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 (


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.

Patient Griselda

(c) The National Gallery, London; Supplied by The Public Catalogue Foundation

Spalliera Panels, Story of Patient Griselda Part 1 – Marriage, by Sienese Painters c. 1490

Boccaccio (along with Petrarch, Chaucer, Perrault, etc) told the tale of Patient Griselda. It is one of the most infuriating, disturbing, mind-twisting stories I know. Griselda is a poor peasant maiden and one day the nobleman Gualtieri (so-called in Boccaccio) is pressured to take a wife so he chooses her. He proceeds to put her through trial after trial, testing her patience, loyalty and fortitude to withstand his tyrannical abuses.


Spalliera Panels – Exile

This includes taking away their children and telling her they have been killed. Meanwhile, he secrets the children away to be educated outside the court. Then he banishes Griselda, who all the while is suffering hugely but puts up with this horrific husband. Put back to her base roots and humiliated, she is then called to play bridesmaid to her husband’s new bride! She dresses helps the young girl ready for the wedding and returns to court, only to find out that the girl is one of her children and that the trials are finally over, she can live in peace with her husband.

All’s well that ends well…?

(c) The National Gallery, London; Supplied by The Public Catalogue Foundation

Spalliera Panels – Reunion

The tale has been read from the beginning as allegorical, perhaps for the seemingly arbitrary torments that God may inflict upon us. Griselda represents the outstanding example of a human soul coping with those trials. If read on a literal level, the husband is the vilest of creatures and Griselda an idiot for suffering in silence. But Griselda is one of those tales where the interplay between the surface level and the allegorical level is tenuous, tense and oh-so-difficult to navigate.

The Spalliera Sienese panels depicting the tale of Griselda are an interesting interpretation of the folktale that truly captures the public humiliation of the girl, the sense of courtly atmosphere that is so alien to her peasant birth and the pomp and ceremony of the husband’s trials…Griselda is mentally tortured and yet, should we truly feel sorry for her? Is our natural reaction of horror and pity too natural, too easy? As Griselda is being tragically exiled on the other side of the panel, this fellow’s jaunty buttocks say ‘read and look with a pinch of salt’:


Bernini’s Louis XIV

Louis XIV by Bernini (1665)

Louis XIV by Bernini (1665)

Some aristocrats were lounging around Louis XIV’s court, watching the old Italian artist, Gian Lorenzo Bernini, sculpt their king.

‘You are a great talent, sir,’ said one of the aristocrats, ‘but here, you have made the eyes too big and the forehead too high. Your depiction of my king is surely not accurate!’

Bernini turned to the aristocrat and shrugged. ‘My king will last longer than yours,’ he said.

Descending from the Cross

Rogier van der Weyden, The Descent from the Cross (c. 1435)

Rogier van der Weyden, The Descent from the Cross (c. 1435)

Christ’s descent from the cross was a very common theme in medieval art and continued to be so in the Renaissance. Rogier van der Weyden (1399 or 1400 – 1464) was an Early Flemish painter who created the above version of the deposition, as the descent is often known. Here, in the burgeoning Northern tradition, there is a sense of harsh humanity to the skeletal figure of Christ and the deeply moving expressions on the other figures’ faces. The striking thing about this painting, at least from a wider view, is the placement of the swooning Madonna and Jesus, whose poses mirror each others’ in a vision of empathy and symmetry.

deposition_of_christ raphael

Raphael (1483 – 1520) is of course one of the most celebrated Italian Renaissance artists, although he died at only 37. What is significant about Raphael’s version of the deposition is how it takes clear inspiration from classical art. Raphael had been observing Roman sarcophagi and modelled much of the vibrant fluidity of the scene from those, as well as taking cues from Michelangelo’s massively influential Pietà for the Christ figure.

