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Saturday, 6 December 2014

Hamzanama: The Adventures of Amir Hamza

 As night falls the caravan of camels inches its way along the narrow mountain pass of the ancient silk route. It has been a long and tiring day for the travellers. To their relief they see the flickering lights of the Caravanserai in the distance.

Once they reach the Caravanserai, their camels are fed and led away to rest for the night.  The tired travellers freshen up and then get together with travellers from other caravans passing by in the common area, to eat, drink and exchange stories.  Smoke from the hookahs fills the air, and the music is relaxing. In the corner there is a roar of laughter as the storyteller rolls his eyes in an animated manner. The travellers join the group. The storyteller is relating the colourful, action filled adventures of Amir Hamza.

Amir Hamza, the hero of these stories was the uncle of Prophet Muhammad. The stories known as the ‘Dastan-e Amir Hamza’ are action filled tales of giants, sorcerers and demons. Hamza and his brave companions travel the world vanquishing evil and spreading the teachings of Islam.

These fantastic tales of the adventures of Hamza captured the imagination of the young Mughal emperor Akbar. Not only did he recite them personally, he commissioned them to be compiled into the first royal manuscript to be illustrated in India during his reign (1556-1605). This manuscript came to be known as the ‘Hamzanama’.

The silk route which had existed for centuries, was the trade route linking East Asia to the Mediterranean.Apart from trade this route was also used by travellers, which allowed the exchange of religious, cultural and artistic ideas and traditions. The rich literary and artistic content of Akbar’s Hamzanama was inspired by these exciting exchanges.

The Hamzanama was written in Persian and Urdu. It took fifteen years to complete this great book. Apart from the text it includes fourteen hundred full page paintings, 27 inches X 20 inches in size. These paintings were done on cloth and the complete Hamzanama was finally produced in twelve to fourteen volumes. The layout is simple with the illustration on one side and the text on the other.

The paintings are a complete fusion of Persian and Mughal styles. They were made in a imperial workshop. About thirty main artists were used and over a hundred men worked on various aspects of the book. Initially there were two main artists from Persia, Mir Sayyid Ali and Abdus Samad, but due to the large scale of this commission they had to train more than a hundred artists, many of them were Hindu painters from Gujrat. This amalgamation of different cultures gave birth to a wonderful combination of Persian, Central Asian and Indian styles of painting that we see in the Hamzanama.

In the illustrations we see two worlds of the Mughals, India and the Persian world of Central Asia. Some illustrations are very Persian in style. The ornate architectural settings, flat linear forms which are geometrically perfect, the finely patterned carpets, tiled roofs, fairies and flowering cherry and Cyprus trees.


Along with these illustrations we see paintings which are purely Indian in spirit. The figures are wearing Indian clothes and their gestures are typically Indian. The palette in these paintings is brighter and more dramatic; there is a love for the natural world which is very specific to India.

When we look at the playful elephants that charge across the illustrations of the Hamzanama, we can see a direct influence of the Hindu rock sculptures.


( Refer :Story  below)
Hamza and Umar exchange insults with Ghazanfar and challenge him to a battle outside the fortress of Armanus:

Umar:  A former opponent of Hamza, is now a stalwart, sometimes comical warrior companion.

As Hamza and Umar explore a fortress, the local ruler Ghazanfar hurls drunken curses at them. While Umar replies to the taunts Hamza challenges Ghazanfar to demonstrate his manhood in battle. The impudent infidel is defeated quickly by Hamza and Umar cuts off his tongue. They then force Ghazanfar to swap his armour with Hamza, who drags the disguised and mute Ghazanfar towards the citadel and shouts that he has taken Hamza prisoner. As soon as the gates open, Hamza and his men seize the fortress.

(Refer: Story below)
Zamurrud Shah reaches the foot of a huge mountain and is joined by Ra’im Blood Drinker and Shining Ruby:

Zamurrud Shah: A gigantic figure, lord of the East and perennial enemy of Hamza.

