Museum Secrets

A Miniature Masterpiece

May 28, 2021 Ashmolean Museum / Lucie Dawkins / Mallica Kumbera Landrus Season 2 Episode 10
Museum Secrets
A Miniature Masterpiece
Show Notes Transcript

Join Mallica Kumbera Landrus, the Keeper of Eastern Art, as she introduces us to a tiny drawing made by a child genius. This scrap of paper tells a story of cultures embracing each other across vast distances and the curiosity of one exceptional 13 year old boy in Mughal India, 421 years ago.

Christ on the Cross, Albrecht Dürer, 1511 - Find out more
Saint John the Evangelist, Abu l'-Hasan, 1600–1601 - Find out more

If you want to take a closer look at the objects in this episode, you can view them at the links above, or visit the podcast page on the Ashmolean website:

Producer: Lucie Dawkins
Episode Presenter: Mallica Kumbera Landrus

About Museum Secrets: Welcome to season 2 of Museum Secrets. Every week Lucie Dawkins will  take you behind the scenes at the University of Oxford's Ashmolean Museum. There are a million objects here in the Museum, each with its own hidden story. Come on in, as we track down the weird and wonderful among them, to give us a bitesized pick-me-up in these challenging times. Join us every week for a daily dose of cheer.

Lucie: One of the great delights to be found in the Ashmolean is in the beauty of tiny things. And today we’re joing Mallica Kumbera Landrus, the Ashmolean’s Keeper of Eastern Art, who is taking a look at a piece of paper which is smaller than palm of your hand.  Over to Mallica, to tell us more.

Mallica: For as long as artists have existed, they have copied the works of others, reinventing and emulating originals to hone their own skills. You don’t have to spend long looking through the Ashmolean’s collections before you start noticing these copies. In particular, you’ll might find copies of the Renaissance German artist Albrecht Durer. Conveniently for him, he was alive at the time that commercial printing presses were coming into their own, meaning that his work could be turned into mass-produced prints. These affordable, portable artworks fell into the hands of enthusiastic artists far and wide, who replicated and reimagined his images for themselves.

Among these myriad copies of Durer’s prints, there is one fascinating anomaly at the Ashmolean. It’s a scrap of paper just 10cm high, showing the figure of St John the Evangelist, copied from a print of the scene of Christ’s Crucifixion. His robes are only lightly outlined, but his head and hands are intricately detailed. Despite its minuscule size (St John’s head is barely larger than a thumbprint), we can read every line of grief on his face as he watches his friend, guide, and spiritual leader die in front of him. 

At first glance, we might assume that this copy of a German print belongs in the Ashmolean’s collections of European art. But no. This is an Indian drawing, and is housed here in the Eastern Art department. And it’s not just any Indian drawing, but one of the greatest of the Mughal Empire. His name was Abu’l Hasan, and he was only 13 years old when he made this remarkable little sketch. 

Abu’l Hasan’s father Aqa Reza, was one of the many master craftsmen working under the patronage of mighty Mughal Emperors of India. At its greatest extent, their empire included present day nation states of Pakistan, India, Bangladesh and parts of Afghanistan. The Mughal court was an international powerhouse, revolving around the Muslim Emperors, who were great connoisseurs and lovers of art and culture. As patrons, their courts became synonymous with cultural brilliance, especially when it came to the distinctive Mughal art form of miniature painting. 

In the 16th century Emperor Akbar assembled a royal workshop, attracting the best artists flocked from far and wide to join it, including Aqa Reza, all the way from Persia. He raised his two sons, Abu’l Hasan and Abid, as apprentices in his craft.

Mughal artists’ guilds were buzzing creative communities. A painting could be the work on a single artist or composed by a whole group of artists working side by side to create jewel-like paintings, often only a few centimetres large. Often, many specialists would collaborate on a single picture, each contributing to different stages in the process – with different artists each responsible for making the paper, preparing the pigments and brushes, painting outlines, drawing portraits, designing the backgrounds, colouring, adding further details, gilding, and calligraphy. 

The level of minuscule detail was a huge strain on the painters’ eyes.  There is a portrait of a young Abu by another artist, Daulat, in which he crouches over a work in progress, his face nearly touching the paper as he peers at his work. The portraits of senior artists sometimes depict them wearing glasses, a consequence perhaps of their detailed concentration on miniatures.

Aqa Reza would have taught his son to paint small two-dimensional pictures, using fine naturally curved hair brushes to create extreme detail. The best brushes were made from soft hairs plucked from the neck of baby squirrels and kittens, and some, necessary for the finest and minutest of details, were just a single hair thick. Mughal paintings were renowned for their vivid colours, which the artists achieved by having a separate brush for every pigment. They went to great lengths to source the strongest colours made of powdered pigment and water. The mix was then bound with gum arabic. Bright yellow came from the urine of cows fed on mango leaves, red and purple hues came from the secretion of beetles, bright blue from lapis lazuli and a darker blue from indigo, vermillion red from cinnabar, green from copper treated with vinegar, white from ground shells or lead, and last but not least lamp black. 

