The World in Miniature

The difference between something good and something great is attention to detail – Charles R Swindoll.

Good things come in small packages – it’s true. In the vast world of art, lives a niche world, a miniature world which is truly amazing. What is impossible to believe sometimes, is that people create the smallest of works of art with so much patience and love? Results of these efforts have been breathtaking.

The word Miniature comes from the Latin word ‘miniare’ which means to color with red lead. The capital letters on the illustration were colored with red lead in the beginning. This was not a reference to the size of the painting – it only came to be assumed as such in the later medieval age.

The origins of Miniature paintings around the world begin with manuscripts/ scriptures. In the West, religious manuscripts were accompanied with detailed borders, initials and miniature illustrations used with gold and silver and bright colours –called Illuminated manuscripts. Miniatures are present in every culture simply because there were books/ manuscripts in every culture that needed to be illustrated for better understanding of the story by the reader. The size of the early medieval miniatures was large. The name for Miniatures only came to make sense in the 12th century when the size of parchments became smaller which really tested the skill of the artists.

Slowly, work was commissioned for these illustrations to be made specifically so that they could be carried on one’s person while travelling hence palm sized. Measurement of these miniatures is a technical topic with sizes specified for sculptures and paintings by different associations. But the rule of thumb states that the subject should be represented in drawing or sculpture in 1/6th of its actual size.

The oldest miniatures can be traced back to Babylon where a nobleman named Mani illustrated his most holy book the ‘Artang’ with miniatures of the same type that have been discovered in Turfan, East Turkestan ( modern day Xinjiang ).  The date on this miniature is pegged at 2nd Century B.C.

Starting from there let us look at the countries across the globe which is home to traditional miniature paintings. Also, they are collectibles now – pieces that are rare and very valuable to the world of art and history. This article contains a glimpse of miniature art from big continents of the world.

Persian Miniature Art

Ottoman Miniatures / Persian Miniatures

In the Turkish or the Ottoman Empire, the arts flourished between the 13th and the 16th century and were given their due place. The miniatures began as illuminations accompanying texts for the emperor and his important ministers. The Ottoman Empire was influenced a lot by Sufism due to which artists drew realistically without any show of emotions on the subjects in the painting. Also, these miniatures followed Islamic geometrical art guidelines in which subjects are placed in a geometric shape on paper – distance and depth was not depicted accurately. As the skill of the artists grew, depictions in dimensions became better, colours more vibrant and appropriate to the subject as well.

Persian art also shows an influence of Chinese art. Paper arrived in Persia in 735A.D. from China and it is assumed that there would have been a show of techniques of painting on paper as well. The Persian miniature art was mostly inspired by poetry, stories written by famous poets of the time, Persian mythology– books were painstakingly illustrated taking months to complete.

The most commission of miniatures was for the epic poem ‘Shahnameh’ by the Safavid king Shah Tahmasp in 1527.

Persian Miniature can be better understood if one understand where to look. In those miniatures where there are buildings or towers – the upper story represents the ‘ideal’ and the lower floors represent the ‘reality’. Each colour has a meaning- red represents aggression, blue means peace and tranquillity and so forth. Persian miniatures belonged to schools which are categorized on the basis of cities that they were located in – Shiraz, Tabriz, Herat and Isfahan. Shiraz School of Art’s hallmark was a symmetrical composition, Tabriz school produced excellent landscapes and held a lot of expression in their art. Tabriz school’s artists were influenced by Chinese artists. The Herati School has an excellent artist in Behzad who painted miniatures in a way which could connect and communicate with the viewer. The best was to come with the miniatures from the Isfahan school where the use of colours was minimal.

We can learn a lot about the culture and way of living of people during that time through these miniatures.

European Miniature Art

In the medieval period which began in the 5th century to the 15th-century art flourished. Influenced by the Roman art, medieval art was not restricted to one form or medium. Miniature art in Europe was a natural outcome of the Roman iconography or portrait tradition. In the beginning, it was mostly drawing in manuscripts to depict stories that could be understood by those who could not read. Miniatures may be divided into two segments – illuminated scripts and portrait miniatures. The earliest miniatures are the illustrations of the Iliad which were made in the 3rd century. Method and know-how of colouring, freehand drawing techniques, employment of gold, body colour, decorative borders, kept improving century after century. There were many schools of miniature art instead of individual artists in Europe who would work on art collectively- not signing these works that survive in the early Medieval period. In the later half, skilled artists signed their work. These schools were run by the ruling monarchs who commissioned books and manuscripts for their use. By the end of 15th-century books on various topics were being made and illustrators became sought after- from story books to the bible- everything was being illustrated with realistic pictures.

