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“Pearls on a String” Shows How Artists, Patrons, and Intellectuals Fused Traditions Across the Islamic World

Courting beauty at the Walters Art Museum.

By David Soud | HUMANITIES, January/February 2016 | Volume 37, Number 1

During his storied reign over Mughal India, Akbar the Great (r. 1556–1605) held a weekly gathering to foster religious dialog and exchange. One attendee was Abu’l Fazl, Akbar’s chief secretary. Abu’l Fazl was the architect of Akbar’s imperial narrative, not only through his vast administrative work but also through his writing. From 1590 until his death in 1602, he toiled obsessively over his Akbarnama, a chronicle of his patron’s reign.

The Akbarnama, which took up three large volumes, was bound in lavishly illustrated editions during and after Akbar’s reign; the emperor himself served not only as patron but also as presiding art critic. The superb if incomplete codex held by Dublin’s Chester Beatty Library contains a fine painting of one of Akbar’s Thursday evening gatherings. Akbar sits under a canopy, consulting with a courtier who may be Abu’l Fazl, as Muslims, Hindus, and even two Jesuits form a circle for discussion. A scroll probably containing a Hindu text—Muslim and Christian documents would more likely be in codices—lies unrolled at the center of the circle. The image captures the spirit behind Akbar’s campaign for religious pluralism, which he undertook even as Europe, divided between Catholic and Protestant powers, was approaching the catastrophe of the Thirty Years’ War.

That painting, and the book from which it has been painstakingly detached, can both be found in “Pearls on a String,” an exhibit on view at Baltimore’s Walters Art Museum until January 31, after which it will travel to the Asian Art Museum of San Francisco. With help from grants from the National Endowment for the Humanities as well as the National Endowment for the Arts and the Institute of Museum and Library Services, among others, the two museums have collaborated in bringing together some of the greatest treasures of Islamic art. But rather than present an impersonal survey, “Pearls on a String” takes a decidedly humanistic view of its subject. As its title, a classic metaphor from Islamic poetry, suggests, the show emphasizes how discrete parts form a harmonious whole—in this case, how individual writers, artists, and patrons at the great courts of Mughal India, Safavid Persia, and Ottoman Turkey lived and worked within what curator Amy Landau calls “webs of personal relationships” among rulers and the “service elite” of court officials, artists, noblemen, harem women, and slaves of ranking households. Focusing on three men—a writer, a painter, and a patron—the exhibit manages to be at once panoramic and intimate.

The first of the show’s vignettes revolves around Abu’l Fazl, who served as Akbar’s top cultural administrator from shortly after his arrival at the Mughal court until his untimely death. Though Akbar was extraordinarily gifted, he was reportedly illiterate; scholars have speculated that he may have been severely dyslexic. As a result, he educated himself by discoursing with courtiers and scholars, and relied heavily on his chief secretary’s erudition. Abu’l Fazl returned his employer’s high regard. He vigorously promoted Akbar’s religious pluralism, overseeing the so-called “Akbari translations” of diverse texts into courtly Persian and promoting Akbar as a supremely enlightened and broad-minded ruler. In Abu’l Fazl’s narrative, the emperor appears as something like the “Perfect Man” of the Sufi traditions to which both men were attached: someone who has fully realized the divine qualities that were sharply diminished in humanity by the Fall. The first painting on view in “Pearls on a String” is, in fact, a portrait of Akbar as a kind of saint, endowed with a halo.

The exhibit goes on to showcase some of the exquisite works that emerged from Abu’l Fazl’s tireless efforts. Beyond the Beatty Akbarnama, from which several superb pages are separately displayed, it presents paintings from translations of such Hindu texts as the Ramayana, the Mahabharata, and the Harivamsa. These codices reflect Akbar’s engagement with devotional traditions featuring the god Vishnu’s avatars Rama and Krishna. One such painting, Krishna Dancing on the Head of Kaliya, depicts Krishna playing a flute atop the five-headed serpent he has just subdued. The subject surely would have appealed to the Mughals’ Persian-inflected taste for the fantastical and miraculous, but there is also a political dimension to these texts. Akbar’s religious pluralism at times evolved into syncretism—the attempt to merge elements of different traditions into a composite whole. As a result, Akbar willingly took on certain Hindu identifications: A painting of Rama meeting his teenage sons casts the Mughal emperor in the leading role. Another painting depicts the process of translating Hindu texts, showing both Muslim and Brahmin teams of scholars at work. Apparently, the translations were always indirect, Sanskrit texts being converted first into the Hindustani vernacular and then into the Persian of Akbar’s court.

