Iconic books are texts revered as objects of power rather than just as words of instruction, information, or insight. In religious and secular rituals around the globe, people carry, show, wave, touch and kiss books and other texts, as well as read them. This blog chronicles such events and activities. (For more about iconic books, see the links to the Iconic Books Project at left.)

Saturday, November 14, 2009

Books of Visual Omens

Douglas Galbi provides a review of the Sackler Gallery's exhibit, Falnama: Book of Omens. The Gallery's website describes the exhibit:

Whether by consulting the position of the planets, casting horoscopes, or interpreting dreams, the art of divination was widely practiced throughout the Islamic world. The most splendid tools ever devised to foretell the future were illustrated texts known as the Falnama (Book of omens). Notable for their monumental size, brilliantly painted compositions, and unusual subject matter, the manuscripts, created in Safavid Iran and Ottoman Turkey in the sixteenth and early seventeenth centuries, are the center piece ... of the exhibition [which] comprises more than sixty works of art from international public and private collections.

Galbi notes that:

The construction of the books prioritizes seeing. Like the Hamzanama of Akbar, these monumental Falnamas have large images framed to form complete pages. The books open to an image on the right page and text on the left page. Since reading in Persian and Turkish progresses from right to left, the image is read before the text. Visually, the images are colorful and ornate. The texts on the facing pages are also highly decorative. At least with these books, taking an augury was an impressive sight.

He argues that the books were probably be used by ruling elites to read omens for common people:

Recognizing the augury texts to be bureaucratic work suggests that the monumental Falnamas were for elite use, but not for elite reading. These Falnamas obviously are lavish, expensive works. ... The Falnamas seem to me to make most sense as a tool for an elite's bureaucracy to provide auguries for ordinary persons who seek them from the elite person.

The exhibit will be at the Sackler Gallery in Washington, D.C., until January 24th.

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