After being defeated on the battlefield once again, Zamurrud Shah slinks into the night. He travels alone for nine days, finally camping at the foot of an enormous mountain. Here he begins to recuperate, eating fresh game from a hunt and receiving his followers. Rahim Khun – known as Ra’im the blood drinker and Yaqut Daraksh – known as Shining Ruby are the first ones to renew their allegiance with him. Soon many others join him and Zamurrud Shah plots and plans his next move with them.

(Refer: Story below)
Zumurrud Shah falls into a pit and is beaten up by suspicious gardners:

After suffering a terrible defeat at the hands of Hamza’s army, Zumurrud Shah now has to endure another humiliation. He stumbles into a deep pit which has been dug by some gardeners who are trying to catch the culprit who has been raiding their groves. The gardeners had suspected some bears but they find a wretched giant instead. They beat him despite him pleading his innocence. Finally the gardeners allow Zumurrud Shah to come out and explain himself, but they get irritated again when he claims to be the lord of the east, which seems like a preposterous lie.

The boisterous laughter, the animated storytelling and business negotions continued late into the night at the caravanserai. The silk route served as a trade route till the early sixteenth century, after which trade began to be carried out by sea routes, which were a faster and relatively cheaper option.

Unfortunately, only a little over a hundred paintings of the Hamzanama survive today. Of these sixty one paintings are in the Austrian Museum of Applied Art in Vienna, the rest are spread over many collections at  the Victoria and Albert Museum and the British Museum in London and some at  the Metropolitan Museum in New York.
References:!) The Adventures of Hamza, 2) Wikipedia




Saturday, 23 August 2014

The Enlightened One

 Fourteen year old Lobsang looks out of the monastery window. He can see the vast expanse of the snow-capped Himalayas in the distance. It was about seven years ago that his parents sent him here to join the order of the Buddhist monks. Gradually over the years the monastery has become his home and the other monks his family, his earlier life is now nothing but a distant memory.   Lobsang, leads a very regimented life in the monastery and spends a lot of time studying under the guidance of a very senior and learned Lama. He is waiting for his teacher; today’s class is on Buddhist art. He wishes he could go out and play with his friends instead, but he hears his teacher approaching and runs and sits down on his mat.

Lobsang’s teacher is an elderly Lama. He is a very kind and gentle person and is like a parent to him in many ways. He shows Lobsang a beautiful painting of ‘ Shakyamuni Buddha ‘and explains to him that it was painted in the fifteenth century, here in this very Tibetan monastery.  This fact interests Lobsang and he studies the 17 inch X 16.5 inch painting carefully. His teacher explains to him that the painting is made of ground mineral pigments and is painted on cotton cloth. The painting process had to be strictly according to the principles and guidelines of the holy shastras. The entire colour for the painting was prepared from minerals and plants which were derived from the lap of these very Himalayas and then broken down and hand ground into a fine powder. Sketching the drawing was a very important part of the painting. The artist needed to have a sound understanding of Buddhist iconographic and iconometric principles. The eyes of the deity were painted in the end; this signified the opening of the eyes and the completion of the painting.

By now Lobsang has forgotten about playing with his friends and his teacher has his complete attention. He gazes at the supreme Buddha as he sits in the centre of the painting, golden in colour he has a large round face and looks straight ahead. His black hair is piled up in a knot on top of his head, ( Vishnisha in Sanskrit) and crowned with a small gold ornament at the peak. A red dot (Urna) adorns his forehead and his earlobes are long and pierced a remnant from his princely life. His right arm is extended across the knee in the mudra (gesture) calling the earth to witness his moment of enlightenment. He holds a black begging bowl in his left hand, which is placed on his lap in the mudra of meditation. He wears orange and red patchwork robes, made from discarded cloth. His right arm is bare and the left is covered in the fashion of a Buddhist monk. The Buddha is seated in the ‘Vajra’ pose, with his right leg crossed over his left, on a multi-coloured lotus throne. Below the throne we see a snow lion, a peacock and he is surrounded by swirling rays of coloured light.
The back rest of the throne is decorated with two blue coloured lotus flowers (Utpalas), two pink mystical sea creatures (Makaras) and a yellow Garuda bird perched at the top with his wings spread out.

Standing to Buddha’s left is Shariputra, he is painted yellow and holds a monk’s staff in his right hand and a begging bowl to his heart in his left.

