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Iran Art (2015/10/08)

Persian art and architecture reflects a 5,000-year-old cultural tradition. Throughout its development, Persian artistic achievement has normally been imperial in nature, with impressive majestic monuments or associated with royal patronage in book illustration.

Countless artists have produced some of the most beautiful works ever created, and contributed to the Persian artistic heritage that is known throughout the world. The most famous of Persian art includes Persian Carpet, Miniature, Pottery & Ceramics, Tile-work, Ghalam-zani (Metal-work), Khatam-kari and Mina-kari. 

Persian Carpet

Persian Carpet is an essential part of Iranian art and culture. Carpet-weaving is undoubtedly one of the most distinguished manifestations of Persian dates back to the Ancient Persia (c.500 BC). The art of carpet weaving in Iran has its roots in the culture and customs of its people and their instinctive feelings. 

Weavers mix elegant patterns with a myriad of colors. The Iranian carpet is similar to the Persian garden: full of florae, birds, and beasts. The colors are usually made from wild flowers, and are rich in colors such as burgundy, navy blue, and accents of ivory.





The bright and pure coloring of the Persian miniature is one of its most striking features. Normally all the pigments used are mineral-based ones which keep their bright colors very well if kept in proper conditions, the main exception being silver, mostly used to depict water, which will oxidize to a rough-edged black over time. The conventions of Persian miniatures changed slowly; faces are normally youthful and seen in three-quarters view, with a plump rounded lower face better suited to portraying typical Central Asian or Chinese features than those of most Persians.

Lighting is even, without shadows or chiaroscuro. Walls and other surfaces are shown either frontally, or as at (to modern eyes) an angle of about 45 degrees, often giving the modern viewer the unintended impression that a building is (say) hexagonal in plan. Buildings are often shown in complex views, mixing interior views through windows or 'cutaways' with exterior views of other parts of a facade. Costumes and architecture are always those of the time.



Pottery & Ceramics

Pottery making in the Iranian Plateau dates back to the Early Neolithic Age (7th millennium BCE) with the production of unglazed wares. Later wares were made from earthenware clays with a layer of white slip. They were covered by transparent lead glazes and colors were added with oxides. Persian ceramics matured with time into more elaborate styles and techniques.

During the 9th century under the Abbasid ruler ship, additional styles and techniques were adopted and refined, later evolving into even more elaborate and exquisite forms. The use of cobalt blue dates to this period, as does the use of other metallic oxides, such as copper, to produce blues and greens. Potters at this time were also experimenting with slip decorations, and were able to control the liquid slip to create elaborate and intricate decorations. Colors such as manganese purple, tomato red, olive green, yellow and brown were applied to the surface and then covered with a transparent glaze, creating a glossy and smooth finish.

The 11th century brought dramatic changes to the ceramic industry, influenced by Chinese porcelain ware. For a time Persian potters had tried to imitate the Chinese potter's porcelain ware, but they were unsuccessful because they lacked kaolin, fine clay used for the production of porcelain. With the introduction of the Frit Ware, however, Persian potters were able to produce the smooth surface they sought. This new clay body was composed of white clay, powdered glass and quartz. Its soft consistency facilitated the use of new techniques such as engraving, piercing and molding.

By the 12th century, Persian ceramic styles were well established and they set the standards for further innovations and conventions. In the 13th century, however, ceramics took an abrupt turn with the Mongol conquest, and for a time, pottery production halted. Wares made during the Mongol occupation are called Il Kanid wares, referring to the ruling dynasty. In the 14th century the arts revived again, with the invasion of the Timur, under whose rule new centers of pottery production appeared. Kirman became one of the main centers (see map above).

The control of the Iberian peninsula and the fall of Granada in 1492, added polychrome pottery to the colorful spectrum of Persian ceramic styles.

Through the centuries, Persian potters have responded to the demands and changes brought by political turmoil by adopting and refining newly introduced forms and blending them into their own culture. This innovative attitude has survived through time and influenced many other cultures around the world.



Archaeological excavations revealed glazed bricks in addition to the glazed pottery in Chogha Zanbil, Susa, and other ancient sites in Iran. Mosaic making technique and industry - compositing small colored stones in a geometric pattern and with various beautiful designs - reached its peak of progress and development at this time. The cup found in Marlik excavations is an excellent and complete example. This mosaic cup, made of combination of colorful stones with double-wall design, is called “thousand-flowers” in technical term and is equal to fretwork in terms of work quality.

