at the David and Alfred Smart Museum of Art, through April 18

One of my favorite images in “Art of the Persian Courts” is Coronation of Sultan Hosayn Mirza Bayqara (c. 1469), which depicts Hosayn seated on a throne, with officials around him and buildings and a garden behind. Each of the composition’s contrasting colors is richly sensual, creating the overall effect of a small, jeweled mosaic, glowing with its own inner light. At the same time the picture’s somewhat symmetrical design and flattened perspective work to fuse the many diverse compositional elements–various arabesque patterns, calligraphy, human figures, the trees in the garden–into a paradoxically unified whole. The modern viewer can never quite accept that the gold-embroidered pillow on which Hosayn sits is in the same order of things as the trees and flowers in the garden, but that is what the image seems to be saying.

Two of the major features of Persian painting are present in this work. As Abolala Soudavar, from whose collection this exhibition is drawn, points out in the excellent catalog, most of these images make no pretense of naturalism, presenting instead an intensely idealized world in schematic, pre-Renaissance space. These images were generally pages from books, intended to illustrate a text, and in so doing to legitimate the authority of the ruler who commissioned it. In this Coronation, the potentate’s right to rule is made visible in the intense yet rarefied colors, while the way in which every element of the composition is organized around the throne suggests that all things are peripheral to the divinely ordained sultan. The garden, with its solid gold background, seems only a larger version of a pale monochrome image of leaves and trees that decorates the back of the throne; the whole visible world of the picture is made, through its unifying compositional design, to seem the property of the ruler.

Another central feature of the best Persian painting is the art of calligraphy. Many images, the Coronation among them, incorporate calligraphic texts into their compositions; moreover, and perhaps more significant, many of the painters were calligraphers first: their skill of rendering letters with brush strokes of varying length, shape, and thickness was also used, to not wholly different ends, in image making. It is perhaps relevant that among the many outside influences absorbed by Persian art over the years was Chinese painting, brought by the Mongol conquerors; calligraphy is the traditional basis of Chinese art as well.

As the eye roams slowly over the Coronation, one notices an intense, almost rhythmic connection between the figures, the arabesques and geometrical designs on the throne and background buildings, the detailed patterns of the plants in the garden, and the calligraphic panels on the throne and buildings. Indeed, the careful viewer can find in the calligraphy’s complex mixture of curves and lines the compositional basis of everything else in the picture. And the eye tends always to return to the calligraphic panels, whose irregular and complex design seems inexhaustible. The messages on these panels refer to the sultan’s glory and the Muslim faith; their importance in the composition is another way in which the image expresses its meanings.

This superb exhibit, which though drawn from a single collection is a fine introduction to the whole range of Persian art, contains many other images made comprehensible by a close study of the Coronation. (The exhibit also includes a variety of fine objects–ceramic sculptures, mirrors, doors, and more–but I will concentrate on the paintings, which represent the bulk of the work displayed.)

Birth of a Prince (c. 1485) suggests an even more intense relationship between decorative patterns, figures, calligraphy, and nature. The principal figure is an astrologer predicting the future of the newly born prince, who is all but tucked away in the bottom left-hand corner of the scene. The viewer’s attention is directed not to the baby but to what is significant for the court–the baby’s future. The rug beneath the astrologer, the building behind him, and a garden gate to the right of the building are all densely covered with arabesques and calligraphy, whose lines and curves resemble the plants in the garden beyond. A kind of dense, near-musical polyphony is evoked here: the various forms of nature, architecture, design, and language are seen as coming together to enhance–or perhaps even construct–the institution of the court.

In images with a more explicitly religious content, a similarly complex unity of pattern is present along with a suggestion of the irrational, the unrepresentable–a realm beyond imagery. Soltan-Mohammad’s Celebration of ‘Id (c. 1527) depicts the end-of-Ramadan ritual of watching for the new moon, whose appearance initiates festivities. Several figures on the roof of an ornate structure watch for the moon, a small dark crescent barely visible in the night sky at the upper left; below, celebrants are grouped in several semicircles whose shape mirrors that of the moon. The characteristic unity of pattern is intensely present in this painting, echoing among the figures, the building decorations, and a few trees, but it is also broken: about a fourth of the picture area is occupied by a thick blue nighttime sky. This blue has a mysterious, almost infinite feeling of depth. Though it is mostly solid save for a few hints of clouds, it has no surface sensuality. Lacking the tactile quality of the other colors, it gives little simple visual pleasure; rather it seems to change even as one looks at it–utterly open, disturbingly deep. It’s appropriate, perhaps, that this sky must be observed for signs of the moon: it is not an element that is subject to human control (like calligraphy); rather it offers signs and omens that control humans.