On Buddha’s right side we can see Maudgalyayana, he is painted white and holds the same objects in his hands. Shariputra and Maudgalyayana were Buddha’s foremost disciples, both wear orange robes and stand on moon shaped discs and lotus seats.

Among Buddha’s disciples were sixteen saints or ‘Arhats’ who were believed to have fully realised for themselves the Buddhist doctrine and had attained freedom from the cycle of suffering and rebirth. These sixteen Arhats were picked by Buddha himself and are also worshipped. The learned Lama explains to Lobsang, that it takes years of study and discipline to reach a state of nirvana, something that all Buddhist monks aspire to achieve.

Along the top are eight of the sixteen Arhats, holding various objects in their hands. They all wear robes with long sleeves.

Below Maudgalyayana we can see the figure of Dharmata, who was an attendant. He holds a flywhisk in his right hand and in his left hand he holds the strap supporting a load of study books on his back. There is a fierce tiger roaming below the figure of Buddha.
Below Shariputra on the left hand side there is a single Arhat in a sitting position and along the bottom are seven Arhats holding various objects in their hands and also wearing long robes.

Finally on the bottom left hand side of the painting, we see a monk in meditation. He sits before an elaborate array of offerings arranged in two rows. He was in all probability the sponsor of this painting.

Lobsang, lived in the monastery for many years, he studied under the guidance of his teacher, and at the age of eighteen, he left with a group of other young monks and travelled to distant places living a monastic life and teaching the doctrine of the great enlightened one.

This painting is part of the collection of the Rubin Museum in New York.

References: The Rubin Museum

Wednesday, 30 July 2014

Battle of San Romano

It’s past midnight but sleep evades Bernardo. He turns on his back and looks up at the night sky, staring thoughtfully at the stars that look like tiny jewels. He thinks of home and how he celebrated his seventeenth birthday just a few days ago. Looking around at the small forested area he feels a sudden shudder as he realises there are just a few hours left before he  joins the other foot soldiers and goes into battle.

On the 1st of June 1430, Bernardo fought in the Battle of San Romano. This battle was fought between Florence and Sienna, about thirty miles outside Florence, it lasted the entire day and the outcome is generally considered favourable to the Florentines.

The events of that day from dawn to dusk, have been portrayed in a set of three paintings each over six feet high and ten feet wide in the famous painting known as the, ‘Battle of San Romano’. This masterpiece was created by the much respected artist of the early Italian Renaissance, Paolo Uccello. These panels were commissioned by the Bartolini Salimbeni family in Florence, who obviously had very deep pockets and a very large house. This set of paintings is considered very significant as it shows the development of linear perspective during this period. At a time when religious art was the most sought after subject matter, this was an unusual secular commission.

Painted in egg tempera on wooden panels, these paintings were much admired in the fifteenth century. Egg tempera is a permanent fast drying painting medium where coloured pigments are mixed with egg yolk which works as a binding agent. These paintings last very long and it was the primary method of painting until after the sixteenth century when oil painting replaced tempera.

These paintings were so coveted that Lorenzo de Medici popularly known as 'Lorenzo the Magnificent ' a powerful statesman and de facto ruler of Florence during this period, purchased one and had the other two forcibly removed to the Palazzo Medici  (Medici Palace) and had them put up in his room known as ‘Lorenzo’s Room’. Lorenzo the Magnificent was a great patron of the arts and commissioned a lot of paintings in his time.


This is the first painting in the series. Believed to be at the break of dawn, we see the Florentine mercenary general Niccolo  Mauruzi  da Tolentino on his white charger leading the cavalry, he can be identified by the motif of ‘Knot of Solomon’ on his banner.
He wears a large gold and velvet brocade patterned hat. He has a reputation for recklessness and doesn’t even wear a helmet. On the top towards the centre of the painting we can see that he has sent two messengers to his allied army led by Micheletto da Cotignola, to ask for reinforcements as he is badly outnumbered by the Siennese army.

 It’s interesting to notice that in none of the three paintings do we see the sky, we the viewers are seeing this battle close up. In all the three panels the battle scene is packed with action in a chaotic clash of horsemen, lances and debris shown through a series of superimposed intersecting perspective planes. Many areas of the painting are covered in gold and silver leaf and these would have shone when the paintings were viewed in candlelight, as they must have been at that time. The middle ground is occupied by a hedge bearing oranges and roses; one of Uccello’s several decorative and stylised details.