Islamic literature had its own great narratives, one of the most famous being the Persian poet Nizami’s Khamsa, or Quintet, of five tales in verse. Nizami’s classic would be recast in India by the poet Amir Khusraw (1253–1325), and Khusraw’s Khamsa is enshrined in Mughal codices. One magnificent example from Abu’l Fazl’s industry, an illustration of The Story of the Wrongly Exiled Prince as Told by the Princess of the Sandalwood Pavilion, reflects the hybrid artistic sensibility that flourished under Akbar. The wandering prince, as instructed, meditates on an Egyptian god in order to summon a demon that will serve him faithfully—but though the demon looks suitably Persian, the Egyptian god is a four-armed, decidedly Hindu deity. The painter, Mukund, was clearly encouraged to feel at ease combining these and other pictorial traditions.

An even more impressive facility in fusing different pictorial languages features in the show’s next vignettes, which focuses on the famed Safavid painter Muhammad Zaman (active ca. 1670–1700). More than any other artist, it was he who put his stamp on the introduction of European-style painting, or farangi-sazi, into the Persian tradition. As Landau frames it, Zaman “came to embody innovation in late seventeenth-century Safavid painting.” Certainly he was highly esteemed, even being granted the most elite of privileges, access to the royal library of Shah Sulayman.

The Safavid dynasty, which lasted from 1501 until 1736, was a cosmopolitan enterprise. It is perhaps no coincidence that its originators, like those of the Mughal Empire, were involved with Sufism, which has often figured as an especially accommodating expression of Islam. The courtly version of ‘adab, or Islamic etiquette, encompassed lofty character, keen intellect, and refined manners: Nobles were expected, like Castiglione’s courtier, to be able to recite or even compose appropriate verses on the spot. European culture had long been appreciated at the Safavid courts; “Pearls on a String” includes artifacts revealing how Dutch painters flourished alongside Persian, Armenian, and Georgian artists in and around the capital of Isfahan. Zaman’s particular genius lay in his stylish integration of the two traditions, conjuring European techniques of atmospheric perspective and chiaroscuro while remaining faithful to the Persian aesthetic sensibility. This double fluency most obviously informs his treatment of biblical subjects; the first of his paintings on show is his 1689 The Return from the Flight into Egypt, which is modeled on a European print of Rubens’s The Return of the Holy Family from Egypt.

By 1675, Zaman had already gained sufficient prominence to be entrusted with a momentous commission: a series of new paintings to be inserted into two of the most treasured calligraphic codices in Persia. One was an edition of Nizami’s Khamsa commissioned by Shah Tahmasp I (r. 1524–1576); the other was a superb rendering of the Persian national epic, the Shahnama or Book of Kings, commissioned by Shah ‘Abbas I (r. 1588–1629). The commission was the ideal opportunity for Zaman to showcase his mastery, and he seized it. In the exhibition, two paintings from the Shah ‘Abbas Shahnama display the kind of dialog he established with past artists. A painting by Riza ‘Abbasi, Zaman’s famed predecessor, depicts the mythical king Faridun receiving an envoy. Its composition and coloring are exquisite, as is the accompanying calligraphy, but the image is essentially flat. By contrast, Zaman’s painting of the murder of Faridun’s youngest son Iraj is all about perspective: It centers on a receding corridor of columns and then trees. The architecture framing the action quotes a Dutch engraving, and the entire scene recalls European depictions of the martyrdom of John the Baptist—but it lacks the fanciful delicacy of Riza ‘Abbasi’s work.

Elsewhere, however, Zaman’s artistry fuses the two traditions more seamlessly. In Simurgh Assisting at the Birth of Rustam, also from the ‘Abbas Shahnama, the magnificent bird seems to come alive from the border of the page and enter into the scene. Turktazi’s Visit to the Magical Garden of Turktaz, a delightful nocturne from the Tahmasp Khamsa, depicts musicians regaling the young hero and the fairy princess—here depicted as a fair-haired European beauty—while the romantic couple take tea on a moonlit terrace. The night sky, deep perspective, and shadowy molding of the figures blend seamlessly with Persian imagery. One shy young woman playing a large tambourine hides behind her instrument, on the skin of which, in elegant script, Zaman has left his name.

The image conveys not only Zaman’s brilliance, but also the difficulty of locating the person behind the art. Zaman often left long inscriptions on his works, but while they assert his accomplishments, they tell us little about his life. He gained wide admiration and taught illustrious students but left almost no biographical data—what in Arabic would be called ‘asar, or traces. We are left with the trajectory of his career, and must largely follow the directive of the great sixteenth-century calligrapher Dust Muhammad: “Verily, our works point to us, so gaze after us at our works.”