This incredible miniature of the ‘Madonna and Child’ measures just 9 3/8 x 6 1/2 inches (painted surface) with the medium being of tempera and gold on wood. The Italian artist Duccio di Buoninsegna was a celebrated artist of the 13th Century.  His paintings are famous for reflecting the Byzantine period influences and Italian elements. Also, his work was realistic as compared to those of other artists. Duccio is also considered the father of modern European painting. Jean Pucelle is a famous French artist who made excellent miniatures and is supposed to have been influenced by Duccio.

Miniature portraits

In the later medieval period, miniature portraits became popular. Made on vellum, copper, ivory, rings, necklaces, hair bracelets, ornamental boxes or snuff boxes – are now prized possessions of art collectors around the world. Famous artists of Europe were Cornelius Hoyer, Christian Honerman (Denmark), George Englehart, Richard Cosway (England), Andrew Robertson (Scotland), Robert Field, Mary Roberts (America), Francisco Goya, Blarenberghe Family (France) and Robert West (Ireland). All of these belong to the 16th and 17th century.


Very closely related to the snuff boxes being made in Europe are the Palekh miniatures which were painted folk handcraft of Russia being done in the early 1900s. Made on papier-mache boxes, Palekh handicraft uses laquer paint. The subjects may be real people or characters from stories

There are 5 major schools of Miniature art with 17 subschools. As there were so many regions in India there were many styles. What makes it interesting is that they were never able to influence each other too much due to regional and language differences. For a long time until the arrival of the British, the arts were as different from each other as were the numerous languages spoken here.

The oldest miniature that has been discovered is a 9th century AD palm leaf manuscripts which showed pictures of Devadasis and the Kamasutra. A manuscript commissioned under the Pala King Ramapala(11th century) named Astasahasrika Prajnaparamita ‘The Perfection of Wisdom’ has illustrations on the front and back of the cover and also in the book.

Western India comprised of Maharashtra Gujarat and Malwa(present day Rajasthan) and miniature paintings from these regions has loads of Jain manuscripts – two of which Kalpasutra and Kalakacharya -Katha were  very popular and were illustrated and rewritten numerous times.Art from these regions flourished between 12th to 16th century.

Indian religious texts such as the Gita Govinda, Bhagvat Purana and Ragamala were also given miniature illustrations by the Kulhadar group which put caps or Kulhas on the men in their paintings.

The Mughal school of painting which received royal patronage from the 14th to the 17th century was very influenced by the Persian Schools of Art. Notable works of art being the Tuti Nama ( 1st work of miniature by the school) followed by Hamza Nama which showed influences of the Deccani , Rajasthan and European paintings. The Mughal school of art has also attempted to painting Hindu religious texts. Akbar, Shah Jahan. And Jahangir gave their attention to perfecting the miniatures. While Aurangzeb actively dissuaded paintings being made.

The Deccani School of art and the Rajasthani school of art produced  gilted works of art and were influenced by the Mughal paintings and style. Though they retained some local aesthetics as well as dress codes, the colours and the layout of the painting were distinctly of the other school.

The Pahari  Schools (which include Basohli, Guler, Kangra, Kulu Mandi and Orissa) all are unique encouragingly real using Sanskrit texts and local traditions and bold and bright colours for the same.

One can read more about the Pala school of art here .

Japanese Miniature Art

In Japan, the miniature art is not much about paintings as it is about carving an image- it can be a walnut kernel, a semi precious stone, bone, wood, porcelain and local variety of woods and corals. This art is called ‘Netsuke.’ These small pieces of buttons or toggles were made to be hung from the sashes of the kimono. These would help small pouches or boxes to be hung from them to store medicines and other valuables. This art form reached its zenith in the 18th century. Now, netsuke are collectible items. Some beautiful examples of miniature art are below

Handscroll Miniatures or Japanese Enakimono

The most famous of illustrated handscrolls or the ‘Enakimono’ is the world’s first novel ‘The Tale of Genji’ (written in the 12th Century) was written by Murasaki Shikibu. In Japan these handscrolls were portable, even though they were not miniature as per the definition. These were stories depicted beautifully on paper – the art truly noteworthy. Enakimonos were usually1 feet in height and could go several feet in length depending on the story. Also, the paintings were so detailed that one could really make out the expressions of the characters.

