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Saffron’s special place in Persian Miniature

Persian miniature is the embodiment of perfection, not only aesthetically but spiritually. It is the journey of the artist for self-purification. The pursuit of perfection gives rise to mystical experiences that are expressed in exotic colors. But where do such exotic colors come from?!
We will find out the answer in this article so you can learn about the source of such exotic colors in a Persian miniature.

Persian miniature, an introduction

Persian miniature or negârgari is a kind of painting on paper that reveals the realistic world through abstract miniature versions. It can be used in book illustrations or a single artwork.
It is well-established as a Persian tradition but some techniques are broadly comparable to Western Medieval and Byzantine traditions of miniatures in illuminated manuscripts.

Persian miniature was a major genre in the 13th century that fell under the influence of Mongol conquest until it reached its highest point in the 15th and 16th centuries. It survived the influence of Western influence and now it has many modern exponents. The Persian miniature was the dominant force on other traditions such as Ottoman miniature in Turkey and Mughal miniature in the Indian sub-continent.
The striking feature of the Persian miniature is the bright coloring.

Modern studies on classic Persian miniatures

Researchers have always been interested in studying historical treatises of Persian master poets and artists to uncover the old secrets of art-making. The masters have often written poems bout miniature making. They specifically emphasize the empirical knowledge of dyes and pigments because such a valuable expression of the artist’s journey must be preserved for generations to come.

There are many elements that should be added or avoided in order to achieve perfect color and also prevent deterioration of the artwork. Saffron has always been strongly recommended as a corrosion inhibitor as well as the base for many colors.

In one study, fifteen miniatures were selected from museums and private collections belonging to the Timurid to Qajar historical period. To identify pigments, the selected artworks were analyzed in a laboratory using Spot Test, Polarised Light Microscopy (PLM), X-ray Diffraction (XRD), and Fourier Transform Infrared Spectroscopy (FTIR). Many ingredients were also prepared based on the historical recipes described in Persian literature to be used as controls for FTIR analysis.

The mystery of saffron as the source of green color and the anti-corrosive agent of verdigris (zangār) was studied and analytical procedures were undertaken. Verdigris pigment was a common substance for the green color in Persian miniature which was specifically applied in drawing the borders (ḥāšiyeh). It was the only green pigment used till the beginning of the twentieth century when the chemical industry advanced.

Verdigris was prepared according to various formulas but soon artists realized that it is unstable and even destructive to other materials that cause deterioration of the artwork. That is when saffron was used to prevent such damage while creating various shades of green color!

The study aimed to investigate the properties of saffron that cause such strong impacts and coloration. 5 solutions were prepared including distilled water, sodium acetate-acetic acid (acidic), ammonium chloride-ammonium (basic), and 2 different concentrations of saffron at 0.4% and 1%. It became clear that saffron solution is a stronger buffer than the acidic and basic buffers under study and its buffering effect increases with an increase in the concentration.

The study proved that saffron can resist a wide range of pH variations probably due to the existence of unsaturated dicarboxylic acid and its esters such as Crocin and Crocetin in addition to nitrogen compounds in its chemical composition. Saffron as an addition to verdigris pigment acts as a potent buffering agent which prevents the charring of paper due to maintaining a constant pH level.

This property prevents the damaging mechanism of verdigris by increasing the pH and forming alkaline hydroxide which is often most active in the final stage of the degradation process due to a Fehling reaction. Different concentrations of saffron also create beautiful shades in combination with other colors that are unique to Persian miniatures.

This comprehensive study revealed another aspect of saffron besides its use in culinary arts. Not only saffron can release a beautiful golden yellow color in foods and drinks, but it also creates many other shades in miniature painting. On the other hand, not only saffron protects the human body and mind from external and internal harms, it also protects the artwork from deterioration.

Saffron, the source of exotic colors in Persian Miniatures

Saffron is the embodiment of perfection, both aesthetically and chemically. It is a plant that can grow in dry lands without asking for too much water. It only blooms one month a year in the fall but that short window is enough to create the most breathtaking scenery in existence.

The flower is so delicate that must be picked with hand before sunrise; otherwise, it will perish under the rays of the sun. The petals are soft violet in a color that protects 3 scarlet red stigmas. The stigmas are soft and fragile so they are handled with extreme care from the plucking process to drying time.

They are traditionally dried in shaded rooms but modern machinery is also used to accelerate the process. The packaging is done under a strict quality control process so the fragile stigmas remain intact till the time they reach the end-user.

Saffron is also packed with many chemical compounds that can create exotic colors while having protective properties against deterioration and contamination.
Persian Saffron is a multi-faceted spice that is applicable in many arts and crafts. It is the primary source of exotic colors in Persian miniatures. That is why it deserves to be the most expensive spice in the world.


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