A Human Figure in Profound Meditation

The Repentant Magdalen
c. 1635/1640, by Georges de la Tour (1593-1652),
oil on canvas (Nat. Gall. of Art 1974.52.1)

‘Georges de la Tour, like John Donne, is one of the rediscoveries of the twentieth century; and the admiration that both have evoked in our own time may be traced to the same fundamental causes. I do not mean simply the photographic realism of the composition, but rather the way in which every detail of the work is controlled by a human figure in profound meditation. This person’s thoughts are not abstract: the left hand, with its sensitive, tapered fingers, probes the eyesocket of a skull; the arm, so delicately clothed, conveys a rude sensation to the brain. Meanwhile the eye is focused on a mirror, where we are accustomed to pursue the work of preparing “a face to meet the faces”” that we meet: yet here the inquiring eye meets “the skull beneath the skin,” a skull that seems to devour the book on which it rests. Sight and touch, then, meet to form these thoughts, meditative, piercing, looking through the mirror, probing whatever lies beyond. For me, at least, it suggests simultaneously Donne and Yeats: Donne in his shroud and Yeats in his tower, especially the figure that ends A Vision: “Day after day I have sat in my chair turning a symbol over in my mind, exploring all its details, defining and again defining its elements, testing my convictions and those of others by its unity, attempting to substitute particulars for an abstraction like that of algebra.”

Louis L. Martz, The Poetry of Meditation: A Study in English Religious Literature of the Seventeenth Century (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1954), 1.

I Shall Treat Their Wounds

Byzantine Icon of the Crucifixion Met 17.190.44
A mid-tenth century Byzantine (probably produced in Constantinople) depiction of the Crucifixion, relief icon in ivory (Metr. 17.190.44). Beside the bearded figure at the base of the Cross is an inscription which reads: ‘The Cross implanted in the stomach of Hades.’ The mood of this icon reflects the emotional, empathy-producing liturgical poetry of Romanos, in which identification with the (often female) other plays a major dramatic role.

7. Mary said: ‘My Son, see how I wipe the tears from my eyes.
I chafe my heart even harder,
but my mind cannot keep its silence.
Why, my Beloved, do you say “Unless I die, Adam will not be cured?”
Certainly you cured many people without suffering yourself.
You cleansed a leper, yet felt no pain- it was not your plan.
You unbound a paralytic, yet were gripped by no spasm.
With a word, Merciful One, you gave sight to a blind man,
yet remained free from suffering,
my Son and my God.’

8. ‘You raised the dead, but did not become a corpse.
You were not placed in a tomb, my Son and my Life.
Why do you say that you must suffer for Adam to be cured?
Give the command, my Savior, and he will rise and carry his bier.
Even if Adam was buried in a tomb,
you will raise him too, like Lazarus, with one word.
The entire universe serves you, the Creator of all things.
So why do you hurry, my Son? Do not rush to your sacrifice.
Do not embrace your death,
my Son and my God.’

9. ‘You do not understand, my Mother, you do not understand what I say.
So, open the gates of your mind, welcome what you hear,
and ponder within yourself what I say.
That man I mentioned, miserable Adam, so helpless,
not only physically, but also spiritually,
wanted to be sick. He did not obey me and pays the penalty.
You grasp what I mean. So, do not grieve, Mother,
but cry out, “Have mercy on Adam,
show pity to Eve,
my Son and my God!”

10. ‘Adam, helpless because of his lack of control
and his gluttony, has been carried down into the depths of Hell
and there he sobs over the agony in his soul.
Eve, who once tutored him in irresponsibility,
groans at his side. She is as helpless as he,
so that both may learn to obey the physician’s instructions.
You understand now, don’t you? You do grasp what I have said?
Shout out once more, Mother, “If you forgive Adam,
also be forgiving to Eve,
my Son and my God!”‘

11. When she heard these explanations,
the Ewe without blemish answered her Lamb: ‘My Lord,
if I ask another question, do not become angry with me.
I shall say what I feel, so I can learn from you all I want to know.
If you suffer, if you die, will you ever come back to me?
If you set out to heal Adam and Eve, shall I see you again?
I fear that you will never return from the tomb, my Son.
I am afraid and, anxious to see you,
I shall weep and cry out, “Where is
my Son and my God?”‘

12. When he heard these questions, the Lord who knows everything
even before it happens, replied to Mary: ‘Mother, be certain
that you will be the first to see me when I come from the tomb.
I shall return to reveal to you the terrible agonies
from which I freed Adam, the terrible pains I endured for him.
I shall show my loyal comrades the marks of nails in my hands.
And then, Mother, you will behold Eve,
alive, as in Eden, and you will shout with joy,
“He has redeemed my primeval parents,
my Son and my God!”

