The Illustrations of the Rubáiyát of Omar Khayyám

The Rubáiyát of Omar Khayyám, as translated by Edward FitzGerald, was first published in 1859 and subsequently illustrated more times perhaps than any other book. Illustrated editions flourished particularly in the earlier 20th century. An edition of the Rubáiyát frequently involves not just random illustrations here and there, but lavish decorative features, often including an entire book design by the artist. So here is a little taster of some of the nicest illustrators of the poem that I’ve found…

dulac rubaiyat of omar khayyam edward fitzgerald vision

Edmund Dulac (1882-1953)

The ultimate fairy tale master, Edmund Dulac must be one of the most influential and purely gorgeous illustrators around. His version shows a sensitivity to the ‘Oriental’ feel of the poem whilst providing a ‘Occidental’ fairy-tale spirit as well.

Willy Pogany (1882-1955)

Willy Pogany (1882-1955)

Originally Hungarian, Pogany’s illustration here shows a greater interest in realism in the human figures and a desire for a striking pastel atmosphere.

René Bull (1872-1942)

René Bull (1872-1942)

René Bull expresses what to me is perhaps the ideal mood, colour-scheme and imagination for this poem – there is a richness, detail and passion to his art that I cannot resist.

Hossein Behzad (1894-1968)

Hossein Behzad (1894-1968)

A Persian illustrator who knew more than the translation of the poem at hand, Behzad’s art is strikingly colourful, the human figures very much in an eastern style and the lively patterning and decorative features in the scenes bring the illustrations to life.

Elihu Vedder (1836-1923)

Elihu Vedder (1836-1923)

There is something slightly serious and slightly yearning about Elihu Vedder’s work on the Rubáiyát, with its lush full-book design. He lost several children in a short time before working on this book and Khayyam’s message struck him deeply and personally, lifting his spirits. It is also the first full illustrated edition of the book, published in 1884.

Arthur Szyk (1894-1951)

Arthur Szyk (1894-1951)

Arthur Szyk’s pictures seem to reflect a fascination with Persian design (e.g. the rug-like borders) and lavishness of colour – perhaps a little lacking the strength of colour-focus and light/dark contrasts that I personally prefer, but a distinctive approach nonetheless.

Charles Robinson (1870–1937)

Charles Robinson (1870–1937)

I find Charles Robinson’s borders charming and imaginative. His illustrations are less on the symbolic or allegorical side of things and quite immediate, with some lovely detail all over.

Adelaide Hanscom (1875-1931)

Adelaide Hanscom (1875-1931)

Adelaide Hanscom’s is certainly an interesting one – fusing some art nouveau decorative features with photographic images brings a unique approach to illustrating the Rubáiyát. Personally, I find there to be a stiff self-consciousness about the work that detracts from the liquid, lush and layered effect of the poem.

Ronald Balfour (1896–1941)

Ronald Balfour (1896–1941)

Too little of the Persian origin of the poem is remembered in Ronald Balfour’s Beardsley-esque interpretation but there is a whimsical abstraction about the approach.

Sarkis Katchadourian (1896-1947)

Sarkis Katchadourian (1896-1947)

Katchadourian on the other hand is vividly inspired by Persian art, being Persian/Armenian himself. There is a masterful fluidity about his style.

himmapaan (http://himmapaan.livejournal.com/25212.html)

“himmapaan”

The most recent artist I’ve chosen to include can be found at this livejournal. Clearly inspired by Dulac and René Bull, the artist also brings a distinctive vibrancy of fabric movement and colour (the use of blues throughout the illustrations for this edition remind me of the recurrent use of that unforgettable blue in Giotto’s Arena Chapel).

I think it is obvious that the Rubáiyát inspires visual artists in exciting, nostalgic, yearning and intriguing ways. I can’t really pick a favourite, although I am partial to Dulac and Bull in particular. I’d be interested which illustrators others favour.