Some samples of tile industry were related to Achaemenid palace and dated back to 400 BC were found in Susa and are now available in Louver museums.


Decoration remained from Achaemenid shows the use of colorful glazed and painted bricks. The bodies of Susa and Persepolis structures are arranged with such a combination. Two interesting examples of this type of tile, known as “Lions and Shooters,” were obtained in Susa. The decorative tiles were also used to make inscriptions. The original color of tiles context of Achaemenid period was often yellow, green, and brown and the glaze over bricks was made of baked stucco and soil.

After the spread of Islam, the tile art gradually became one of the most important decorating and covering factors for stability of various structures, particularly the religious buildings. From early Islamic period, Iranian tile-setters and tile-makers, like other Iranian artists, have been pioneers. According to Islamic historians, they took their various methods of tile art to as far as conquered countries, namely Spain.

Tile work is a pleasant way of architectural decorating in all Islamic lands. Development of tiles began from small colored external elements in brick facades and led to entire cover of historical monuments in the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries AD.

In decorations of the first centuries of Islamic architecture, turquoise and azure colored tiles were common and widely used along with unglazed bricks. In this period, tile was initially used to decorate the upper part of minarets and to highlight the religious statements for readability. But it gradually made its way to decoration of buildings: geometric designs with symmetric flower-plants were mixed in the context and transparent colors were gradually used.

Iranian artists created a type of “moaragh” (streaky) tile through combining different-colored tiles and mixing adobes of simple and monochromatic tiles of pre-Islamic era with diverse colors and making a type of “seven colors” tile. Moreover, they combined simple tiles with brick and plaster and made a type of tile called “Moaghal” (stronghold). Therefore, from the eleventh century, few constructions can be seen that have not been decorated through one of the mentioned three methods or with various colored tiles.

In the Safavid period, tile craft reached its peak of progress so that the tile-works of Shah Abbas time in Isfahan are still unique in terms of beauty and color stability. An example of this tile-work is present in Sheikh Lotf Allah Mosque in Isfahan which is the world’s most beautiful moaragh.

Safavid mosques and schools are generally decorated with a cover of tiles both inside and outside. While the use of moaragh tiles was ongoing, Shah Abbas, who was hasty to see his incomplete religious buildings, encouraged the use of seven colors tile rapid technique.

In the Safavid era, seven colors tile was largely used in Isfahan’s palaces and installing rectangular tiles inside large frames created exquisite scenes with portrait elements and different personalities.

But oral education and transmission of traditional arts within families or guilds have resulted in elimination of many innovative traditional techniques of tile-setting or tile-work in present time.

The tile is still beautiful and valuable. But nowadays in Iran, the use of traditional tiles is limited to religious monuments or those buildings that insist to pretend traditional. Most of what is built is an imitation of past monuments in a lower level and a trace of creativity can be hardly seen. Spread of Western culture in the native culture and the resulting historical discontinuity has led tile, as a traditional element, not to properly link and function with modern architecture and is mostly considered as a museum issue.


Ghalam-zani (Metal-work)

Engraving (Ghalam Zani) is the art of carving superb designs on various metals such as copper, brass, silver and gold. Isfahan is the main centre for engraving. The artistic works of this course made by the artists are the glorious and undeniable indication of previous metal work of Iran especially in Isfahan. The historical discoveries belong to the ancient times as the Sassanide (700AD), the Seljuk (100 AD) and the Safavid (1600 AD) dynasties indicate a few of the outstanding metal work periods. Resuming this art is due to the diligent attempts of the Late Ostad Mohammad Oraizi and the Late Ostad Mohammad Taghi Zufan during the past eighty years, which has been led to creating hundreds of outstanding and distinguished metal engravings. 


The intricate process of creating each and every piece requires extensive skill, talent, and patience extended by the artists. Numerous tools and materials, such as chisels, hand-made instruments, hammers, etc. are utilized by the artisans to emboss and engrave the most detailed and complex of designs on the various types of metals. Different scenes from nature, animal and human shapes, flower and plant patterns, hunting grounds, etc., are some of the many aesthetic images hand-portrayed and carved on many kinds of Ghalam Zani pieces. Application of heat, waxes, dyes, sanding and polishing materials are some of the other processes used in creating these masterpieces. The enchanting Ghalam Zani handicrafts are made in the shape of decorative trays, plates, vases, pitchers, etc. This magnificent art has a long history dating back to more than several thousand years ago. Excavated Ghalam Zani artifacts belonging to the Sassanian, Saljoughi, and Safavid eras are currently displayed at various museums around the world.



