Masterpieces of the non-Western book

The Bodleian has had unusual opportunities to acquire, through the activities of collectors in the 17th, 18th, and 19th centuries, a wide range of pictorial material produced in and relating to Asia, the Near East, and South Asia. The Hebrew, Islamic, and South Asian collections are particularly rich in fine illustrated and illuminated manuscripts.

Islamic Collections

The Bodleian’s Islamic collections include many fine examples of Arabic and Persian manuscript ornamentation. Illumination is regularly found in Quáns as well as in manuscripts commissioned by wealthy patrons.  There are illuminated Qur’ans from the Mamluk period, Safavid and Qajar Persia, and Ottoman and Indian examples.

Among the scientific and technical Arabic manuscripts which contain illustrations are The book of Fixed Stars by al-Sufi (1009 CE) (Bodleian MS. Marsh 144); Dioscorides Material Medica (1240 CE) (Bodleian MS. Arab. D. 138) and the Automata of al-Jazari (1486 CE) (Bodleian MS. Greaves 27).

Two celebrated illustrated Mamluk literary manuscripts are the Assemblies of al-Hariri dated 1337 CE (MS. Marsh 458) and  the Kalilah wa-Dimnah of 1354 CE (Bodleian MS. Pococke 400).

Geographical works with maps include the two manuscripts of al-Idrisi’s survey of the known world (Bodleian MS. Greaves 42 and MS. Pococke 375).

The Bodleian’s Persian collection includes many fine manuscripts representing successive styles of the long tradition of Persian miniature painting from the 14th to the 19thcenturies. The Shah-namah of Firdawsi commissioned by Ibrahim Sultan (Bodleian MS. Ouseley Add. 176) dates from the period 1432-4 and is illustrated in the Shiraz style.

Of the highest quality is the Bodleian’s copy of the poet Jami’s Abode of Spring, created for the emperor Akbar in Lahore in 1595 (Bodleian MS. Elliott 254).

Among the albums of paintings assembled during the time of the Mughal Empire is a haunting image of the dying Inayat Khan, a court official, painted in 1618. (Bodleian MS. Ouseley Add. 171, fol. 4 verso)

South Asia

The Bodleian has an important collection of over 800 paintings in the Mughal style, dating from the 16th to 18th centuries.  More popular bazaar art is represented by just over 100 Kalighat paintings  made in the later 19th century.

The majority of the Bodleian’s Hindu texts are without illustration of any kind, the notable exceptions being some highly decorative eighteenth-century sacred texts on rolls of highly-burnished paper, probably to be kept as amulets.

The finest illustrated manuscript in the South Asian collections is undoubtedly Bodleian MS. Sansk. A.7(R), a palm-leaf manuscript which contains miniatures of the Buddha’s life painted during the high point of Pala art in the eleventh century.


Illustrations of Tibetan manuscripts are normally found on the first few pages, sometimes also on the last page, as in the Bodleian’s MS. Tib. A.26(R) and 27(R) from the late 19th – early 20th century.  MS.Tib. a 24(R), dating from the late 18th century, represents the first volume of a 33-volume set of the rNying ma rgyud ‘bum, a collection of texts from the oldest of the four major schools of Tibetan Buddhism.

South East Asia

Among the library’s Malay manuscripts is one of the oldest and most beautiful royal Malay letters, from the Sultan of Aceh to King James I (Bodleian MS. Laud Or. Rolls b.1).  Javanese illustration is notably represented by a colourful divination almanac (Bodleian MS. Jav. D.2)  MS. Burm a.5 contains a series of watercolours representing Burmese life. A Thai religious manuscript (Bodleian MS. Pali a.2 (R) in folding format, has illustrations of animals and people painted in a provincial style.


The Lienuzhuan (Biographies of famous women) (Bodleian Sinica 3738), printed in 1778 from blocks cut during the Wanli period of the Ming (1573-1620) and the Shengxian xiangzan (Bodleian Sinica 3737) engraved in 1632, are outstanding examples among the few illustrated editions in the library’s collection of traditional Chinese books.


Bodleian illustrated manuscripts in Japanese are few, numbering some sixty titles. Notable among these are a collection of Nara-ehon (Nara picture books) such as Otogi zoshi, a collection of medieval popular tales, and Urashima, one of the most ancient and popular Japanese legends. 


The painted representation of the central part of the funeral procession of Queen Dowager Cho, which took place in 1890, is one of only two Korean manuscripts held by the Library. The other contains illustrations of figures from China’s legendary past.