13. Be strong for a little while, Mother, and you will see how,
just like a surgeon, I strip and rush to where my patients lie.
I shall treat their wounds:
I shall cut away solid tumors with the soldier’s spear.
I shall use gall and vinegar to staunch the incision;
nails, a lancet to probe the tumor; a seamless robe to wrap it.
The cross itself I shall use as a splint.
By this you will understand and sing,
“By suffering himself, he has destroyed suffering,
my Son and my God!”

14. ‘Cast your pain aside, Mother, cast it away,
and rush out with joy. Now I am eager to bring my mission
to its end and complete the plan of the one who sent me.
From the very first, this was agreed by me and by my Father,
with the full assent of the Holy Spirit:
I would become man and suffer to redeem that who had fallen.
So, my Mother, go and deliver this proclamation to everyone:
“By suffering he shatters the one who hates Adam-
and he returns triumphant,
my Son and my God!”‘

17. Son of the Virgin, God of the Virgin, Creator of the Universe,
you suffered and you revealed the depths of your wisdom.
You know what you were and what you became.
You wished to suffer, for you judged it glorious to save mankind.
As a Lamb, you took away our sins.
Your sacrifice, our Savior, redeemed all those who were dead.
You are the one who suffers and who cannot suffer.
You save by dying! You gave your holy Mother
the privilege of faith: to cry out to,
‘My Son and my God!’

St. Romanos the Melodist (d. after 555), ‘Mary at the Cross,’ translated by R. J. Schork, in Sacred Song from the Byzantine Pulpit: Romanos the Melodist (Gainesville: University Press of Florida, 1995), 110-113, 114

On ‘Influence’

‘Influence’ is a curse of art criticism primarily because of its wrong-headed grammatical prejudice about who is the agent and who the patient: it seems to reverse the active/passive relation which the historical actor experiences and the inferential beholder will wish to take into account. If one says that X influenced Y it does seem that one is saying that X did something to Y rather than that Y did something to X. But in the consideration of good pictures and painters the second is always the more lively reality. It is a very strange that a term with such an incongruous astral background has come to play such a role, because it is right against the real energy of the lexicon. If we think of Y rather than X as the agent, the vocabulary is much richer and more attractively diversified: draw on, resort to, avail oneself of, appropriate from, have recourse to, adapt, misunderstand, refer to, pick up, take on, engage with, react to, quote, differentiate oneself from, assimilate oneself to, assimilate, align oneself with, copy, address, paraphrase, absorb, make a variation on, revive, continue, remodel, ape, emulate, travesty, parody, extract from, distort, attend to, resist, simplify, reconstitute, elaborate on, develop, face up to, master, subvert, perpetuate, reduce, promote, respond to, transform, tackle… – everyone will be able to think of others. Most of these relations just cannot be stated the other way round- in terms of X acting on Y rather than Y acting on X. To think terms of influence blunts thought by impoverishing the means of differentiation.

Michael Baxandall, Patterns of Intention: On the Historical Explanation of Picture (Yale: Yale University Press, 1985) 58-59.

Depicting Devotion to Muhammad: Images in An Ottoman Compendium

Names of God and Names of Muhammad Osmanische Sammelhandschrift , 17XX
Hilye-i Şerîf, from Ahlâk-i resûl Allâh, from Staatsbibliothek zu Berlin Ms. or. oct. 1602, 48v.
Muhammad's Sandal
Depiction of the sandal of the Prophet, Ms. or. oct. 1602, 44v.

These two images come from the same manuscript compendium of devotional texts, a manuscript now held in the Staatsbibliothek zu Berlin, but originally completed and used somewhere in the Turcophone part of the Ottoman Empire, during the seventeenth century. The particular text they are a part of, Ahlâk-i resûl Allâh, describes, as its name suggests, the ‘characteristics’ of Muhammad and aspects of his life, which entails, among other things, encountering, in both text and image, places and things entwined with his life. This includes marvelous schematics of Mecca, Medina, and Jerusalem, for instance. It also includes a couple of instances of hilye-i şerîf, which I’ve mentioned briefly before here. These are ‘verbal-pictorial icons’ that depict, through words and non-figural (at least not of humans) images and design, the attributes of Muhammad, physical and otherwise. The hilye-i şerîf I’ve included above is a somewhat unusual example: instead of reproducing hadith-based descriptions of Muhammad’s physical characteristics, it features, side by side, names of God and names of Muhammad, filling the big flowers that dominate the top of the page. Below these ‘verbal icons’ are calligraphic renderings of Qur’anic phrases (some barely visible because of the poor contrast between flower color and script) along with the names of other important holy figures from the founding generation of Islam.