One of the most frequently illustrated of Persian texts was the Shahname, a history of kings. This show includes a spectacular Shahname illustration, Zal Is Sighted by a Caravan (c. 1525). At the lower right, a caravan of very precisely delineated animals and human figures contrasts (as the catalog points out) with a spectacular, undulating formation of multicolored rocks filling the left side of the image. These rocks are curved and layered almost like leaves or flowers, and as one gazes at them they begin to seem scary, almost alive; one soon notices that some indeed are alive, fantastically forming human and animal faces. The gold sky is filled with a giant dragonlike bird with two long, multicolored tails: this is a picture as visionary as anything in the Western canon.

Many book pages consisting primarily or entirely of calligraphy are quite beautiful in themselves. Four leaves from the Golestan of Sa’di place elegant calligraphy in rectangles at the center of the page, around which is an elaborate design of plants, animals, and rocks (some of which also form grotesque faces). The calligraphy is presented as an element of nature, part of an integrated whole; if objects such as solid rocks can be human, surely the words that name them can be alive as well. In a page of illuminated calligraphy from about 1560, a few letters drawn in heavy black lines are centered in a dense arabesque; seated on either side are two youths, one of whom is playing music while the other appears to listen. The words are thus placed in an implied musical space; one’s sense of the music traversing the text as it goes from player to listener helps vivify the words.

In 1526, the Mogul conquest of much of India extended the influence of Persian art, and this exhibit contains a section of works from Mogul India. In each of two pages from what is known as the Golshan Album, one side depicts the conqueror Tamerlane with his army–in procession and in battle–while the reverse side displays calligraphy. The battle scene is especially gruesome, with body parts strewn on the field at the center of the image. Both group scenes imply multiple lines of sight, with figures that appear to be moving and pointing their weapons in a variety of directions. The calligraphic patterns on the reverse sides are interesting in that the letters are also arranged in multiple, mostly diagonal lines, echoing the patterns of the army imagery.

At the same time that Persian art was invading India, Persia was seeing more and more European Renaissance imagery. As these powerful works began to exert their influence, Persian art gradually lost its unique character, becoming decorative or illustrative and nothing more. An early sign of this tendency can be found in the often beautiful Zahhak Enthroned, a Shahname illustration from 1577. In its elements it is similar in many ways to some of the images considered above–a leader, a throne, plants, calligraphy–but as a whole it is much less unified. Individual faces are psychologically differentiated from one another; the arrangement of the figures in the group is somewhat irregular and seems disruptive of the overall design. Most significant, a tree to the left of the throne has luminous white blossoms that seem to leap out from the rest of the composition, with some of the illusionistic power of a 17th-century trompe l’oeil still life.

As elements of Renaissance perspective began to be introduced into these compositions, the parts began to seem more separate from each other than had previously been the case. As areas of the composition separated from the whole, painters felt encouraged to try for immediately spectacular effects rather than for a deeper unity. Portraits became more common, and the figures in them more psychologically unique. Their features and postures began to reveal emotion or character in a way not seen previously. Lady With a Vase, a painting from the mid-17th century, shows a woman perfectly, brilliantly delineated against a plain background. Instead of fitting into a densely packed scene of recurring shapes, she seems to jump out at the viewer. The colors of her clothing lack the sense of mystery, of inner depth, seen in earlier works; the image instead verges on the decorative. Even more extreme is Bahador Shah II Enthroned With Mirza Fakhroddin by Gholam-Ali Khan (1838), which depicts the last Mogul emperor of India with his family. There is pleasure to be had in such images, to be sure, for their precision and craft, but to my eye this work has no transcendent meaning: it is merely a portrait, almost photographic in style. The interested viewer might go from this image back to the Coronation of Sultan Hosayn to see the difference between a simple depiction and an integrated view of the relationship of humans, nature, and culture. The earlier style was hieratic and monarchist and elitist to be sure, and the later portraits are doubtless more in tune with the individualistic ideals of our own culture, but as a viewer I prefer a powerful vision of the world to a mere illustration of it.