Jacopo Pontormo, The Deposition from the Cross (1528)

Jacopo Pontormo, The Deposition from the Cross (1528)

A little later in Italy, we find this deposition of Christ in the Mannerist style by Jacopo Pontormo (1494 – 1557). When I first saw Pontormo’s deposition, having been immersed in Italian Renaissance art for some time, I was jolted awake in every way – it hit me as fresh and alarming and aesthetically mysterious all at once. The first thing to notice (inescapably) is the use of colour; pastel, light, airy, almost insubstantially ethereal so that the painting looks as if it might fly away in a breeze. This is only compounded by the lack of strong lines and the use of meandering, silken textures with limbs and yearning faces that seem to flow into each other in a cloud of melting grief.

Rosso Fiorentino, Deposition (1521)

Rosso Fiorentino, Deposition (1521)

In Rosso Fiorentino (1494 – 1540), the deposition draws from the Mannerist style of Pontormo but the colour scheme is markedly more sombre and the figures are busier than in Pontormo. Instead of melting into each other in grief, they are at work in Rosso Fiorentino – the cross itself is a major architectural backdrop for the figures who grapple, jump, twist and reach all around its impervious stature. The ‘squareness’ of fabrics and figures strike me as a great contrast to Pontormo and the positions of the attendants on Christ seem less fluid and and elegant than those in either Raphael or Pontormo. There is also something absolutely remarkable about the placement of the figures and ladders, with the woman at the bottom stretching across, the near-symmetrical (compare this to van der Weyden) imagining of the scene with the impatient emotion of it all… Although Pontormo’s Mannerist pastel explosion struck me with the hardest impact of all the deposition paintings I have seen, I think in the long run Rosso Fiorentino’s will haunt me.

Japanese Bunjinga Painting: Kameda Bosai

南画 (nanga) or 文人画 (bunjinga) was a style of Japanese art that flourished during the Edo period. It is associated with literati elites who had a keen interest in Chinese styles of painting, even though Japan was in the sakoku (鎖国 ‘locked country’) period of seclusion from other countries.

Kameda Bōsai, from Kyochuzan ('Mountains of the Heart')

Kameda Bōsai, from Kyochuzan (Mountains of the Heart)

Kameda Bōsai ( 亀田鵬斎 ) lived from 1752–1826 and contributed a great deal to scholarly discourse on art and his book Mountains of the Heart is considered a classic work of woodblock art. I love the barely-there atmosphere of the pages above, the way that we know there is a river taking up most of the page, because there is a boat and there are reeds emerging from it, yet there is absolutely no painted presence to the river itself.

Kameda Bōsai book 2

The above pages from Mountains of the Heart give me such a sense of serenity. Again, there is very little there to suggest the vast expanse of the main scenic features, in this case the mountains. There is the faint, distant shading of mountain. And as is so typical of much East Asian art, the actual human figure is small, another element to a broader vision of nature. To me, the little fellow pottering over the bridge here makes me think of small crossings, little moments of liminality where one part of the landscape trickles into another and one morning saunters into another afternoon.

no time or need now,

to halt, to gaze, to see all.

the river knows me.

The Renaissance Adores the Shepherds

See how the shepherds,
Summoned to His cradle,
Leaving their flocks, draw nigh to gaze;
We too will thither
Bend our joyful footsteps.
Adeste Fideles

The Adoration of the Shepherds, shortly after 1450
Andrea Mantegna (born no later than 1430, died 1506)
Tempera on canvas, transferred from wood

The above painting by 15th century Italian Renaissance painter Andrea Mantegna is an early depiction of vivid, even ugly, detailed and descriptive realism in the portrayal of the shepherds as they come to adore the Christ Child. I like how they both seem to be in motion. One seems to have just taken off his hat, the other just in the process of setting his elbows down and his palms together and both with their legs half way down to kneel. Whereas all else (Mary, Jesus, etc) are static, the shepherds capture the eye with their movement. Mantegna was an early master of realist description in painting.