The central panel chronicles the events at midday; it shows the decisive combat between the two armies. Bernardino della Ciarda, leader of the Siennese mercenaries is the central figure on a white horse. He is wounded by an enemy spear.
The composition is very crowded; we can see young soldiers barely in their teens on the battlefield. Uccello understood that the young are usually the main casualties in any battle. This second panel is also special because it is the only one that Uccello signed. His signature appears on the lower left hand side on a shield. The colours are very unreal and the use of light gives the composition a feeling of a knight’s fairy tale. The figures tend to look a bit wooden and toy like, but the strong sense of narrative design and attention to decorative detail give the painting a beautiful visual appeal.

The third and final panel believed to be at dusk shows us that the reinforcements have arrived and the counterattack by Florence’s ally Micheletto da Cotignola. On the right side the stationary warriors wait for orders. In the centre Micheletto da Cotignola gives the signal for the attack, leading the Florentines to victory.

This painting features strong decorative elements the hosiery of different colours worn by the soldiers, the arrangement of the lances forming a series of patterns all set against the beauty of the Tuscan countryside.

Unfortunately Bernardo did not survive that day and neither did six hundred others. This battle was one of the many that were fought during those troubled times and there were many young soldiers like Bernardo who lost their lives. But it is this visual depiction of the’ Battle of San Romano’ by the great master Paolo Uccello that still holds us captive so many centuries later.

Today an art lover would have to travel to Florence, London and Paris to see the entire painting. Like three siblings living in three different cities, the first panel is displayed by the Uffizi Gallery, the second and third were sold by art dealers to the National Gallery and the Louvre and are displayed there.

Paolo Uccello: (1397- 1475) Paolo Uccello’s real name was Paolo di Dono. He was born in Pratovecchio in Italy. His father was a barber surgeon and his mother was a high born aristocrat. Paolo Uccello is known for his pioneering work on visual perspective in art, which he used to create a feeling of depth in his paintings. His nickname ‘Uccello’ came from his fondness for painting birds.

References: Private life of a Masterpiece, Uffizi Gallery, National Gallery, Louvre

Wednesday, 9 July 2014

Woven Paintings

The Devonshire Hunting Tapestries on display
 Two noblemen on horseback accompanied by their servant and hunting dogs move towards the female bear. She has been flushed out of her cave with her cubs. As the cubs escape, one of the noblemen puts a spear into her chest, while she grapples with the hunting dogs the other nobleman gets ready to deal a deathly blow with his sword. It is hunting season in the fifteenth century and the Dukes of Devonshire are out hunting.

Hunting in the middle ages was more than a mere pastime. The elaborate rituals were an integral part of court etiquette, and being skilled in hunting was the peacetime equivalent of being masterful on the battlefield. This passionate love of hunting is reflected in the scenes woven into tapestries known as the ‘Devonshire Hunting Tapestries’. These tapestries from the estates of the Dukes of Devonshire, woven in Arras in modern France are over a hundred and thirty three feet long. Tapestries were very expensive and prized by the nobility. They hung in their halls and provided a means for insulating and decorating the coldest and gloomiest castle. These enormous works of art would have hung from floor to ceiling and then placed edge to edge like wallpaper in a modern room. They were easily transportable, and during wartime they decorated the tents with recreational scenes, providing some respite from the horror around them.

Tapestries were woven by hand on a loom. The design was invariably copied from a full scale coloured pattern known as the ‘cartoon’ a practice that continues till today. Before starting work the weaver traces the pattern from the cartoon onto the bare warps (threads). Most tapestries were wool or cotton but they may have included silk, gold or silver threads. Weaving consists of warp threads (threads which run parallel to the length) and weft threads (threads which run parallel to the width).Tapestries have weft faced weaving, which means all the warp threads are hidden in the completed work.

