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Lapis and Gold: Exploring Chester Beatty’s Ruzbihan Qur’an

Lapis and Gold: Exploring Chester Beatty’s Ruzbihan Qur’an


 The Chester Beatty Library’s 16th-century Ruzbihan Qur’an—produced in the city of Shiraz in southwest Iran—is one of the finest Islamic manuscripts known. In terms of both materials and workmanship, it is exquisite: lapis lazuli and gold, the two most expensive pigments available, are used on every page, while the rendering of the decoration is exceptionally fine. This is the most detailed and comprehensive study of any Islamic manuscript—and it is well worthy of such scrutiny.  


Praised in a 16th-century account as one of the finest calligraphers of his time, Ruzbihan Muhammad al-Tab‘i al-Shirazi would have produced numerous Qur’ans during the course of his career, but only five signed by him have survived. Much of the study of this, surely his finest manuscript, is focussed on understanding the processes and procedures involved in the production of the manuscript and thus on gaining an insight into the problems faced by Ruzbihan and the other artists and how they resolved them. Certain surprising and never-before-seen techniques of production and ‘tricks-of-the trade’ have been uncovered. A large portion of the information presented is the result of very close examination, under high magnification, of the manuscript’s 445 folios (890 pages). Many of the reproductions included are of minute details of the decoration that are difficult, or even impossible, to see with the unaided eye. 

The book follows the order in which work on the manuscript would have progressed, beginning with an examination of Ruzbihan’s calligraphy, the various scripts he used to copy the text and the problems he faced, such as the spacing of the text and his errors and omissions. Additions, such as marginal notations, recitation marks and decorative devices indicating the divisions of the text, all of which guide the reciter in his reading of the Qur’an, are also considered. 


Although the manuscript’s renown has traditionally rested with the name of its calligrapher, it is equally the quality, extent, diversity and complexity of its superb decorative programme—the work of a team of highly skilled, yet anonymous artists and artisans—that sets the manuscript apart from most other 16th-century Persian Qur’ans. Fittingly, therefore, the bulk of the study focuses on this aspect of the manuscript. Major aspects of the illumination, such as its lavish beginning, middle and end illuminations, are examined as well as more minor elements such as the ‘rays’ that emerge from the frontis- and finispiece; even the tiniest of details are revealed, such as what are, in the book, termed ‘squiggles and eyes’, hidden amongst the illuminations and a challenge to find for the even the most eagle-eyed viewer. However, while many of the secrets of the production of the manuscript were revealed, many mysteries remain. Chief among these is the startling change in aesthetic evident in the illuminations of the final ten openings of the manuscript. Why such as change was undertaken—and then halted—is not known. As was increasingly revealed as study of the manuscript progressed—and as the reader of the book will quickly come to realise—Chester Beatty’s Ruzbihan Qur’an is an intriguing and very special manuscript. 

  • Elaine Wright



    SPRING 2018

    Hardback, 300 x 240 mm

    352 pages, 350 colour illus.

    ISBN 978 1 912168 04 0

  • In the press

    "This lavishly illustrated book is a landmark in Islamic manuscript studies." —The Burlington 


    "This study of a great 16th-century Qur'an does justice to the ingenuity of its calligrapher ... [Wright] examines every aspect of the calligraphy and design meticulously. No flick of an alif or curve of an ‘ayn goes unnoticed; no variety of lotus goes unremarked. Her attention to detail mirrors Ruzbihan’s own fastidiousness ... such is the quality of the reproductions and the precision of the analysis that anyone with an interest in the subject will find something to draw them in." —Apollo 


    "Probably the most detailed examination of any complete Qur’an manuscript ever undertaken, of value to anyone involved in conservation or bibliography, and, indeed, since Ruzbihan and his colleagues undoubtedly achieved a great work of art, a source of delight to anyone who turns these pages ... there are few manuscript experts capable of Wright’s devotion to detail, but it is evident that what keeps her working on this great project is a driving enthusiasm for this superb artistic accomplishment, and she infects the reader with her passion." –Art Newspaper


    "This handsome book ...  will remain an unrivalled resource for students of Safavid manuscripts for a long time to come. Elaine Wright has written a book that shows off her wide-ranging knowledge while leaving no stone unturned approach to the study of Persian manuscripts ... a reference for anyone wishing to study the production of a magnificent Safavid manuscript." —Arts of Asia 


    "The sheer depth of discussion in this precise and lavish book is impressive. The illustrations and close-up photographs of the rich decoration for which the Ruzbihan Qur’an is famous are the book’s trump card to convince the reader of the arguments presented ... the book should not be treated solely as a scholarly work aimed at students and specialists of medieval Persian manuscripts. It provides enough intriguing details on the decoration to satisfy any admirer of Islamic art. Comprehensive illustrations and reproductions of full-sized leaves from this beautiful Qur’an make the reading of Wright’s monograph a special experience that should not be missed." –Orientations Magazine 


    "Elaine Wright’s monograph confronts the obstacles to analysing and interpreting a single illuminated manuscript ... insightful analyses."
    Bulletin of the School of Oriental and African Studies


    "The most detailed and comprehensive study of any Islamic manuscript to date ... Fittingly, the bulk of the study focuses on the manuscript’s superb illuminations, both major elements, such as its lavish frontis- and finispiece, and seemingly minor elements, such as the colourful frames that surround almost every element and the tiny ‘squiggles and eyes’, which, hidden amongst the illuminations, appear to function as a sort of artist’s hide-and-seek." –Irish Times 

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