**The following fictional story was originally written as a gallery guide intended to engage children and adults in a dialogue regarding objects and their role in biography, as part of the international loan show, "Pearls on a String: Artists, Patrons and Poets at the Great Islamic Courts," exhibited at The Walters Art Museum, Baltimore (November 8, 2015- January 31, 2016) and the Asian Art Museum, San Francisco (February 26- May 8, 2016).
The following story is historical fiction based on the true events of Shah Sulayman (r. 1667- 1694) visiting New Julfa, where inside All Savior's Cathedral, the sultan spoke with the Armenian priest Hovhannes Mrkuz about painting and iconography.
Shah Sulayman and the Bible Painting
Richly colored flowers made of stucco and gilded in gold slither and intertwine as if dancing eternally in this holy building. Looking up, I became dizzy, experiencing the same sensation the fat cherub staring back at me must forever feel, his head embraced by lush wings. My eyes moved down the walls and landed where the soft fold of fabric graces the hard muscle of man. Stunned by the beauty, I approached the image, reaching out to touch the wall. The cloth and skin are so lifelike; I thought my eyes were deceiving me. This cannot be paint.
As Shah, I am often surrounded by beautiful things. I have a library filled with books illuminated with gold and my palaces are among the finest in the world. However, I have never seen such lifelike paintings as those in the Christian churches. There is a large community of Armenian Christians in my Empire, especialy in Julfa, from where I speak to you know. If the empire is to prosper, my subjects must not fight one another, and therefore I advocate religious tolerance. What's more, I have seen the great Christian art of Europe, like the magnificent murals of All Savior’s Cathedral which I am describing to you.
I am not the first to champion the Europeans, as my father Shah ‘Abbas II decorated the Chihil Sutun palace in Isfahan with paintings combining Persian and European elements. We have come to call this style farangi-sazi, meaning the ‘European-style.’
Inside All Savior’s Cathedral, I watched as a priest in a magnificent silk red cope decorated with intricate floral patterns, not unlike those from my own Islamic tradition, walked slowly through the religious space, swinging a bronze incense burner, and thus perfuming the air with a most divinely sweet scent.
I respectfully waited for the ritual to finish, and then approached the holy man, curious about the murals.
"Ah, those are the works of an artist trained by a great European master portrait painter," replied the priest, happy to share this information with me.
“Portraits you say?”
“Yes, portraits,” he said blankly
“Are those paintings in your church portraits?”
“No. Those are scenes from the Bible,” he explained.
“I understand. But tell me priest, why do you paint images in houses of prayer where it is not appropriate?” I asked with a desire to understand.
“Image and form are necessary as it is through them that people who cannot read and thus do not know the sacred writings may come to understand and contemplate God: through things visible we are able to comprehend the invisible,” answered the priest.
I returned to my home, the capital Isfahan and immediately called upon my court painter Muhammad Zaman, an expert in farangi-sazi.
“Muhammad Zaman, I have a request of you.”
“Anything, my good Shah,” my faithful servant said.
“As you know, I have just been in Julfa, where I visited the Armenian churches and gazed at the wonders of the European painters,” I explained. “My wish is to have my own Bible painting.”
For the following weeks, Muhammad Zaman and I engaged in a continuous, stimulating conversation regarding which aspects of which European painters and paintings from which to borrow for the final composition.
The decision was made for Muhammad Zaman to focus on billowing clouds, sensuous folds of drapery, and the sophisticated use of distant perspective.
The subject matter however, was a central point of debate. One afternoon, Muhammad Zaman brought me several Italian, Flemish and German prints, explaining and teaching me all he had learned about the European painters.
The artist was nearly half way through with his descriptions when I saw it. “That one. Tell me,” I said pointing to a particularly striking image of a woman holding her son’s hand. They were set in a natural forest landscape and a man with a beard walked behind them with a horse. (1)
"The Flight into Egypt," Muhammad Zaman replied in a quiet whisper. He watched as my eyes widened with the swell of my heart when looking at the Virgin's somber eyes, and then narrowed in my discerning effort to see every last detail.
I focused on baby Jesus, tracing his halo with the pad of my finger. This subtle gesture was all I needed for Muhammad Zaman to understand the level of reverence and respect I wished for him to show in his painting of the great prophet. (2)