Epitomizing the Mystical Journey: Opening Paintings to the Manṭiq al-Ṭayr

The mystical journey of a group of birds to unification with the Divine is the main storyline and the structuring framework of the epic Manṭiq al-Ṭayr, composed around 1200 by Farīd al-Dīn ʿAṭṭar. Surprisingly, most illustrated manuscripts of this poem neither depict birds, nor do they provide any pictorial evidence for the understanding of this work as a Sufi’s quest for a union with God. Whereas the earliest paintings accompanying this mathnawī meticulously illustrate the events narrated by certain sub-stories – offering little to no indication as to whether the depicted tale was understood as part of the mystical framework – in mid-15th-century Shiraz and its cultural milieu a sophisticated idea was developed to visually conceptualize the epic’s leitmotif. Placed at the beginning of the poem, these opening paintings employ other symbols – found in the epic itself – to epitomize the Sufi path. The motifs of the Prophet Muḥammad’s ascension to heaven, as well as the enthronement of Solomon and the Queen of Sheba were extracted from the Manṭiq al-Ṭayr’s text in order to provide insight into the course of the journey and its destination – the mystical annihilation and the unification with God. This paper examines the ways in which these opening paintings prefigure and summarize the process, the obstacles, and the final aim of the Sufi’s search for union with the Almighty.