In the center of an exhibit of Islamic art at the Walters Art
Museum in Baltimore, a sparkling Christian image seems
fitting for the U.S. Catholic Church's National Migration
Week Jan. 3-9.
The watercolor painting on paper shows a famous family of
migrants who fled religious persecution: The haloed Virgin
Mary - her long hair curling under a lime-green veil, wearing
a pale red dress under a blue cloak - walks across the front
of the scene. The scarlet-clad Child Jesus holds His mother's
hand and looks tenderly at her.
St. Joseph, grey-haired but vigorous, looks out at us as he
leads his family forward, tugging the reins of their donkey.
Swirling clouds seem to impel them on the way back to
Nazareth after their perilous escape to Egypt from the
mass-murdering Herod. Their journey passes through a green
valley more like Europe than the Sinai Desert.
Except for details such as Mary's pearl earrings, it could be
a European painting and indeed it is based on a European
source: a print after a composition by the Flemish artist
Rubens that was circulated worldwide by Christian
The artist is Muhammad Zamad ibn Haji Yusuf, the second of
three outstanding figures highlighted in the exhibit "Pearls
on a String: Artists, Patrons and Poets at the Great Islamic
Courts" on view through Jan. 31. The inscription on the
picture's border says that it was finished in September 1689
in the ruling city of Isfahan (Persia) and dedicates it to
Shah Sulayman, wishing that the "God most high raise his
standard, his fortune, and his caliphate over all mankind
until the Day of Resurrection."
A caliphate. Not exactly what we might have expected - and
far from recent grim images the word conjures. For a few
brilliant years - later darkened by rising religious
intolerance and Islamic fundamentalism under Shah Sulayman's
heir - works of art in the Persian capital reflected the
court's relative tolerance and the role that Mary and Christ
play as prophets in Islamic belief.
All around the "Return from Egypt" are Christian artifacts
created by, or close to, Muhammad Zamad in 17th-century
Persia. Most of them were made for the Armenian Christian
community in Isfahan, based at All Savior's Cathedral (which
Sulayman visited to discuss the Gospel stories with the
clergy). They vary from strongly Europeanizing style to
adaptations of modes of representation from India, China and
Muhammad Zamad won praise in the 17th century for bringing
elements of European pictorial style to the court of Persia.
In addition to the other two personalities profiled in the
show, a writer and a ruler, details of Zamad's biography have
been tricky to pin down. Curator Amy Landau drew her title
from "a Persian, Arabic, and Turkish metaphor to express
connections between people, words on a page, or images in a
book that when experienced together create a beautiful
King Akbar's wise rule
The first "pearl" is the writer Abu'l Fazl, who served in the
remarkable court of King Akbar, the ruler of the Mughal
Empire in India. As a Muslim ruling over subjects who
practiced many other faiths, Akbar went far beyond mere
tolerance. He promoted Persian as the court language because
it was not linked to a particular religious ideology (unlike
Arabic or Sanskrit).
Abu'l Fazl wrote a biography of Akbar, and the illustrations
of the book highlight the first rooms of the exhibit. Wall
texts report that as Akbar's military expanded into western
India, his court became familiar with the observances and
devotional objects of the Hindu, Jain and Christian
His response was admirable, given the Koranic ban on
representations of the deity in temples. During a campaign in
the 1590s, Akbar discovered that some Jain idols carved into
a mountain had been "disfigured by ill-intentioned people."
The aggrieved king's response: "Whatever perfect, virtuous,
wise person repairs these idols, to him I will give as much
wealth as he desires from my treasury."
Jesuit missionaries were invited to Akbar's court in 1570s,
and the first arrived in 1580. Abu'l Fazl became friends with
the highly educated Jesuit emissary Rodolfo Acquaviva, to
whom he taught Persian, and the two men debated matters of
Loaned for the exhibit from the Chester Beatty Library in
Dublin is a scene depicting a "meditation room" in the palace
where King Akbar presides over an image of Jesuit priests,
Muslim scholars and men of other faiths consulting texts
written in many scripts and languages and discussing
religious and philosophical matters.
If there is to be the peace between Christianity and Islam
that Pope Francis often has invoked, a mutual appreciation of
such exquisite art works can play an important role.
Hamerman is a freelance writer from Reston.