Although the Devonshire Tapestries depict hunting scenes, all is not blood and gore. There are forest glades, bounded by trees on the high horizon with glimpses of toy like castles, hilly pastures and ships on a distant sea. The foreground is filled with tiny trees, bushes and flowers, rocky caves for bears and turbulent streams flushed with water fowl. In this delightful setting the huntsmen and their prey, crowd across the tapestry in two great tiers subtly linked by intermediate figures, which lead the eye from group to group. The scenes are of perpetual spring even though boar and bear were hunted in winter. These tapestries depict scenes of ‘Boar and Bear Hunt’, ‘Swan and Otter Hunt’, ‘Falconry’ and ‘Deer Hunt’.

Boar and Bear Hunt
Boar and Bear Hunt: This tapestry features a number of elegant couples. Towards the centre a lady wears a sumptuous blue gown decorated with back to front letters that spell ‘much desire’. The man’s sleeve is decorated with silver shapes that resemble teardrops and probably also relate to the pursuit of love. The rich red gown of the lady to the right is lined with miniver, a very expensive fur. On the top right corner of this tapestry two castles are visible, they are meant to be seen by all levels of society, potent symbols of power, status and wealth.

Swan and Otter Hunt
Swan and Otter Hunt: In this tapestry we can see the fashions of the early fifteenth century, the women in high waisted gowns with collars wider than their shoulders, wearing heart shaped headdresses.



Falconry: This is the only tapestry in the set to confine itself to a single hunt. We see the couple on horseback dressed beautifully, the man has his arm around the woman. We can see another elegant lady on a white horse. The attention to detail down to the patterns on the gowns is a visual treat.

Deer Hunt

Deer Hunt: In this tapestry we see a group of men in bulky garments with large drooping sleeves and low slung belts. Deer hunting was known as the sport of kings and was confined to the courtiers and other favoured individuals.

 As night falls the hunting party returns to their castle with their kill which will be served later for dinner, followed by a night of drinking, merry making and talking about the events of the day.  It has been a long day, the tired horses return to their stables and the ravenous dogs are fed. While  the main activity may have been hunting it has also been a day full of endless gossip,frivolous flirtations and a show of fine clothes and expensive jewels by the nobility of Devonshire.

The Devonshire Hunting Tapestries can be viewed at the Victoria and Albert Museum in London.

References: Victoria and Albert Museum and Wikipedia




Thursday, 19 June 2014

The Arnolfini Wedding Portrait

The rays of the evening sun glisten on the waters of the Zwin, which flow with a steady calm.  Couples stroll leisurely on the banks of the canal and the cool evening breeze adds a crispness to the air. Fifteenth century Bruges (Belgium) is extremely rich and prosperous. The Dukes of Burgundy, the aristocrats and wealthy merchants are patrons of the arts and artists enjoy a very privileged place in society, and are commissioned for their work by the rich and famous.

 Jan Van Eyck is the toast of this charmed circle. He is the painter to the Duke of Burgundy and one of the first artists to master the use of oil based paint as a medium for his artwork. When linseed or walnut oil is added to coloured pigments it dries slowly and allows the artist to make revisions, add details and has a luminous quality that makes the colours look like jewels. It also helps in achieving subtle variations in light and shade to heighten the illusion of three dimensional forms.

Giovanni di Nicolao Arnolfini, is a very wealthy and well-connected merchant in Bruges, he trades in silk, tapestries and other precious objects. So it is only fitting that a man of his stature should commission Jan Van Eyck to paint a portrait of his wife and him. The painting Van Eyck produces is perhaps one of his greatest masterpieces.’ The Arnolfini Wedding Portrait’ as it is called is not intended to be a wedding portrait at all. In fact it is now believed that the couple may have already been married at that time and this may have meant to be a legal document of that marriage, like a marriage certificate in the form of a painting. What we do know however, is that there is an important event taking place. The painting is full of symbolism and art historians debate and try to decode it even today, and that is what makes it so intriguing and fascinating.

