Iran is a land of strong contrasts, where fierce and barren mountains tower over fertile green valleys, lush with flowers and orchards, where nightingales sing, and peaches, grapes, almonds, and pomegranates flourish. Its art has mirrored this ambivalence, the painters rejoicing in the beauty of nature but keenly aware of its cruel potential. Brilliantly depicting the martial feats of their heroes, they delighted also, in totally different vein, in presenting lyrical scenes of luxury, youth, and pleasure - ephemeral moments isolated from the harshness of life.
Being thus a melancholy lot, the Iranians were eager to find ways to escape from their dread of calamity, and particularly liked pictures that emphasized the agreeable. They wanted to be reminded of their gardens - which they adored - of airy pavilions by flowing water: and the people who could enjoy these settings wanted to see colour and flowers. This was natural, as Iran is a floral paradise - especially of roses - and, as for colour, even the terrible mountains glow in tones of pink, mauve, and blue in that high clear air.
In Islamic culture the art of book making holds pride of place. The Muslims have always been enamored of beautiful calligraphy, and the bold, striking Kufic script lends itself to great art. This passion was reinforced by the fact that the first duty of the scribe was to write out the Koran, the Word of God to the Muhammadan - it was a holy act, even the pen was set apart. Both artists and craftsmen devoted their lives to the production of copies of the Koran which were as perfect as could be devised in materials, bindings, and calligraphy. A religious and literary inspiration was the fountainhead of their artistic achievements. It gave them a strong sense of design, balance, purpose, and of reverence for the pen and the scribe, whose work was so much above that of the painter in general esteem because the latter concerned himself with the secular, with ''images.''
As the religion spread far afield, however, it was to some inevitable extent affected by local tastes in the matter of art, and extended its frontiers. The illuminated page, illustrations, miniatures, narrative painting, became admired.
The album leaf shown here is of a young, vaguely hospitable page, and was done about 1625, probably for Shah Abbas I. The artist Riza-yi 'Abbasi spent much of his life at court, a draughtsman, an illustrator, a painter of album leaves, and a sympathetic and influential teacher. The type of painting, to which the page appertains, was no innovation of his own, but ''he developed the image with such fluency and to such a pitch of grace that it became a kind of icon in 17th-century painting in Iran.''
However languorous, dreamy, and illusive, the page seems to have been sartorially very much on the mark, to judge by his plum-coloured coat, trimmed with gold, his blue-green shirt, his hat, edged with fur, and the bold patterns on his ocher trousers. Standing in the very forefront of the picture, he seems far off in thought, as though like W.S. Gilbert's young aesthete he were saying, ''Look at me and think of faint lilies.''
There was nothing of the languid dreamer about Shah Abbas, a man of ambition and practical vision. Visiting Isfahan at the beginning of his reign, in 1598, he fell in love with the old town and resolved to make it into his capital. Work began at once, resulting in a city so lovely that for centuries it has occupied a niche in the Islamic world comparable to that which Florence and Venice hold in the West.
Overlooked by snow-crowned mountains, and situated on the Zaindeh River, it was at the junction of important trade routes and became one of the great emporiums of the world. Shah Abbas laid out the vast Maidan, which remains one of the premier squares of the world; at one end stood his own splendid mosque, and at the other, behind a high elaborate portal, an immense bazaar. A noble tree-lined avenue led to the river, with its magnificent arched bridges. Enchanting gardens were established, and palaces, government buildings, and more mosques built, whose tiled domes shimmered under the moon and glittered in the strong sunlight. The ambassadors of Spain, Portugal, Holland, England, and Russia told of the polo played on the Maidan, of the processions, the panache, of the caravans bringing spices, silks, jewels, carpets.
Pierre Loti wrote of it with romantic fervor in his Vers Ispahan (published in 1904) when it was a shell of its past glories, ruined, but still overflowing with roses. Today it is, for most of us, once more inaccessible and remote, though in the interim it has been ably restored. We are happy to be reminded of it through pictures like this one of Riza, and by the rare exhibits of Korans and miniatures like the one now touring the United States, from the collection of Prince Sadruddin Aga Khan.