There is no evidence to determine the exact date of Khatam-Kari however the oldest available samples of Khatam-Kari art belong to Safavid period. Even though, other countries such as Syria and Lebanon produce some artworks including Monabat resemble to Khatam but the cradle of this art is Iran and it is supposed that Khatam originated from Shiraz. The left relics of Safavid period certify that this art has been in demand in that time.

Khatam was used for inlaying the doors of palaces, Quran racks and chairs. The famous case placed in Imam Ali’s shrine is one of the masterpieces of Khatam art done by Shiraz masters and has been left from Safavid age. Another example of Khatam is some parts of the Monabat Case of Sheikh Safi
al-Din’s Shrine in Ardebil.

Esfahan city has been the main center of Khatam working in Safavid period but, then it became popular in Shiraz. It was used to produce some objects such as: Backgammon board, Chess board, Quran rack, Frames and small boxes. Khatam Kari is the art of decorating wooden surfaces with small mosaic like veneers in the form of triangles made of different woods. The more ordered and finer triangles, the more exquisite Khatam! The finesse of original materials makes the work more valuable. Khatam masters use such a different original woods rarely used in other artistic branches. These materials include: Areca wood, Ebony, the wood of Citron Tree, Jujube wood, camel, horse and cow bones, and also ivory, seashell, cuprous, brass, silver and golden (in some cases) wires.



The art of Minakari or Enamelling is called miniature of fire as well as the decoration of metal and tile with mina glaze. Mina is the feminine form of Minoo in Persian, meaning heaven and refers to the Azure colour of heaven. The Iranian craftsmen of Sasanied era invented this art and Mongols spreaded it to India and other countries. French tourist, Jean Chardin, who toured Iran during the Safavid rule, made a reference to an enamel work of Isfahan, which comprised a pattern of birds and animals on a floral background in light blue, green, yellow and red.

In a scientific approach, enamel (or vitreous enamel or porcelain enamel in US English) is defined as the colorful result of fusing powdered glass to a substrate by firing, usually between 750 and 850 degrees Celsius. The paintings or patterns used for enamel works in Iran are traditional designs depending on the taste and preferences of the artist. In the Iranian version of enameling, copper and silver are the most dominant metals used. There are also special tools used in this ancient artistic endeavor such as furnace, pliers, press machine, brush and so on.

Enamel working and decorating metals with colorful and baked coats is one of the distinguished courses of art in Isfahan. Mina is defined as some sort of glasslike colored coat which can be stabilized by heat on different metals particularly copper. Although this course is of abundant use industrially for producing metal and hygienic dishes, it has been paid high attention by painters, goldsmiths and metal engravers since long times ago. 

Some documents indicate that throughout the Islamic civilization of and during the Seljuk, Safavid and Zand dynasties there have been outstanding enameled dishes and materials. Most of the enameled dishes related to the past belong to the Qajar dynasty between the years 1810–1890 AD. There have also remained some earrings. Bangles, boxes, water pipe heads, vases, and golden dishes with beautiful paintings in blue and green colors from that time, Afterwards, fifty years of stagnation caused by the World War I and the social revolution followed. However, again the enamel red color, having been prepared, this art was fostered from the quantity and quality points of view through the attempts bestowed by Ostad Shokrollah Sani'e zadeh, the outstanding painter of Isfahan in 1935 and up to then for forty years.


The greatest master of enameling of Isfahan is Shokrollah Sanizadeh, whose ancestor was a renowned painter. One of the invaluable works of this master was used for printing a stamp for commemorating Iranian handicrafts in 2008-9 and registered as national heritage. The original objet d’art is being kept at the Museum of Traditional Arts and Handicrafts. Among the distinguished students of Sanizadeh, one could refer to Gholamhossein Feizollahi, who is dexterous in designing beautiful patterns. There are quite a few artists in Isfahan who produce enamels that are very exquisite. There is great demand for these works, because of its artistic value and relatively low price. These artists present their works in Chahar-Bagh Street and the vicinity of Naqsh-e Jahan Square.

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