Painted with oil on three oak panels this 32.4” X 23.6” painting shows the couple in an upstairs room with a chest and bed in it, it is early summer as indicated by the fruit on the cherry tree outside the window. The room is probably a reception room; it was the fashion in those days to have beds in reception rooms which were used for seating. The Arnolfinis are very richly dressed; despite the season their outer garments, his tabard and her dress are trimmed and fully lined with fur. The furs are very expensive, and his tabard may have been made of silk velvet. Her dress is equally expensive and we can see a lot of material has been folded and sewn together, then cut and frayed decoratively( dagging) on the sleeves and train. Her blue underdress is also trimmed with fur. The pleating of the dress around the stomach and waist makes the wife look pregnant, but she is not believed to be so. It was the fashion at that time and a rounded belly was a sign of fertility in young women. Fashion was important to Arnolfini since he was a wealthy cloth merchant.

The placement of the two figures suggests conventional fifteenth century gender roles. The woman stands near the bed and the room, symbolic of her role as the caretaker of the house. Giovanni, on the other hand stands near the window, symbolic of his role in the outside world. He looks directly at the viewer where as his wife gazes obediently at him. His hand is vertically raised, representative of his position of authority, while her hand is in a lower more submissive pose.

One of the most interesting objects in this painting for me personally is the circular, slightly convex mirror on the wall. The reflection in the mirror shows two more people in the room, positioned where we, the viewers would be. So we know that the Arnolfinis are not alone in the room. One of them is believed to be the artist himself.
He has signed his name in Latin over the mirror-‘Johannes Van Eyck fuit hic’ (Jan Van Eyck was here) as testimony to his presence in the room, and the other person may be a priest or a second witness. The mirror is framed in wood with tiny scenes from the Passion of Christ. Each scene is painted to look like it’s behind glass and is no bigger than half the size of a fingernail, and yet they are all well-defined.

There is a carved figure of Saint Margaret on the bedpost. She is the patron saint of pregnancy and childbirth. The brush which hangs from the bedpost is symbolic of domestic duties, and on the left side of the mirror we can see rock crystal prayer beads.

The ornate six branched chandelier, with just a single lit candle in the left front holder lit in full daylight is believed to be symbolic of the presence of God.

 The slippers are lying on the side and the couple is barefoot which makes us believe that this is indeed an important moment.

The dog, in the forefront symbolizes loyalty. It is a rare and expensive breed which reinforces their wealth.

Another interesting element in the painting are the oranges on the windowsill. Oranges were a rare delicacy in Bruges and only the very rich could afford to eat them.

There are many ways to read a painting, and that is perhaps the most fascinating aspect of art. There is another theory about this painting, as is the case with most masterpieces. It is believed by some to be a memorial painting, commissioned by Giovanni Arnolfini in memory of his wife who had died in childbirth the year before the painting was made. The single candle in the chandelier is burning on the side of Giovanni, symbolising life whereas his wife’s side is in darkness.

No matter how you choose to interpret this painting, there is one thing no one can deny; that it is a masterpiece and shall continue to intrigue and enthral everyone who sees it. Jan Van Eyck died in 1441 but the legacy he left behind continues to live on. The Arnolfini Wedding Portrait is on display at the National Gallery in London.

References: National Gallery, Smart History, Wikipedia 


Tuesday, 10 June 2014

Where the Wild Things Are

Adam names the animals
The sky is overcast with dark grey clouds and the persistent drizzle is quickly turning into a downpour. It is the twelfth century in England and Emily is sitting next to her father, watching him work. At sixteen, she is already quite an accomplished artist and considers herself very fortunate to be the daughter of one of the most talented and respected illuminators in England. Her father is creating an ‘Illuminated Manuscript’. Emily knows the patron is extremely wealthy and suspects he may be from the royal family.

Illuminated manuscripts were manuscripts decorated in real gold or silver and were fairly common in the medieval ages. They were painted on the best quality parchment called 'Vellum' and were written in Latin. The text was usually written first by a scribe and then given to the illuminator. Emily watches her father as he applies the gold to the painting. She knows the complex process well by now, the gold leaf pieces are hammered until they are, ‘thinner than the thinnest paper’ then they are mixed with stag’s glue and put into water and mixed with your finger. Once the gold is soft and malleable in the water it is ready to be applied on the page. Sometimes gold powder was also used. Apart from gold and silver the artists also used insect based colours, chemical and mineral based colours and plant based colours.

