In 2019, two Persian paintings sold in a private-auction house, in London, for roughly eight hundred thousand pounds each. The paintings were illuminated manuscripts, or “miniature” paintings, and they belonged to the same book: a fifteenth-century edition of the Nahj al-Faradis, which narrates Muhammad’s journey through the layers of heaven and hell. The original book, once an artistic masterpiece, had been ripped apart, reduced to sixty lavish images. Bound, the manuscript was likely worth a few million pounds; dismembered, its contents have sold for more than fifty million.
The dismembering of manuscripts is part of a larger story, a tale of extractive patronage and the passage of empires. The term “miniature” is a colonial creation, a catchall category for a diverse array of figurative paintings that emerged in modern-day Iran, Turkey, and Central and South Asia.