Portinari Altarpiece, detail (1475-76).
Hugo van der Goes  (c. 1440 – 1482/1483)
Oil on panel

Then in the Netherlandish painter, Hugo van der Goes, painted the Portinari Altarpiece, one of the most extravagant, vibrant and influential depictions of the Nativity. Van der Goes portrays the shepherds in a similarly realistic style to Andrea Mantegna. Notice how their faces are rugged and un-idealised like those in Mantegna and they are similarly in motion, although not in such stark contrast to the poses around them as they were in Mantegna. There is a more general sense of lavish movement, rich colour and involvement in the scene in van der Goes. Another thing I notice is the individualism of the shepherds in van der Goes’s Portinari Altarpiece: look at how the front shepherd has a serene expression as his palms meet in fervour; how the man in green and red holds his hands out in a state of ‘beholding’, almost as if he would pick up the child, emphasising his smallness and yet his significance at the same time. Then my personal favourite is the shepherd behind them, craning his neck with his hat humbly to his chest, a simple curiosity on his beautifully realistic face.

The Adoration of the Shepherds (1485)
Domenico Ghirlandaio (1449 – 11 January 1494)
Tempera on panel

Francesco Sassetti, director of the Medici bank, commissioned the Florentine painter Domenico Ghirlandaio to decorate a chapel. Ghirlandaio, one of whose apprentices was Michaelangelo, was highly influenced by the work of Hugo van der Goes. In fact, Ghirlandaio is responsible for bringing the Portinari Altarpiece (an extract of which is seen above) to Florence, where it remains today. Ghirlandaio’s interpretation of the Adoration of the Shepherds, housed in the Sassetti Chapel, clearly shows the Flemish influence of van der Goes, with the interaction and realism of the shepherds. Although notice that one of the shepherds actually carries a lamb here. Of course, this isn’t just a touch of characterisation (although I think it’s that as well); here Ghirlandaio crosses the symbolism of the Christ Child, who is so often figured as a lamb, but also as a shepherd of the Christian flock, into the humble actual shepherd pictured here. That, coupled with the pointing of the shepherd out front (who I have heard is a self-portrait of Ghirlandaio) combine to create a sense that the shepherds truly are participants in this holy occasion, that they are truly connected to the child.

I feel like there is less emotive power and astonishment in the shepherds in Ghirlandaio than there was in the van der Goes; a greater sense of poise and symbolism but perhaps less pathos. Perhaps as time goes on we lose the rusticity and ‘ugliness’ of the shepherds somewhat (although it is certainly still there to an extent).

I’ve also noticed that in the earlier Italian Mantegna painting, the shepherds are specifically moving as running uphill towards the child. In the van der Goes they keep some distance, enhanced by the rays emanating from the child – he is the most startlingly holy of the three baby Jesuses, I think. In the Ghirlandaio, there is the least space between the shepherds and the baby. They are right beside him, crammed tightly close like in the Mantegna, but unlike in the Mantegna they are on a level with the child, if you look at their feet.

Just some thoughts, but it’s interesting to me how as the fifteenth century progresses, the rusticity of the shepherds appears to decrease and they become more and more stylised in their meanings (the symbolism and the fact that it maybe a self-portrait in Ghirlandaio, as opposed to the torn trousers and anxious movement of the Mantegna). I think my personal favourite is the attention to detail in the van der Goes. Perhaps it is more in keeping with the Northern Renaissance style to vividly display both piety and individuality in one richly coloured moment. Certainly Ghirlandaio saw something special about the van der Goes altarpiece.

Sesshu Toyo

from ‘Long Landscape Scroll’ by Sesshu Toyo

Sesshū Tōyō (雪舟 等楊?) was the finest ink painter of the Muromachi period in Japan, working mostly in the fifteenth century. He was famous throughout Japan and China as well, having been influenced by Song Dynasty art and later travelling to Ming China, where his talent was well received.

Whilst he was influenced by Chinese techniques like those of Xia Gui, Sesshū Tōyō also departed in several ways from the Chinese style, creating his own Unkoku-rin school of painting.

‘Streams and Mountains with a Clear Distant View’ by Song Dynasty Chinese master Xia Gui

Sesshū Tōyō added thicker lines, more pronounced dark-light contrasts and flatter senses of space to the Song Chinese style. Just before his death, he painted his View of Ama-no-Hashidate, which looks markedly different to the Chinese style, with a strong sense of realism and a panoramic eye, the use of dark shadows in the trees and mountains emphasised by the blankness of rolling white mists around the landscape.

‘View of Ama-no-Hashidate’ by Sesshu Toyo; haiku my own