The illuminated manuscript that Emily’s father is creating a Bestiary. A bestiary is quite simply a book of beasts; it is a collection of short descriptions about all sorts of animals real and imaginary, accompanied by a moralising explanation. Although it deals with the natural world it was never meant to be a scientific text. This particular book came to be known as the ‘Aberdeen Bestiary’ and is considered one of the best examples of its type.

As the rain lashes on the window, Emily gathers the completed pages of the manuscript and stacks them together, she marvels at their beauty. Each picture is set in a frame with a background of burnished gold. The colours are rich and bold, with blues and reds dominating each composition. The rhythmically graceful black outline brings each figure to life.

Apes: The female ape gives birth to twins. She loves one but hates the other. When hunted she carries the loved one in her arms, while the other clings to her back. Eventually she gets tired and drops the favoured baby and the other one is saved.

The Panther: A many coloured animal the panther is handsome and gentle, his only enemy is the dragon. When the panther roars, he exhales a sweet odour which draws all the other animals to him except the dragon, who retreats into his hole, stiffens with fear, and pretends to be dead.

The Fox: The fox is crafty and deceitful. When he is hungry he rolls in red earth to look like he’s covered in blood. He feigns death by holding his breath, and when birds come to sit on his body he jumps up and eats them.

Dogs: Dogs are the most generously illustrated, with three sets of illuminations. Here three attentive dogs are shown with collars and leads. They are the most intelligent of all animals and are devoted to humans. They track down wild beasts, guard sheep and protect property.

Emily apprenticed under her father and became an accomplished illuminator; as did a lot of women in this period especially in Paris. The Aberdeen Bestiary became a part of Henry VIII’s private collection. It was never fully completed and has notes on the process of its execution in the margins. It would be approximately nine hundred years later, that the magical beasts from the famous Harry Potter series which have fascinated us all, would be inspired from these very medieval bestiaries.
In case you feel like viewing the entire bestiary:

References: Aberdeen Bestiary, Wikipedia 

Monday, 2 June 2014

The Dual Nature of Christ

As the group of pilgrims move slowly along the endless desert on their mules, Egeria is struck by the sheer inhospitality of the terrain. She feels humbled when she thinks of Moses, and how he had led his people through this very desert for forty years. It is the sixth century AD, and the pilgrims have travelled for many weeks to reach St. Catherine’s Monastery at the base of Mt.Sinai in Egypt.

An old monk leads the tired pilgrims through the monastery. As Egeria follows her people, her eyes suddenly fall on an icon of Christ, she is instantly drawn towards it. This painting of Christ as the Pantocrator, which in Greek means ‘Ruler of All’ is regarded as one of the earliest examples of Byzantine Iconography (painting). Believed to have been painted by a highly accomplished artist from Constantinople (Turkey) during Emperor Justinian’s reign, this is a 33X18cm Encaustic painting on wood. Encaustic painting also known as hot wax painting, involves the use of heated beeswax to which coloured pigments are added. The liquid is then applied to a surface-usually wood. Then metal tools and special brushes are used to shape the paint before it cools.

The painting of Christ Pantocrator, shows the frontal portrait of Jesus holding gospel book in one hand and blessing the viewer with the other hand. The portrait is a coming together of Roman and Egyptian portraiture traditions. The portrait captures the moment of tension where Jesus Christ is both divine and human; he is simultaneously both mercy and judge. There is a distinct split down the centre of his face, one side is an ethereal, stoic Jesus and the other is a darker almost angry Jesus showing human emotion. This split between the human and the divine natures of Christ extends down to his hands as well.

The divine hand blesses the faithful but is also a sign of teaching and authority, his fingers are raised in groups of two and three which is usually interpreted as the dual natures of Christ and the holy trinity. The human hand carries a gospel, the story of the physical events of Christ’s life; it symbolizes his authority over the cosmos and his ministery here on earth. Symbolism also emerges in the use of light. The light moves from the left to the right, creating a sense of mystery on the right side. If you look carefully, you will notice that Jesus’s eyes have no reflection. This is because of the belief that he himself is the source of light and since the light comes from him, his eyes are clear of reflections.

