Interfaith dialogue through pearls of beauty

First slide

In the center of an exhibit of Islamic art at the Walters Art Museum in Baltimore, a sparkling Christian image seems fitting for the U.S. Catholic Church's National Migration Week Jan. 3-9.

The watercolor painting on paper shows a famous family of migrants who fled religious persecution: The haloed Virgin Mary - her long hair curling under a lime-green veil, wearing a pale red dress under a blue cloak - walks across the front of the scene. The scarlet-clad Child Jesus holds His mother's hand and looks tenderly at her.

St. Joseph, grey-haired but vigorous, looks out at us as he leads his family forward, tugging the reins of their donkey. Swirling clouds seem to impel them on the way back to Nazareth after their perilous escape to Egypt from the mass-murdering Herod. Their journey passes through a green valley more like Europe than the Sinai Desert.

Except for details such as Mary's pearl earrings, it could be a European painting and indeed it is based on a European source: a print after a composition by the Flemish artist Rubens that was circulated worldwide by Christian missionaries.

The artist is Muhammad Zamad ibn Haji Yusuf, the second of three outstanding figures highlighted in the exhibit "Pearls on a String: Artists, Patrons and Poets at the Great Islamic Courts" on view through Jan. 31. The inscription on the picture's border says that it was finished in September 1689 in the ruling city of Isfahan (Persia) and dedicates it to Shah Sulayman, wishing that the "God most high raise his standard, his fortune, and his caliphate over all mankind until the Day of Resurrection."

A caliphate. Not exactly what we might have expected - and far from recent grim images the word conjures. For a few brilliant years - later darkened by rising religious intolerance and Islamic fundamentalism under Shah Sulayman's heir - works of art in the Persian capital reflected the court's relative tolerance and the role that Mary and Christ play as prophets in Islamic belief.

All around the "Return from Egypt" are Christian artifacts created by, or close to, Muhammad Zamad in 17th-century Persia. Most of them were made for the Armenian Christian community in Isfahan, based at All Savior's Cathedral (which Sulayman visited to discuss the Gospel stories with the clergy). They vary from strongly Europeanizing style to adaptations of modes of representation from India, China and Persia.

Muhammad Zamad won praise in the 17th century for bringing elements of European pictorial style to the court of Persia. In addition to the other two personalities profiled in the show, a writer and a ruler, details of Zamad's biography have been tricky to pin down. Curator Amy Landau drew her title from "a Persian, Arabic, and Turkish metaphor to express connections between people, words on a page, or images in a book that when experienced together create a beautiful composite whole."

King Akbar's wise rule

The first "pearl" is the writer Abu'l Fazl, who served in the remarkable court of King Akbar, the ruler of the Mughal Empire in India. As a Muslim ruling over subjects who practiced many other faiths, Akbar went far beyond mere tolerance. He promoted Persian as the court language because it was not linked to a particular religious ideology (unlike Arabic or Sanskrit).

Abu'l Fazl wrote a biography of Akbar, and the illustrations of the book highlight the first rooms of the exhibit. Wall texts report that as Akbar's military expanded into western India, his court became familiar with the observances and devotional objects of the Hindu, Jain and Christian inhabitants.

His response was admirable, given the Koranic ban on representations of the deity in temples. During a campaign in the 1590s, Akbar discovered that some Jain idols carved into a mountain had been "disfigured by ill-intentioned people." The aggrieved king's response: "Whatever perfect, virtuous, wise person repairs these idols, to him I will give as much wealth as he desires from my treasury."

Jesuit missionaries were invited to Akbar's court in 1570s, and the first arrived in 1580. Abu'l Fazl became friends with the highly educated Jesuit emissary Rodolfo Acquaviva, to whom he taught Persian, and the two men debated matters of religion.

Loaned for the exhibit from the Chester Beatty Library in Dublin is a scene depicting a "meditation room" in the palace where King Akbar presides over an image of Jesuit priests, Muslim scholars and men of other faiths consulting texts written in many scripts and languages and discussing religious and philosophical matters.

If there is to be the peace between Christianity and Islam that Pope Francis often has invoked, a mutual appreciation of such exquisite art works can play an important role.

Hamerman is a freelance writer from Reston.

© Arlington Catholic Herald 2016