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"Love and Yearning: Mystical and Moral Themes in Persian Poetry and Painting" at the Smithsonian's Arthur M. Sackler Gallery
Media only: Barbara Kram: 202.633.0520
Brenda Kean Tabor: 202.633.0523

Twenty-six of the finest illustrated manuscripts relating to Persian lyrical poetry highlighting the union of word and image are featured in an exhibition at the Smithsonian's Arthur M. Sackler Gallery starting on August 30 and running through February 22, 2004. "Love and Yearning: Mystical and Moral Themes in Persian Poetry and Painting" contains works drawn from the Sackler and neighboring Freer galleries' renowned permanent holdings and loans from several private collections and from the Textile Museum in Washington, D.C.

These works demonstrate how 15th to 17th-century artists transformed the rich imagery of mystical concepts found in Persian lyrical poetry into stylized, meticulously detailed and colorful images. Persian lyrical poetry flourished in the late 9th century at the provincial courts of eastern Iran, where poets used the context of romantic drama to express universal and timeless emotions such as loyalty, generosity and humility, love, yearning and loss. As ideal love and courtly conduct depended on many of the same principles, Persian lyrical poetry also became an appropriate guise for expressing larger ethical ideals.

By the 12th century, Sufism (Islamic mysticism) had injected a new level of spirituality and devotional depth as the story of the bond between lover and the beloved became a metaphor for the relationship between the Sufi mystic and the Divine. "Love and Yearning" features some of the most celebrated narrative cycles from classical Persian poetry and examines how the choice, format and composition of paintings strengthened the principal mystical and moral themes inherent in the text.

Lyrical texts describing the epic love stories of the prophet Yusuf (Joseph) and Zulaykha, Khusraw and Shirin and the crazed lover Majnun and Layli were produced on a more personal and intimate scale than manuscripts devoted to historical, scientific, or epic themes. Although small in size and few in number, the paintings accompanying lyrical texts were intricate and included repeated recognizable compositions and stock figures that became as familiar to the viewer as the verses themselves.

Manuscripts on view include pages from Nizami's (1145–1207) "Khamsa" (Quintet), Jami's (d. 1492) "Haft Awrang" (Seven Thrones), as well as the "Bustan" (Orchard) and the "Gulistan" (Rose garden) by Sa'di (d. 1492). Works of special note include:

  • four outstanding 16th-century paintings of the "Haft Awrang" (Seven Thrones) by poet Abdul-Rahman Jami from the most celebrated manuscript ever produced in Iran. These show Yusuf being rescued from the well (see image F1946.12 folio 105a) and giving a royal banquet to honor his marriage (see F1946.12 folio 132a) as well as episodes from the tragic romance between Majnun and Layli (F1946.12 folios 253a and 264a)
  • a rare 16th-century, double-page frontispiece from a volume of the Fifth Book of the Mathnavi by Mawlana Jalal-uddin Rumi's (1207–1273). Incorporating mystical concepts, Persian, Arabic, Indian and Greek myths, as well as folk and religious tales, this epic is heralded for its rich language and brilliant allegories (see S1986.35)
  • a painting from a 15th-century illustrated manuscript—one of the earliest extant manuscripts of Nizami's "Khusraw and Shirin"—picturing Khusraw discovering Shirin bathing (see F1931.32)
  • a painting of Majnun by Muhammad Zaman, one of the 17th-century artists responsible for the introduction of Western notions of naturalism, perspective and the play of light and shade to Persian painting (see LTS1995.2.120). One of the most recognizable figures in Persian and Arabic lyrical poetry and painting, Majnun embodies extreme suffering and annihilation
  • two paintings from Sa'di's Gulistan—one of the most widely read masterpieces of Persian literature—which addresses themes such as love and youth, the merits of silence and the excellence of contentment (see LTS1995.2.31 and LTS1995.2.32)
  • two rarely-seen textile fragments, which illustrate how narrative scenes were also adapted to other media.

The exhibition includes an interactive station with a touch screen where visitors can view all 28 minutely detailed illustrations of the Freer's "Haft Awrang" in depth. An audio feature describes the production of the manuscript, its patron and artists. The exhibition and related programs are made possible by a generous grant from the Roshan Cultural Heritage Institute.

The Freer Gallery of Art (12th Street and Independence Avenue S.W.) and the Arthur M. Sackler Gallery (1050 Independence Ave. S.W.) together form the national museum of Asian art for the United States. The Freer also houses a major collection of late 19th and early 20th-century American art. Hours are from 10 a.m. to 5:30 p.m. every day except Christmas Day, Dec. 25, and admission is free. Public tours are offered daily. The galleries are located near the Smithsonian Metrorail station on the Blue and Orange lines. For more information, the public may call 202.357.2700 or TTY 202.357.1729, or visit the special, exhibition-related section of the galleries' web site

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