The second image is a heavily stylized and decorated rendering of Muhammad’s sandal, one of several physical traces- relics, in a sense- associated with Muhammad from the middle ages on and which seem to have grown in importance in the Ottoman period, as part of the general intensification of devotion to the Prophet across Islam in this period. In addition to objects claimed to be actual physical relics- hairs from Muhammad’s beard, the impress of his foot in a rock, cloaks he once wore- visual reproductions of those relics also proliferated, usually in the context of devotional texts such as this one. What was the devotional content of these images, or, to put it differently, what did these images ‘do’? For the artist, patron, and purchaser or owner or endower of a manuscript such as this, the act of creating the image and beautifying it- the gorgeous rich flowers of the hilye, the bright colors and delicate designs of the sandal, or instance- could serve as acts of devotion, of love, in themselves, as a type of offering. These depictions could also act as loci of remembrance, even for people who could not read or decipher the Arabic inscriptions: the image called to mind the person from whom the original relic was derived. An intrinsic connection was forged- hence my calling these images ‘icons,’ even though no human form is depicted- independent of a viewer, even as they summoned the viewer into an imaginative encounter with the referent. Following a similar logic, these images, by virtue of a perceived ‘link’ back to Muhammad himself, could carry a prophylactic charge. There are in fact hadith- devised very late (and in fact sometimes claimed to have been delivered via dreams)- that claim as much, to the effect that anyone who places a hilye-i şerîf in his or her home will be protected from all manner of misfortune.

In sum, far from being simply decorative objects or illustrations for a text, images such as these had a complex role in Ottoman devotional culture, containing meanings and applications that are not immediate obvious to modern-day viewers but which can give us valuable insights into the religious and emotional lives and practices of early modern Ottoman Muslims.

For further reading:

Christiane Gruber, The Prophet as a ‘Sacred Spring’: Late Ottoman Hilye Bottles

Christiane Gruber, “The Rose of the Prophet: Floral Metaphors in Late Ottoman Devotional Art,” in  Envisioning Islamic Art and Architecture, November 14, 2014, 223–49.




Devotional Art in White and Blue: An Ottoman Tile Panel from Damascus

Panel of Tiles, 17th century
Panel of Tiles, 17th century. Ceramic; fritware, painted in cobalt blue and turquoise under a transparent glaze, 28 x 28 x 1 in. (71.1 x 71.1 x 2.5 cm). Brooklyn Museum,

It’s been a busy few several days for me, so the translations of Arabic and Ottoman Turkish devotional texts I had hoped to have completed or at least in the works will have to wait. For now, I’d like to share this lovely wall panel of tiles from Ottoman Damascus (the museum’s description does not reveal where exactly it was originally located, though my guess would be in a mosque or other religiously-oriented structure, perhaps as part of a mihrab installation). The blue and white, the thin, pointy trees (probably cypresses), and especially the stylized flower arrangement in the center all reveal this piece as clearly Ottoman, while the border ornamentation and style of execution suggest the ‘provincial’ (as opposed to closer to the imperial core of Constantinople/Istanbul).

The visual ‘message’ of this tiled panel, and the sort of devotional ‘work’ it might have done, is also pretty clear: the three arched niches suggest the mihrabs in a mosque, replete with depictions of mosque hanging lamps in each niche, with a crescent moon pendant above. Paradisical imagery of flowers and trees fills the niches below the lamps, suggestive of the Garden itself, while at the center is the phrase ‘To God belongs the power.’ On the top and bottom, in clockwise direction, are the names God, Muhammad, Abu Bakr, ‘Umar, Uthman, and ‘Ali, the last four being the Four Rightly Guided Caliphs, their memory increasingly venerated by Sunni Ottoman Muslims in light of conflicts with the Shi’i Safavid Empire. Like the imagery I discussed in a previous post, this one draws the viewer into a spiritual space, a paradisical space of worship, directed towards God, and mediated by Muhammad and his saintly immediate followers and bearers of his standard. Using stylized imagery, pattern, color, and calligraphy, it creates an ‘icon-like’ viewing experience, and probably also helped to render a particular space, within a mosque or elsewhere, as conducive towards attitudes and acts of devotion and worship.

Fire Poured Out From Heaven: Muslim Saints’ Shrines in Safavid Miniature Painting

Miniature from a copy of Jafar al-Sadiq_s Falnama. “Scene From a Mausoleum” Iran, Tabriz or Qasvin; c. 1550
Miniature from a copy of Jafar al-Sadiq’s Falnama. “Scene From a Mausoleum”
Iran, Tabriz or Qasvin; c. 1550 (David Collection, Inv. no. 28/1997)
“Prayers in a Mosque” Miniature from Kulliyat-i Mawlana Ahli Shirazi (Collected Works of Mawlana Ahli Shirazi) Shiraz, Iran; c. 1550
Miniature from Kulliyat-i Mawlana Ahli Shirazi (Collected Works of Mawlana Ahli Shirazi)
Shiraz, Iran; c. 1550, David Collection, Inv. no. Isl 161

As any long-time reader of this blog will know, one of my primary areas of scholarly interest is the history of saints and sainthood in the Islamic world, primarily within Islamic traditions but also in Christian and Jewish traditions practiced within or in contact with Islamicate cultures. The very fact that ‘Muslims have saints’ often comes as a surprise, with the usual follow up question being something along the lines of ‘Just what is a Muslim saint like?’ The answer, of course, varies from place to place and time to time, with the usual caveats that Muslims saints ‘look’ both like and unlike saints in other religious traditions, and that some forms of Islam, especially in the modern world, largely reject sainthood (similar to some forms of Christianity after the Protestant Reformation).

