Two hundred and fifty years ago, Arab miniaturists were in the custom of staring at the western horizon at daybreak to alleviate the understandable and eternal anxieties about going blind shared by all miniaturists;  likewise, a century later in Shiraz, many illustrators would eat mashed walnuts with rose petals on an empty stomach in the mornings. Again, in the same era, the elder miniaturists of Isfahan who believed sunlight was responsible for the blindness to which they succumbed one by one, as if to the plague, would work in a half-dark corner of the room, and most often by candlelight, to prevent direct sunlight from striking their worktables. At day’s end, in the workshops of the Uzbek artists of Bukhara, master miniaturists would wash their eyes with water blessed by sheikhs. But of all these precautions the purest approach to blindness was discovered in Herat by the miniaturist Seyyit Mirek, mentor to the great master Bihzad. According to the master miniaturist Mirek, blindness wasn’t a scourge, but rather the crowning reward bestowed by Allah upon an illuminator who had devoted an entire life to His glories; for illustrating was the miniaturist’s search for Allah’s vision of the earthly realm, and this unique perspective could only be attained through recollection after blindess descended, only after a life time of hard work and only after the miniaturist’s eyes tired and had expended himself. Thus, Allah’s vision of His world only becomes manifest through the memory of blind miniaturists. When this image comes to the aging miniaturist, that is, when he sees the world as Allah sees it through the darkness of memory and blindness, the illustrator will have spent a lifetime training his hand so it might transfer this splendid revelation to the page. According to the historian Mirza Muhammet Haydar Duglat, who wrote extensively about the legends of Herat miniaturists, the master Seyyit Mirek, in his explication in the aforementioned notion of painting, used the example of the illustrator who wanted to draw a horse. He reasoned that even the most untalented painter — one whose head is empty like those of today’s Venetian painters  — who draws the picture of a horse while looking at a horse will still make the image from memory; because, you see, it is impossible, at one and the same time, to look at the horse and upon the page which the horse’s image appears. First, the illustrator looks at the horse, then he quickly transfers whatever rests in his mind onto the page. In the interim, even if only a wink in time, what the artist represents on the page is not the horse he sees, but the memory of the horse he has just seen. Proof that for even the most miserable illustrator, a picture is possible only through memory. The logical extension of this concept, which regards the active worklife of a miniaturist as but the preparation for both the resulting bliss of blindness and blind memory, is that the masters of Herat regarded the illustrations they made  for biblophile shahs and princes as training for the hand — as an exercise. They accepted the work, the endless drawing and staring at pages by candlelight for days without break, as the pleasurable labour that delivered the miniaturist to blindness. Throughout his whole life, the master miniaturist Mirek constantly sought out the most appropriate moment for this glorious of approaching eventualities, either by purposely hurrying the blindness through the painstaking depiction of trees and all their leaves on fingernails, grains of rice and even on strands of hair, or by cautiously delaying the imminent darkness by the effortless drawing of pleasant, sun-filled gardens. When he was seventy, in order to reward this great master, Sultan Huseyin Bayakra allowed him to enter the treasury containing thousands of manuscript plates that the Sultan had collected and secured under lock and key. There, in the treasury that also contained weapons, gold and bolt upon bolt of silk and velvet cloth, by the candlelight of golden candelabra, Master Mirek stared at the magnificent leaves of these books, each a legend in its own right, made by the old masters of Herat. And after three days and nights of continuous scrutiny, the great master went blind. He accepted his condition with maturity and resignation, the way one greets the Angels of Allah, and he never spoke or painted again. Mirza Muhammet Haydar Duglat, the author of The History of Rashid, ascribed this turn of events as follows: “A miniaturist united with the vision and landscape of Allah’s immortal time can never return to the manuscript pages meant for ordinary mortals”; and he adds, “Wherever the blind miniaturists memories reach Allah there reigns an absolute silence, a blessed darkness and the infinity of a blank page.”

I am called “Olive”, My Name is Red, Orhan Pamuk

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