which are free and digital, and which you can book on Eventbrite.

The event

After a short introduction by Qaisra Shahraz, curator and archivist Elizabeth Gow shared her screen to shed light on a series of forty different miniatures by nine anonymous artists. The John Rylands Library houses some of these treasures. The library has miniature paintings in over forty different languages. This event focused on their Persian manuscripts.

From the 13th to the 17th century, Persian literature inspired the visual arts. Persian miniature painting flourished in the 13th century. Under Ilkhanid patronage, books began to be illustrated and illuminated.

Photo: University of Cambridge @Flickr

Gow took the time to shed some light on forty different paintings housed in the University Library. Scans of these manuscripts are available at the library website.

come to life

Khamsah means ‘hand’. the original Khamsah, by Nizāmī Ganjavī, was written in 1444-5. It includes five poems and nineteen miniature paintings. Inside, the colors remained vibrant. The binding is in leather, with in its center a treasure of golden details. Decorative borders, painted with gold leaf and gold ink, frame the poems. Money paints the rivers. Everything indicates the wealth and artistic knowledge of the Persian court.

The first painting is a hunting view, originating in 1445. People are playing under the trees in the grass, each blade of grass appearing to be individually painted.

In an unnamed painting illustrating Nizāmī Ganjavī’s text, two seemingly identical trees stand side by side. We have a horse hidden behind the branches. A painting from the same manuscript shows a shepherd boy emerging from behind a rock. Gow points out that he is trying to save his herd from a perilous position on the mountain.

These paintings convey absolute care and precision in their depiction of the scenes of the written passages. Khusraw va Shīrīn shows birds floating in the trees, people in the green grass below. It illustrates a sense of wonder at nature, beauty and love. These images are stories in their own right. Abd al-Samad, the identified painter, became one of the leading Mughal court painters in India under Emperor Akbar.

Where to take a look

The art of Persian miniature is fascinating. While this article can’t do justice to the wisdom of Elizabeth Gow or the MACFEST itself, we can point you to more resources that might. The highly acclaimed MACFEST has a website, accessible here.

The library gives students access to historical and literary masterpieces. These are a few examples of miniature painting resources of great aesthetic importance. There are nineteen paintings in the original version Khamsahby Nizāmī Ganjavī, 1444-5.

There are hundred paintings by five different artists in Shahnama by Abū’l-Qāsim Firdawsī, 1518.

Finally, there is three hundred fifty-five paintings in Ajāyib al-makhulūqāt [Wonders of Creation] by Zakarīyā ibn Muhammad Qazwīnī (1632). Elizabeth Gow calls it a “kind of encyclopedia of wonders”.

Click here to access the John Rylands Library Special Collections page.

Recordings of these events and more information about the festival are at their website and on Youtube.


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