One difference between Muslim modes of understanding and depicting saints and sainthood and those found in many other traditions such as Christianity and Buddhism is the relatively low-key role of visual depictions in describing saints and in venerating them or inscribing their memory. While it is not true to say that Islam across the board lacks iconographic traditions, explicit uses of icon-like depictions for veneration has historically tended to be limited to either to depictions of non-human items and places, described in last week’s post, or in a rather supplemental manner (for private devotions or in the context of a shrine), such as has become common in contemporary Shi’i devotion (though certainly not only Shi’i- for instance, see this example from resolutely Sunni Morocco). The two miniatures above fall into another category altogether: in both we have something quite rare, namely, artistic renderings of practiced devotion to saints. These two images, both of which were produced in Safavid Iran while it was still in the long process of transitioning from a Sunni polity to a Shi’i one, give us a pretty good visual idea of what tomb veneration looked like in an early modern context- while they come from the Persian world, we know from literary evidence that the practices and architectural elements depicted in them would have been shared with other regions, including the neighboring Ottoman lands. The images are hence worth a closer look. Continue reading “Fire Poured Out From Heaven: Muslim Saints’ Shrines in Safavid Miniature Painting”

Explicating Devotion to Muhammad, Part i.

Opening page to Kara Davutzâde Mehmed Efendî, Tevfik muvaffikü’l-hayrât li-neyli’l-berekât fi hizmet menbai’s-saâdât, University of Michigan, Special Collections Library, Isl. Ms. 672

Late medieval and early modern devotion to Muhammad in Islam was first and foremost a matter of personal and communal practice, embodied in devotional regimes, public rituals, habitual expressions, and material objects, among other practices and techniques. But it also unfolded at a discursive, textual, and homiletical level, with scholarly and semi-scholarly productions explicating, extolling, and critiquing various aspects of devotion to the Prophet appearing from the late medieval period forward in multiple languages of Islam. The genre of commentary (Ar. sharḥ/Ott. Trk. şerh) was an important vehicle for delivering explication of devotional practices and their intersection with theology and other Islamic disciplines. Numerous commentaries on ṣalawāt– the litanies of blessing upon Muhammad- and related sorts of texts appeared across the Ottoman world and beyond, in both Arabic and Ottoman Turkish (and in other languages further east). Like much early modern commentary production in Islamic societies, these texts have received little engage scholarly attention, though the neglect of commentaries is starting to change. In the following weeks I’d like to give some samples of commentary on devotional texts, starting with excerpts from commentary on what was perhaps the most important text of devotion to Muhammad, al-Jāzūlī’s Dalā’il al-khayrāt.

But before presenting translated texts and analysis of them, I’d like to start with the above image. It comes from the opening page of a beautifully executed manuscript copy of an Ottoman Turkish translation and expansion of an Arabic commentary on al-Jāzūlī’s prayerbook. Titled Tevfik muvaffikü’l-hayrât li-neyli’l-berekât fi hizmet menbai’s-saâdât, this work, which goes through, line by line, the text of Dalā’il al-khayrāt, was composed by an eighteenth century author, Kara Davutzâde Mehmed Efendî, about whom I know no more than can be gleaned from the text. The commentary was aimed at many audiences, especially, it seems, pious women, and may have been meant to furnish material for preachers.

The charming miniature that is framed at the top of the page, a depiction of Medina, centered on the Prophet’s Mosque, is a good example of the devotional iconography that grew up around devotion to Muhammad, in many contexts, featuring images of Mecca and Medina, the tomb of Muhammad and the tombs of the Four Rightly Guided Caliphs, the footprint of Muhammad (and other physical traces), and so on. Such images had many functions: they presented the physical presence of Muhammad and his close associates in an iconographic manner but without actually depicting Muhammad directly. Instead they summoned his presence by pointing the viewer at the material traces of his life and memory, a sort of icon at remove. They had an educational value, giving the reader or viewer a sense of what the holiest places of Islam and the artefacts of the Prophet looked like. And finally they had a prophylactic purpose- that is, early modern Muslims might display or otherwise have on hand these images as a way of warding off evil and misfortune, based on their icon-at-a-remove connection to Muhammad and his powerful intercession. The above image- which is also just simply beautiful and delicately rendered- participates in all of the above.