Is it possible that some of the world's most colorful, exquisitely crafted pictures were barely meant to be seen? That absolutely gorgeous art could have been conceived without concern for human eyes?
"Muraqqa : Imperial Mughal Albums From the Chester Beatty Library, Dublin," the show that opened recently at the Smithsonian's Sackler Gallery for Asian art, suggests such strange possibilities.
More about that strangeness in a minute. First, a bit about the show and its objects.
The exhibition presents 86 finely decorated and illuminated sheets, made for the Mughal courts of northern India between about 1600 and 1650. They were collected early last century by Beatty &
in full, Sir Alfred Chester Beatty &
an American mining tycoon, philanthropist, collector and Anglophile. He emigrated to England in 1911, fell out of love with that country after World War II and eventually moved his collection to Ireland, where it recently found a grand new home in Dublin Castle.
The word "muraqqa' " in the title is Persian and means something like "patchwork." It was used by the Mughals to refer to the signature patched robes of Islam's Sufi mystics, favorites of the Mughal emperors. And also, as a kind of compliment, to the sort of deluxe albums on view in this show, whose pages are often "patched together" like scrapbooks.
On one side of each page (known in the trade as a "folio") you'd usually find an exquisite work of calligraphy &
a 12th-century poem, say, copied out by the famous 16th-century Persian calligrapher Mir Ali and then invisibly inserted into a decorative border. That ultra-prestigious script work was the heart of these albums. But sandwiched onto the flip side of the writing, within similarly ornate borders, you might also find another sheet that bore a freshly painted portrait of the Mughal emperor or one of his ministers. Or perhaps a famous scene from Mughal history or legend. Or you might even find, as on one page in this show, a collage of three different pictures drawn in Persia by three different artists of three different eras, joined by a fanciful European engraving of the moon.
A single album might be built around a few loose themes. But mostly a muraqqa' seemed to function as a treasure chest for collected and commissioned texts and imagery.
This exhibition is also a kind of muraqqa'. It is a one-museum "treasures" show, without much of an argument to it. It presents the best of whatever Mughal folios Beatty happened to acquire at the time that he was buying. That means it doesn't have the substance, or pay the dividends, of the Sackler's stunning "Hamzanama" show from 2002, which borrowed pages from all over to explore one illustrated volume of a great Mughal epic.
But maybe "Muraqqa' " does succeed, on its own terms, in coming close to the loose-limbed spirit of the six albums it anthologizes.
It's almost impossible to absorb the overload of separate little details included in these albums: a dime-size image of a pair of mating birds; an almost photographic portrait of a warrior or sage; scene after scene of silk-robed courtiers lounging on absurdly luscious carpets set down in luxuriant gardens; an interlaced border of snaking red arabesques and flowing black letterforms set inside another frame of gold flowers on blue.
Even on a single page, roughly 11 inches by 16, there's often too much detail to take in, as your eye first takes in a story line, then fastens on its separate episodes, then moves on the single actors in them, then on their various items of clothing, each of which has its own patternings, in turn made up of the tiniest features, all enclosed in lavish ornamental borders with more incident than you could ever study.
What if all this is more than you're supposed to see?
What if the whole point isn't the seeing at all, but the (ital)
The bounty of these albums may have been meant to be as overwhelmingly excessive as creation's is, designed to surpass our human senses rather than satisfy them. In much less than a square inch, the textured gilding on one portrait manages to capture how light reflects off a gold-brocaded belt, and how different that is from its reflection off the tooling on a golden dagger. Such things may remind us of European realism from around the same date, which we know the Mughals admired. But a European still life or portrait seems designed to make nature supremely legible and available to its viewers. The much tinier visions of nature buried deep in Mughal albums &
so deep we can only dig them out at all with magnifying glasses &
almost seem to want to play hide-and-seek. They seem to prove that there is more out in the world than any human's eyes could even start to grasp. And that any one detail that we do manage to take in is only an insignificant part of an immeasurable whole.
Or maybe the explanation for the dizzying excess of these albums is much crasser than that.
As ultra-deluxe objects, they may have been as much about the unfathomable labor that went into making them as about the product of that labor, or any act of appreciating it. After all, these pictures didn't hang on a wall for everyone to see. One picture was just the smallest part of a Mughal emperor's very extensive library, swallowed up in an album tucked away with many others like it. Any single image can't have been looked at very often. Their value didn't depend so much on being
(end ital) as on being great, and being
In fact, the main evidence we have of an emperor's contact with a volume in his library is when he records it getting passed to him on his accession, along with all the other precious things his kingship brought.
A massive ruby doesn't lose its worth because it's almost always locked away from human sight. Likewise, the unimaginable man-hours that went into making every square inch on these pages do not shrink just because a page is rarely out on view. The skills it took to render all this stunning detail are rare as diamonds, whether or not there's anyone to witness the results.
Maybe these albums, and these images, were especially precious because of how far they exceeded the human capacity to take them in.
An Indian empire's dazzling treasures are finally revealed