Concise, critical reviews of books, exhibitions, and projects in all areas and periods of art history and visual studies
October 6, 2010
Massumeh Farhad, ed. Falnama: The Book of Omens Exh. cat. Washington, DC: Arthur M. Sackler Gallery, 2009. 348 pp.; 204 color ills.; 1 b/w ills. Paper $40.00 (9780934686044)
Exhibition schedule: Arthur M. Sackler Gallery, Washington, DC, October 24, 2009–January 24, 2010
Adam and Eve Expelled from Paradise, from the dispersed “Falnama”. Qazvin, Iran. Safavid period, mid-1550s. Opaque watercolor, ink and gold on paper. 59.7 x 44.9 cm. Arthur M. Sackler Gallery, Washington, DC. S1986251.

The second half of the sixteenth century in Iran and Turkey brought with it great interest in the art of bibliomancy and the utilization of pictures for prognostication. This is made abundantly clear by the recent splendid exhibition at the Arthur M. Sackler Gallery in Washington, DC, which centered around four illustrated manuscripts (three written in Persian, one in Ottoman Turkish) dedicated to the art of divination. These four magnificent books contain a large number of paintings that were the focal point of the exhibition and catalogue. Throughout the show they were referred to as: the Dispersed Falnama, which was made in Qazvin around the end of the 1550s or early 1560s; the Persian Falnama, now kept at the Topkapi Library in Istanbul and which dates to the last quarter of the sixteenth century; the Dresden Falnama, which was produced over a long period of time from the 1540s to the 1570s; and an Ottoman copy of the Falnama that was created as a gift for the Ottoman Sultan Ahmed I (r. 1603–17) by his vizier Kalender. Known as the Falnama or Book of Omens, these unusually large-scale codices (page heights measure between 41.5–66.5 cm) contain figurative paintings and texts used for predicting the future and preparing magical spells and amulets. According to the exhibition’s curator, Massumeh Farhad, the reason for the sudden interest in and production of large-scale illustrated Falnama manuscripts in a limited timeframe and locale was linked to the restlessness and anxiety arising from the anticipation of the Islamic Millennium (1000/1591–2). While this explanation works well for the Persian manuscripts, it excludes the Ottoman volume, which was produced in the early seventeenth century. Despite this chronological problem, the exhibition and catalogue are important contributions that open new doors to those interested in images of magic, spells, cosmology, and political legitimacy, as well as apocryphal stories regarding biblical figures and literary heroes.

The subject of the exhibition and catalogue is a novelty in the field of Islamic art history and has not been dealt with in such a systematic manner until now. Massumeh Farhad, together with Serpil Bağci, have produced a superb catalogue, in terms of the quality of scholarship, the originality of the material, the intellectual and historical breadth of both authors’ considerations, and the excellent image reproductions. For general audiences, the Sackler exhibition provided a look at a relatively unfamiliar type of Muslim book, one of monumental scale and bold colors very unlike the delicate brushwork typically associated with Persian art.

In their catalogue, Farhad and Bağci point out that despite official rejection by the religious authorities the practice of seeking auguries became popular in the Muslim world. As an attempt to legitimize this custom, stories were developed regarding the various ways in which the Prophet Muhammad consulted the Koran and taught his students how to use it. Indeed, by the fifteenth century the use of the Koran for prognostication was well established, as attested by the illuminated tables at the end of Koranic codices. These tables were called “falnama,” meaning “consulting the sacred” or “seeking auguries,” and they became the most popular in Safavid Iran.

The Sackler exhibition introduced the Falnama through a layout organized according to the methods and means of divination, as well as the subject matter of the pictorial auguries. The first room of the exhibition focused on the practice of divination in the Muslim world and the different usages of books, tables, magic bowls, and amulets in seeking premonition and getting glimpses into the unseen future. As objects of prognostication and of talismanic power, bowls were inscribed with verses from the Koran or the poetry of Hafiz, Rumi, and others. In order to receive the right augury, the seeker would recite Koranic verses and then open the book at a random page; the first line on which the eyes of the seeker fell, or the last poem on the page, would constitute the omen. By the sixteenth century the text was not the only thing consulted for prognostications; Falnama images had become an integral part of the divination process. Dedicated to these Falnama paintings, the second room was organized by subject: Abrahamic and Islamic prophets, extraterrestrial bodies, planets, and the zodiac. Images of sages and heroes, as well as of the Hereafter, were the primary focus of the last room. All these images worked as visual auguries in association with the text. Indeed, their monumental scale and colorful palettes suggest entry into another, completely different world—for both historical and modern viewers alike.

