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The Baghdad School was a relatively short-lived yet influential school of Islamic art developed during the late 12th century in the capital Baghdad of the ruling Abbasid Caliphate. The movement had largely died out by the early 14th century, five decades following the invasion of the Mongols in 1258 and the downfall of the Abbasids' rule, and would eventually be replaced by stylistic movements from the Mongol tradition. The Baghdad School is particularly noted for its distinctive approach to manuscript illustration. The faces depicted in illustrations were individualized and expressive, with the scenes often highlighting realistic features of everyday life from the period. This stylistic movement used strong, bright colors, and employed a balanced sense of design and a decorative quality, with illustrations often lacking traditional frames and appearing between lines of text on manuscript pages.
Translations and Illustrations of Materia Medica
The Baghdad School consisted of both artists and translators, who collaborated together to produce manuscripts deriving from non-Arabic sources. Among these were Greek materia medica, in particular herbals and bestiaries, which described the characteristics and medicinal uses of various plants and animals found in the wider Mediterranean world. As one of the first examples of these translations—and indeed one of the earliest surviving manuscript illustrations of any kind from the Baghdad School—the Materia Medica of Dioscorides was considered especially important, and remains one of the best examples of manuscript translation and illustration produced by the Baghdad School. Dioscorides was a renowned Greek physician, herbalist, and pharmacist serving the Roman Empire and its armies during the first century A.D, whose work gained influence throughout the medieval Islamic world.
Among the illustrated manuscript leafs translated into Arabic from the Materia Medica of Dioscorides is the page entitled, “Physician Preparing an Elixir," also referred to by The Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History as “Preparation of Medicine from Honey.” It is dated 1224 A.D. and was found in Iraq or Northern Jazira, possibly Baghdad. The page depicts an illustration of a bearded physician with a colorful blue headscarf and red clothing seated on an ornamental stool. He is mixing a yellow pot with a ladle while overlooking a yellow cauldron hanging from a red tripod above a wide blue container. His other hand is raised up towards his mouth. A large blue jug lies to the left of the tripod. Two overhanging trees on either side of the scene bear leaves and two different types of what appear to be colorful fruit or flowers—red on the left and yellow on the right. The ground below the scene is covered with green grass, however there is no background depicted in the illustration thus reducing the sense of depth. The style of illustration depicted on this manuscript leaf is thus an excellent example of the Baghdad School: the colors are bright and distinctive, the objects depicted in the scene have a balanced, symmetrical design with the trees framing the illustration, and finally, the man’s face appears to be in a state of deep, expressive contemplation. The scene itself has a realistic and personalized quality to it, depicting a physician in a natural setting as he prepares a medicinal mixture containing honey for his patients, and yet also has ornamental characteristics with its design and choice of colors—another distinctive feature of the Baghdad School.
- Encyclopædia Britannica Online, s. v. "Baghdad school," accessed May 04, 2013, http://www.britannica.com/EBchecked/topic/48804/Baghdad-school.
- “Preparation of Medicine from Honey: Leaf from an Arabic Translation of the Materia Medica of Dioscorides [Iraq, Baghdad School] (13.152.6)”. In Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History. New York: The Metropolitan Museum of Art, 2000--. http://www.metmuseum.org/toah/works-of-art/13.152.6 (December 2011)