So many beautiful traditions of the worl have been encompassed in miniatures.Master craftsmen, artists and patrons were at the fore front of pushing their creativity and improving century upon century.

Chinese Miniature Art

China was the source of artistic expression for the countries to its east. The history of Chinese art dates back to the Stone age (10,000 B.C.)  period which dealt in pottery, cave art, landscape paintings, ceramics, textiles, and many more such types. The Chinese excelled in making large artworks (Magao cave art) to miniature ranging from lacquer plates, bowls boxes. Chinese art was predominantly under the patronage of the ruling or imperial families. Schools under them produced works of art which are non potest comparari  to other works of art in the world, even surpassing art from around the globe, in their technical aspects. A special mention must be made of the ink wash paintings made by the literate men using black ink. Line, shading and colour were the basis of this art which was exquisite. Since these were made of writing scrolls, they may be included in this miniature art. Ink Wash painting style was also made on silk and paper. These were mostly hand-scrolls and wall partitions.

Read More on Chinese art and its schools here and here.                                                                            

African Miniature Art

The African continent comprised of the world of various tribes, and a major civilization – the Egyptian civilization which built beautiful objects of arts and those that are marvels of the world till date. Tombs of Kings and officers have had sculptures and frescoes which are a sight to behold. Figurines depicting daily life – such as making beer, ploughing the field etc have been found in tombs. The below pictures are of figurines belonging to the tomb of a rich officer, Meketre. These are also being displayed in the Lila Acheson Wallace Galleries of Egyptian Art, with objects arranged chronologically over 39 rooms.

Another important aspect of the Egyptian life was amulets- miniature in size they were worn by people as a protection from evil. There are many types of amulets , depending on the god whose protection the individual was looking at. Also the way the amulets were made and their colour (copper ore) greenish blue (representing the waters of the River Nile) speaks of the craftsman ship while making these small amulets. Following are some pictures. Amulets were both for the living and the dead.

African tribes decorate themselves with headgear masks, skirts, jewellery, shawls, face paint made of organic stuff. They also make miniature sculptures for gifts/ keeping by the village elders so that these figures could be taken out for ceremonial purposes

The website on which this art is featured, writes about the Chamba art – “Little is known regarding Chamba sculptures but it has been reported that  figures such as this are used in cult activity known as Jup that is in the main dominated by men or in the case of women, Jem. Jup practices are directed to the life issues of disease, death and misfortune which they can cause and cure. Jup activity cuts across all aspects of Chamba life and family relationships for it is music, dance, performance, as it defines ethical and moral codes and is the means to adjust and control the seen and unseen. Jup names animals, rituals, things of the bush, the dead and the living. In fact Jup is an integral part of Chamba life and in order to name the function a figure it is necessary to know the context. Sculpted figures as well as any number of other objects were known as Jup and were publicly or secretively displayed during ceremonies or rituals. The head features a projectile like in the middle.”

Made of wood, these figures have distinct facial features that collectors and experts can identify and  attribute to a particular tribe or area of Africa. About the Yaka, the website states “ The present day Yaka number approximately 300,000 and live along the Kwango River in the SW Democratic Republic of the Congo. Their neighbors are the the Kongo, Teke, Zombo, Nkanu, Suku, Pindi, Mbala, Hugann, Holo, Chokwe, and so forth. They have a highly developed artistic sense—and they instill beauty and drama in even mundane objects. They are best known for the upturned noses found on initiation masks and diviner’s fetishes, but their art can be abstract and vague as well.”

African art is not only an ancient pursuit by the people of Africa, but also projects a raw, natural uncoloured view of the people that it belongs to.


The world of miniature art is the voice of those artists, countries, emperors and kingdoms who made them. Through Miniature art one can hear stories and see different people and places. Please do feel free to write in to Eikowa for any questions. The source links of this article are mentioned below.

African Miniature Arts
Indian Miniature
Jain School of Art: :
Pala School:
Durga Orissa:
Persian Miniature–the-most-outstanding-paintings-in-the-mideast.aspx?pageID=238&nID=48405&NewsCatID=438
On Mani :
Figure Birds:
Palekh Miniature Source
Jean Pucelle
Christopher Hoyer
George Engleheart
Robert Cosway
Andrew Robertson
Netsuke crved button image:

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