Orientalist Love at Oxford. Bodleian Library hosts exhibition “Love and Devotion: From Persia and beyond.”

Manuscript of the Bustan or Flower Garden of Sa'di, copied circa 1515-20 currently on exhibit at the Bodleian Library

Manuscript of the Bustan or Flower Garden of Sa’di, copied circa 1515-20 currently on exhibit at the Bodleian Library

A wonderful exhibition of orientalist manuscripts entitled “Love and Devotion: From Persia and beyond” is currently on display at the Old Schools Building of the Bodleian Library in Oxford. Some sixty books and plates from the Library’s rich collection are being exhibited until the 28th April, part of an effort on the part of the Bodleian to enable a wider group of people beyond the specialist scholars, to enjoy its special collections. This exhibition is not to be missed.

The founding of the Bodleian Library in 1602 coincided with a time of increasing interest in the East, and its holdings later increased through the acquisition of works once owned by renowned scholar-collectors. The foresight and generosity of these collectors and donors have enabled the preservation of these works for future generations.

Love and Devotion: From Persia and Beyond celebrates the beauty of Persian manuscripts and the stories of human and divine love told through their pages from the early 11th century on. Tales of love and adventure were copied and sometimes reinterpreted over time, and reached far beyond the borders of Iran. The universal themes of Persian narrative and mystical poetry appealed especially to audiences in Mughal India and Ottoman Turkey, and eventually to audiences in the West. Transcending time and place, these stories continue to resonate today and to be retold through contemporary literature and popular culture.

Persian poetry from the secular tradition flourished in the princely courts of Iran. It is said that one such prince, Sulṭān Maḥmūd of Ghaznah (d. 1030), had four hundred poets in his retinue. Illustrated manuscripts were crafted for élite patrons which today provide viewers with the opportunity to experience examples of Persian calligraphy, illumination and miniature painting from the 13th to 18th centuries, one of the richest periods in the history of the book. Many stories from this period were embraced not only in courtly settings but in all sectors of society, told within families and at community gatherings.

The idea of Persia has long fascinated Western minds. From the Middle Ages on, knowledge of Persia gradually expanded as a result of increased contact through trade, travel and diplomacy. Writers in Europe, such as Dante, Chaucer and Shakespeare, reflected this understanding in the parallels with Persian literature and shared symbolism evident in their plays, poetry and prose.

In Persian literature the theme of love is present in a number of forms; from the amorous introductions to courtly odes, love stories which form part of heroic epics such as the Shāhnāmah, prose romances and theoretical works, to short lyrical ghazals like those of Ḥāfiẓ, long romantic poems in rhyming couplets such as those of Niẓāmī and Jāmī, and episodes of love which appear as short illustrative stories in the more didactic and moral works of Sa’dī.

While courtly odes can demonstrate the poet’s love for and devotion to his patron, mystical works often use the language of everyday love as a metaphor for the love of the “Real”, the divine Beloved. The human beloved is often seen as the witness (shāhid), that is, the ‘being whose beauty bears witness to the divine beauty’. Laylá, for example, whose beauty was reflected in the mirror of Majnūn’s soul, can be seen as just such a witness in Niẓāmī’s romantic poem Laylá and Majnūn.

The words of Rūmī above show the principles of the philosophy of love in Persian mystical poetry, a philosophy largely derived from Sufi teachings which emphasise the primacy of love. For mystics, love is paramount and is the motivating force of the universe; God, a “hidden treasure”, having created all of creation out of a love to be revealed.

Classical Persian poets from Rūdakī (d. 940) to Ḥāfiẓ (d. 1389) have continuously sung the praises of love in their masterful verses, and have promoted the “way of love” (madhhab-i ‘ishq) as an antidote to cant and hypocrisy, and as the true path of sincerity and devotion (ikhlāṣ).

More information about the exhibition, including images of some of the exhibits, is available on the Bodleian Library website.

The exhibition is based on an earlier one curated by Susan Scollay and Claire Williamson for the State Library of Victoria in Melbourne. This presentation of the exhibition has been curated by Alasdair Watson, Curator of Islamic Manuscripts at the Bodleian Library.

The exhibition will remain open until 28th April 2013 at the Old Schools Building in Oxford. Entrance is free.  Opening hours are Monday to Friday 9.00 – 17.00; Saturday 9.00 – 16.30 Sunday 11.00 – 17.00.

source: report prepared by OxGAPS with the Bodleian Library website.

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