Akbar wanted his workshops to be sophisticated creative spaces, tolerant and open to experimentation, drawing on the many cultures which had flocked to his court. He actively encouraged his artists to paint both Muslim and Hindu themes, employing artists from both religions. He commissioned vast numbers of illustrated manuscripts of both the Quran and the Ramayana, as well as famous works of history and literature.  

And when Abu’l Hasan made this drawing aged 13, in the year 1600, a whole new set of inspirations had just been added to the cultural boiling pot of the royal workshop. New faces had recently arrived court, bringing with strange-looking images from the farthest West of Europe. 

The Portuguese had already arrived in India a hundred years earlier, in 1498. By 1510 they had captured the port city of Goa in Western India. As a result of their arrival, new shipping technologies and trade routes, other Europeans were to follow, arriving at the Mughal Court on diplomatic missions. They hoped to negotiate trade deals with Emperor Akbar and later his heir Jahangir, especially when it came to the lucrative spices and the cloth trade. 

The first Portuguese mission arrived at the Mughal court in 1580. Akbar was interested in all religious traditions, and held discussions and debates with theologians of various faiths. He housed the priests inside the palace walls, and even gave them space for a chapel. The Jesuit fathers were able to share the details of their faith with the emperor, as well as present him with gifts of Christian images. Their main gifts included prints, which were mainly 16th century Netherlandish and German works, among them the work of Albrecht Durer. As more European missions followed, they brought with them more paintings, prints, illustrated manuscripts, and bibles. 

The figures Jesus and Mary were already familiar to Islamic culture. They play an important role in the Quran, where several verses mention them as models for Muslims. In Akbar’s tolerant, multi-cultural court, Christian images would have offered a way of expressing spirituality, and communicated an association with divine leadership.  He encouraged his artists to incorporate them into their work, and so Christian and European influences joined the melting pot of Hindu and Muslim, Indian and Persian themes in Mughal art. 

This was, presumably, how the teenage Abu found himself staring at a print of the Crucifixion which had travelled from 4,000 miles away.

And the print must have looked truly foreign to him. 

European art of the time had a very different visual vocabulary to the Indo-Islamic imagery he had grown up around. Artists like Durer were fascinated with the problem of how to trick the viewers eye into believing that they were looking at three dimension space on a flat surface. They were experimenting with the rules of mathematical perspective, and representing bodies with modelled muscles, which looked like they had volume and mass.  And this simply was part of the tradition of Mughal art. 

So Abu’l Hasan was looking at a sheet of paper which represented the world in a way which was totally novel to him. And it clearly fascinated him, because he picked up a brush and tried to teach himself how to recreate them. 

And what makes this particularly extraordinary is that he was holding the tools designed to do a completely different job. 

Dürer probably prepared the original design in pen and ink, and turned it into a printing block by gouging the design into a piece of wood, creating bold, clear lines. 

Abu’l Hasan, however, was using tiny brushes designed to create delicate lines and flat planes of colour. He wasn’t drawing like Durer. He was painting. All he was armed with was curiosity and a brush, and yet he managed to capture not only the illusion of physical volume, but also the emotional depth of the grieving St John.

This drawing is the earliest example we have of Abu’l Hasan’s genius. As an adult, he became the leading artist in the court of Akbar’s son, the Emperor Jahangir, who gave him the official title of Nadir-uz-Zaman or ‘Wonder of the Age’.  

And so this little drawing is a snapshot of an extraordinary moment of cultures meeting each other. As more and more European art began to appear at the Mughal court, the workshops freely drew on their techniques and imagery.

For example, Abu’l Hasan took inspiration from large-scale European portraits to bust outside the boundaries of Mughal miniature painting. He created a life-sized portrait of Jahangir, sitting on a three dimensional European-style throne, wearing Mughal clothing, and surrounded by Arabic cartouches declaring him as king of the world. It’s a revolutionary picture, and the largest Mughal portrait we know of. 

Another of his most famous paintings shows a hunter climbing a tree full of squirrels. It contains many of the features of traditional Mughal art, with its vibrant, saturated colours. The plane tree it depicts was a symbol of Jahangir’s imperial power. However, the figure of the hunter is European and the red squirrels were only found outside India.

In short, Abu’l Hasan and the artist around him were doing far more than just emulating European artists. What they were up to was an act of profound innovation, creating a hybrid style which combined the many cultural threads of the Mughal court. These artists were an early global citizens.

And this tiny picture also gives us a snapshot of a young man at a moment in his life when the world was changing dizzyingly fast around him. He saw something completely new to him, picked up a scrap of paper, and tried to understand it from the inside out. When faced with a challenging new idea, he responded with care and curiosity. And the result is breathtakingly beautiful. It’s a good lesson to learn from a teenager from 420 years ago

Lucie: Thank for listening to this, the last story in this series of Museum secrets. If you want to take a look at this amazing little drawing, just follow the link in the podcast notes. We hope you have enjoyed this series, and keep your ears peeled, because we’ve got more podcasts coming your way very soon. In the meantime, you can always pop into the museum to track down these secrets in person.