AT THE FREER GALLERY, "By the Hand of Mani" consists of 32 Iranian manuscript paintings that weren't done by Mani at all. Nothing exists that was done by this legendary painter. Rather, he served as muse for the paintings in this exhibit.
Glowing with gold and flickering with geometric patterns, these paintings on the whole were illustrations for books of poems written down in the 14th through 16th centuries. In some cases, the Freer has displayed the manuscript as well as the illustrations removed from it.
They are all very rare. And they're very under-appreciated, says Glenn Lowry, the Freer's curator of Near Eastern art. "We tend to see great canvases on the wall, rather than small, refined images from a book," says Lowry. "We have lost the power of that tradition."
As a departure from the usual wall display, the Freer has arranged chairs around a kiosk holding illustrations: The room resembles more a reading room than an art gallery, to remind us we're looking at books. We can admire, in undisturbed tranquility, a late 15th-century watercolor that shows an episode in a poem by Nizami about Alexander the Great: two prophets accidentally finding the fountain of life, as the two dried fish they were about to eat fall into it and swim around.
Nizami, who acquired a popularity in the Near East like that of Shakespeare in the West, in the 12th century composed a sort of Romeo and Juliet with a happy ending. It's called Khosrau and Shirin and is illustrated here in five intricate paintings in brilliant colors -- deep red, midnight blue, and, of course, that gleaming gold.
Everything happens in the foreground in these flat-perspective paintings, and drama is revealed by forms rather than facial expression. In "Khosrau sees Shirin bathing," the trees tell the tale: Branches of small trees beside her pond twist with a sinewy softness. Intruding on this image is a bold, phallic cypress that points directly to Prince Khosrau, on horseback in the bushes.
The manuscript paintings on display here accompany and more or less illustrate text; some take liberties with it, while others just evoke a mood. But the illustrations for Khosrau and Shirin were made to stand alone as well, which probably accounts for their special power.
FROM THE HAND OF MANI: IRANIAN PAINTINGS -- At the Freer Gallery through April 28.