 Colour is also used to reinforce the idea of unearthly lights and heavenly environments. Warm tones, ranging from ochre to brown are centred in golden tones. The circular halo around his head, done in gold leaf indicates the divinity of the figure and probably had some incrustations on it. Some graphic elements have been added to the painting, we can see three axes of what could be a cross painted on the halo with star - like designs on them. These designs also appear in ochre on the top left and right corners of the painting. They would later symbolise purity and would be a key element in the depiction of Virgin Mary. Behind the figure of Jesus we can see a landscape of what seems to be a city, painted in the style of Roman decorative painting.

Egeria, and her fellow pilgrims stayed at the monastery for some time.  She wrote about her journey to the monastery and the painting that enthralled her. Her writings were later translated into English and compiled into a book called, 'The Pilgrimage of Etheria’( she was also known by that name). St Catherine’s monastery is the oldest working monastery in the world. The image of Christ Pantocrator, is the single most important image still existing from the early Christian Empire. It's believed to have survived the period of iconoclasm in the ninth and tenth century (when all religious Christian icons were deliberately destroyed) because of the remote location of the monastery, where thousands of years ago Moses had come down the great mountain after God delivered the Ten Commandments to him.

References: Wikipedia,,OrthoWiki

Sunday, 25 May 2014

Night - Shining White

The setting sun is like a fireball in the sky. There is a gentle breeze and the soft undulating hills of ancient China, look like a green carpet has been spread over them. Suddenly, as if out of nowhere, a stunning, pure white steed appears like an apparition on the horizon. As the majestic horse canters freely every muscle in his body ripples and his beautiful mane blows in the wind. This spirited steed is 'Night – Shining White'. He is the favourite imperial stallion of Emperor Xuanzong, of the Tang dynasty. There is something more than the sheer physical beauty of this animal; it is his spirit, which epitomizes the Chinese myth about imported ‘celestial steeds' that ‘sweat blood’ are really dragons in disguise. It is the eighth century, and Tang China is one of the greatest empires in the medieval world. Emperor Xuanzong, is referred to as the ‘brilliant monarch ‘and his reign is rightfully ranked as the classical period of Chinese art and literature.
 Han Gan is the leading horse painter of the Tang dynasty. He spends a lot of his time in stables painting horses. One evening as he's on his way home he happens to see something spectacular; Night –Shining White galloping in a thicket of bamboo trees.

What we see here is that moment captured by the artist. He's not only captured the physical likeness, but also the spirit, energy and life force of this fiery-tempered steed, with a burning eye, flared nostrils and dancing hooves. He's achieved this with the most economical means; brush, ink on paper.  This sensitive, precise drawing, reinforced by delicate ink shading is an example of ‘baihua’ (white painting). A term used in Tang texts to describe monochrome painting with ink shading. He rejected the use of colour. He thought of colour as a distraction. He rejected the use of light and shadow as a means of modelling and didn't use opaque pigments to conceal mistakes. Instead, he relied on the 'line' as a form in itself - the indelible mark of the inked brush to capture this emblem of China’s military strength.

The Chinese way of appreciating a painting is often expressed by the phrase ‘to read a painting’. The question is, how does one do this?

Night –Shining White was originally just a little more than a square foot in size and is now mounted on a hand scroll that is twenty feet long.  This is a result of a myriad of inscriptions and seals (marks of ownership) that have been added to the painting and its borders by later owners and experts over centuries, recording over a thousand years of transmission of ownership. Some painted on the surface itself, making the horse look a little overwhelmed by this enthusiastic display of appreciation. This is a distinctive feature of Chinese collecting and connoisseurship and offer testimony of an artwork’s continuing impact on later generations. Han Gan’s, Night- Shining White is regarded as the best known horse painting in Chinese art. Therefore, to read a Chinese painting is to enter into a dialogue with the past, and the unrolling of the scroll provides a physical connection with the work of art.

Emperor Xuanzong, was unable to sustain the glory of his empire. Unfortunately, because of his obsession with a concubine he neglected his empire and eventually lost his throne. We do not know what happened to Night-Shining White, but rumour has it that on certain nights even today, when the sky is full of stars Emperor Xuanzong’s celestial steed can be seen galloping across the night sky.

References: Metropolitan Museum of Art