Every illustrated portent in the Falnama functioned as a comprehensive unit that was related on some level to other illustrated omens in the same manuscript. As pictorial prognostications and depictions of well-known stories, these images were read on various levels. For example, Abraham sacrificing Ishmael would not be explained according to the Koranic narrative but rather according to the inscribed augury in the Falnama text. Thus, as proposed by the show and the catalogue, it is tempting to read the same foretoken iconographies in other texts through a Falnama prism, granting another dimension to illustrated manuscripts of historical narratives and other genres. Although this strategy of reading is attractive, one should always be cautious about the ways pictures were viewed and the roles images play in other texts.

The excellent, thoroughly researched exhibition catalogue provides further insight into visual divination practices as described in sixteenth- and seventeenth-century Ottoman and Safavid historical sources. Because pictures were utilized together with texts in order to provide a complete explanation of the unseen world, Falnama manuscripts were heavily illustrated, combining the image on the right and the prognostication on the left and suggesting the importance of sight with respect to obtaining knowledge of the future. In their catalogue discussion of this topic, Farhad and Bağci focus on the four manuscripts mentioned earlier, including their various artistic and literary sources, such as versions of the Shahnama (Book of Kings) and the Khamsa (Quintet) of Nizami. Despite these variations, all texts were written in a simple language and reveal iconographic similarities. The authors suggest that certain pictures were produced in a common workshop or that artists derived their illustrations from shared models that have not survived. However, they point out that there is no ur illustrated Falnama manuscript.

While some of the paintings are original in their composition, others conform to illustrations found in different textual contexts. For example, when the painting Alexander Builds the Wall Against Gog and Magog appears in the Shahnama, it is part of a story narrating the adventures of Alexander the Great and his quest for immortality. When the same picture appears in the context of the Falnama, it is no longer about Alexander, but centers around signs of the apocalypse—as the text clarifies. Since the Falnama uses familiar stories that have been widely illustrated, these images were meant to be interpreted allegorically and symbolically, and they do indeed go beyond their usual narrative into predictions of the unknown. As such, Falnama representations require a different kind of visual engagement, one that reveals the numerous layers of meanings and interpretations hidden in them. Farhad and Bağci’s analysis has important implications for understandings of the Muslim visual tradition and the complexities of figural representation within it.

The authors approach each of the four manuscripts in the Sackler show individually, analyzing style, provenance, pictorial program, date, and patronage. Reconstructing the order of the surviving folios, Farhad and Bağci explore the way the books were used and viewed against the background of contemporary visual culture. Thus, the Dispersed Falnama consists of bold, vivid, and original compositions with a clear hierarchical order that brings forth the message of the omens. Farhad further dates the manuscript to the end of the 1550s or early 1560s, and places it in Qazvin, the new capital of Shah Tahmasb (r. 1524–76). The manuscript and its illustrations mark the beginning of new visual concepts that would fully materialize in the second half of the sixteenth century at the Safavid court. She further suggests that Shah Tahmasb’s interest in dreams and the practice of geometry and divination could incline him to seek auguries through images and thus commission the production of Falnama codices.

Three essays at the end of the catalogue bring forth additional aspects of the Falnama as a text and tradition. The chapter by Maria Mavroudi is rich in information regarding the various techniques and methods of reading into the future. It is fascinating to note the spread of such practices and how common these auguries were among Jews, Christians, Muslims, Hindus, and others. Cornell Fleischer’s essay explores the practice of divination at the Ottoman court and the importance and widespread use of astrology, the science of letters, and divination as part of the political life of the time. This section of essays ends with Kathryn Babayan’s contribution on the practice of prognostications and auguries in Safavid Iran. She explains the flourishing of the Falnama during this particular time in the Safavid empire as part of a created royal mechanism of Shi’i monarchic legitimacy. Of extreme importance and usefulness are the appendices containing translations by Sergei Tourkin and Wheeler Thackston of three of the Falnama books. The entries are arranged thoughtfully, allowing the interested reader to see the text of the augury together with the painting, and with an English translation below each pair.

The depth of research manifested in the Falnama project, as well as its clarity, originality, and creative breadth, will have lasting impact thanks to Farhad and Bağci’s important catalogue. One only wishes that this beautiful exhibition could have circulated and been shown in other venues as well.

Mika Natif
Andrew W. Mellon Postdoctoral Fellow, Department of Visual Arts, College of the Holy Cross