Fantastic armies clash, horses scream, Sufis howl in mystical drunken orgies, poets sing from the treetops . . . all in silence, a silence four centuries deep, the silence of dreams.

A magical world, the world of Persian miniature paintings. Made to be pored over by the hour, these elegant gouaches-on-paper have been collected -- 90 of them, perhaps the greatest concentration in 400 years -- at the National Gallery of Art's East Wing and in a companion exhibit at the Freer Gallery.

It is hard to believe the intricacy of the work, even you are looking at a mural-size blowup of filigree from, say, Shah Tahmasp's "Book of Kings," an artistic high point of the Safavid dynasty, which sponsored the paintings in the 16th century. The touch is so light that it had to be done with kitten-hair brushes.

Study the marvelous fantasy "Barbad the Concealed Musician," an intricate composition with 19 people, a throne, a mountain and a poplar tree (with Barbad skulking in it) that breaks clean through the frame to shoot up into the gold-flecked mat.

In fact, one whole side of the frame is open to the dazzling night of lapislazuli blue, made even more startling by the contrast of brilliant yellow sycamore leaves.

The longer you look the more you find: costumes in piercing carmine and emerald and saffron, elegant caligraphy and stylized clouds, a spot of breathtaking tracery on the throne.

Composition seems to have been instinctive to these artists. One assemblage has 38 people and a dog. Another crows in at least 54 figures, all conforming so easily to the rhythmic curves and counter curves of the scenery that it looks simple.

In the later stages of Safavid painting we see the gradual loss of energy as the figures grow to become individual portraits, witty and sometimes poetically elongated like those in Mannerist paintings. They are still lovely, the lines still flawless, the colors still intense.

Tahmasp eventually rejected his court artists, formally banning them in 1556, and it was in this period that many fled to India, where they influenced the art of the Mughal court, also noted for its miniatures.

The Safavid artists don't think in perspective, though perspective does appear occasionally in architectural details. Generally, the effect is completely flat, and if a sultan is shown sitting on his cushion, he seems to float at shoulder height above his subjects. One wonders whether this convention could have inspired the legends of flying carpets so familiar in Eastern literature.

Another interesting effect is the presentation of time as a scroll laid out in space, with past, present and future all visible at once, anticipating the space-time continuum of modern physics.

It is not a show to be rushed through. You need at least a minute, for instance, to examine the Simburgh, a fantastic bird, better dressed than Sinbad's Roc, which thinks nothing of snatching up a full-grown leopard. t

But maybe your taste doesn't run to fantastic birds. In that case, just wander down the row of picutures, superbly double-matted in silk by the gifted Gaillard Ravenel and Mark Leithauser, until you come to a water scene. Look in the water and there, no bigger than your little fingernail, is a perfect mallard duck, down to the last feather.

"Wonders of the Age: Masterpieces of Early Safavid Paintings, 1501-1576" continues through March 2, when it moves to the Fogg Art Museum in Cambridge, Mass.