Such difficulties seldom apply to the patrons of artists, and this is certainly the case in the exhibition’s third vignette, which features Sultan Mahmud I of the Ottoman Empire (r. 1730–54). Until recently, historians tended to regard Mahmud as an undistinguished ruler inhabiting the inexorable decline of the Ottoman Empire. In 1718, the Treaty of Passarowitz had conceded large swaths of formerly Ottoman territory to the Habsburgs, and the empire’s economy had begun to contract. Nothing momentous seemed to distinguish Mahmud’s reign. More recently, however, the realization has dawned that a lack of historic drama does not equate to a dearth of accomplishment. Not only did Mahmud stabilize Ottoman politics and stimulate economic recovery; it was his military that maneuvered the Habsburgs into the 1739 Treaty of Belgrade, forcing them to return most of the territory they had taken a mere twenty years before. And Mahmud was a lavish patron of the arts.

The conspirators who placed Mahmud on the throne after a successful coup against his uncle Ahmed III clearly expected him to be a compliant figurehead; he had been brought up under close control since the deposition of his father, Mustafa II, in 1703. Further, he suffered from a serious curvature of the spine. But he proved far more capable than anticipated, quickly overcoming his would-be handlers and taking confident control of Ottoman politics. The new sultan wasted no time in issuing new gold coins to signify both his own confidence and the empire’s prosperity, and throughout his reign he patronized artists while also commissioning a series of public works. His Tophane Fountain and Nuruosmaniye Mosque, the first Ottoman mosque designed by a non-Muslim architect, helped define the style now known as Ottoman Baroque.

Mahmud was resolved to demonstrate and drive forward a distinctly Ottoman form of modernity; he was also fascinated by elaborate gadgetry. Those two interests converge in the most spectacular object in the exhibit: a flintlock musket plated with gold and adorned with a breathtaking number of precious stones. Fashioned shortly after Mahmud’s accession, it was passed down among his successors and reportedly taken to Paris by Sultan Abdülaziz (r. 1861–76), where it was fitted with additional accessories. By the turn of the century, it had entered into the possession of the antiques dealer R. S. Pardo, who sold it in 1903 to Henry Walters, benefactor of the museum that bears his name. Pardo passed on with the artifact a delightful tale of its commission. Mahmud reportedly requested a musket worthy of a sultan, and fashioned such that on a hunting trip he could kill an animal without the gun and use the gun to sign an edict. The result: this magnificent weapon, which contains within its stock two compartments, one holding a pen and penknife and the other an ornate dagger.

Given the sophistication of its design and decoration, the musket likely involved collaboration among gunsmiths, jewelers, and clockmakers, but it was signed only by its gunsmith, İsma ‘il. The octagonal barrel, made of Damascus steel and both gilded and inscribed, is striking enough, but the lock and stock blaze with gemstones. The butt end of the musket displays Mahmud’s tughra, or seal, arranged in diamonds; the seal opens on a hinge to reveal the compartments containing the pen set and dagger. The gun’s varied decorations include floral patterns reminiscent of Persian and Indic motifs—a reminder that Ottoman artists and craftsmen worked within a cosmopolitan sensibility tied to the empire’s extensive international trade.

In addition to the jeweled musket, many other opulent Ottoman artifacts on display attest to the often extravagant tastes of Mahmud’s era. But less spectacular objects perhaps reveal more about Mahmud and his predecessors. One is a qanun, or zither, an instrument the sultan played expertly; he is credited with at least 37 musical compositions. Another is a famed Hilya-i Nabi, a physical description of the Prophet composed by the great calligrapher Hafiz Osman. Osman instructed Mahmud’s father and uncle in calligraphy; Mustafa so revered his teacher that he was said to have held the inkwell as Osman wrote.

This sort of interpersonal bond—between student and teacher, patron and artist, ruler and courtier—emerges as the common denominator of “Pearls on a String.” The phrase “Islamic art” too often elicits notions of a static, undifferentiated, anti-figurative tradition. But both taste and production involved networks of personalities, and while the principle of lineage, or silsila, governs much of that art, its activity is complex and organic. “Pearls on a String” reveals how the art of three great Islamic courts emerged from conversations among individual people, unfolding both within cultural moments and across the centuries.

About the Author

David Soud is a Maryland–based writer, who also teaches at the University of Delaware. His Divine Cartographies: God History, and Poiesis in W. B. Yeats, David Jones, and T. S. Eliot will be published by Oxford University Press in 2016.

Funding Information

The Walters Art Museum in Baltimore, Maryland, received $300,000 in NEH funding to create the traveling exhibition “Pearls on a String: Artists, Patrons, and Poets at the Great Islamic Courts.” The exhibition will run in Baltimore until January 31; the Asian Art Museum in San Francisco hosts the show from February 26 until May 8, 2016. With a $307,500 NEH Preservation and Access grant, the Walters was able to digitize 236 Islamic manuscripts. Following the digitization grant, the Walters held an exhibit of some of its Islamic manuscript collection. NEH also has funded many other projects related to the art, history, and culture of Islam.