Cimmeria: Land of Mist and Myth

mistSun then set, and shade
All ways obscuring, on the bounds we fell
Of deep Oceanus, where people dwell
Whom a perpetual cloud obscures outright,
To whom the cheerful sun lends never light,
Nor when he mounts the star-sustaining heaven,
Nor when he stoops earth, and sets up the even,
But night holds fix’d wings, feather’d all with banes,
Above those most unblest Cimmerians.

– from Homer’s Odyssey, trans. George Chapman (Book XI)

Immediately after, Odysseus arrives at the dusky entrance to the Underworld.

The real people of Cimmeria (pronounced and sometimes spelt Kimmeria) are almost as cloaked in mystery as their land is in Homer. It is hard to find decent, non-racially motivated or Conan-related material on the internet about the Cimmerians. I use ‘Who were the Cimmerians?’ by Tim Bridgman for much of my information.

The first mentions of these ancient people (who existed largely from the 8th to 7th centuries BC) are in Assyrian texts. They are depicted as a powerful and mobile military threat to the Assyrians and to the proto-Armenian empire of Urartu. Durnig the 7th century, the great Assyrian king Ashurbanipal writes of a Cimmerian enemy. Ashurbanipal is known for collecting a vast library at Nineveh (which includes the Epic of Gilgamesh), for his popularity and for his cruelty to enemies (including putting a dog-chain through an enemy king’s jaw and forcing him to live in a kennel).

Ashurbanipal_by_Damnans

Ashurbanipal by Damnans

Ashurbanipal has some stern things to say about his Cimmerian enemy, a leader called Tugdamme. Ashurbanipal’s inscription is found in Babylon and addressed to the god Marduk:

Tugdamme…disregarded the oath of the gods…not to sin against the border of my land, and he was not in awe of thy honoured name. I overthrew him, according to your divine message which you did send, saying: ‘I will destroy his power’.

Being a mighty Assyrian, I’m sure he probably destroyed Tugdamme. The Cimmerians didn’t have all that much luck, historically.

marduk

Marduk; teaching a lesson some fool like a Cimmerian who doesn’t keep his promises

No one is quite sure of the Cimmerians’ origins but with a little help from Herodotus, we can piece together a narrative. The Cimmerians were probably a settled people, not nomads, and lived around the northern Black Sea area. The Cimmerians moved south across rivers, across the Caucasus and harried the borders of the Assyrian and Urartian empires. But the Scythians of the east ultimately expanded into the Cimmerians’ home territory and drove them away, perhaps assimilating some of them in the process.

Scythians

Scythians

Before the Cimmerians lost their homeland to the Scythians, Herodotus describes how the leaders chose not to flee with the rest. Instead, they fought with each other in equal numbers until all had slain each other. That way, they could all die and be buried in their native soil.

Konstantin Bogayevsky

Painting by Konstantin Bogayevsky

It is possible, although not universally accepted, that Cimmerian migrations after the Scythian expansion led to the Cimmerians moving much further into Europe and making them ancestors to Celtic or Germanic people. It is possible this connection was in Robert E. Howard’s head when he created his own version of the Cimmerian people, the barbarian race of Conan. Howard’s Cimmerians live in harsh, gloomy and mountainous conditions. They are uncivilized but they are generally noble and just.

conan the cimmerian by brom 2

Conan the Cimmerian by Brom

Perhaps Conan isn’t all that bad a way to at least start remembering the Cimmerians, since we have such meagre historical/archaeological evidence of the people. Howard’s Cimmerians and Conan are completely fictional, taking only inspiration from history. But then, so was Homer’s vision of the Cimmeria, right at the gateway to the Underworld. So shrouded in history’s silence and literature’s fancy, I suppose the Cimmerians are better remembered through myth and mist than not at all.

Foggy Mountain by leventep

Foggy Mountain by leventep

It was so long ago and far away
I have forgotten the very name men called me.
The axe and flint-tipped spear are like a dream,
And hunts and wars are like shadows. I recall
Only the stillness of that sombre land;
The clouds that piled forever on the hills,
The dimness of the everlasting woods.
Cimmeria, land of Darkness and the Night.

– from ‘Cimmeria’ by Robert E. Howard