Albrecht Durer was the Da Vinci of the Northern Renaissance, the artist who first fused the traditions of Northern art with the discoveries of the Italian Renaissance.
Consider his Crucifixion with the Virgin Mary and St. John (figure 1). It has all the macabre qualities and gothic gravitas associated with the Northern Renaissance.
Now imagine Durer’s surprise if he were to find that this engraving was being passed around young picture-makers in a royal atelier in Mughal Emperor Jehangir’s India, only a decade or two after Durer’s death. Imagine Abul Hasan, the child prodigy, turbaned and barefooted, sitting with his legs crossed and hunched over a flat wooden board in that quiet but busy quarter. All around him are scraps of napkins and bottles of powdered pigments, messy mixing bowls and needle-thin brushes. Picture him squinting his Afghan eyes (his father was a painter from Herat) at Durer’s print, then nimbly setting his mark on the crisp new paper: his brush quivers but his faith in his gift is unwavering.
[quote]The Durer print was probably gifted to Jehangir by the English ambassador Sir Thomas Roe[/quote]
I wonder what he’s thinking when he looks at that grave woodcut print. He probably finds it a bit dry, given his exposure to the exuberance of the colorful and bon vivant court of possibly the richest king on earth. Why make dreary pictures to teach piety to ordinary people when a picture can summon the sublime, inspire awe, and bestow saccharine, Persianate praise on the well-born?
The Durer print was probably gifted to Jehangir by the English ambassador Sir Thomas Roe. But just hold Durer’s original print and Abul Hasan’s copy of it side by side and the question of why he was copying it may become unnecessary.
An engraving is made by incising on a wood or metal surface, which is then inked and printed in a press. It is somewhat like an etching, but much less forgiving. Engravings were wildly popular in Europe in the 15th and 16th centuries because, unlike paintings, which could be part of inaccessible private collections or sedentary and permanent features of famous chapels, engravings could be produced in great numbers and were portable across the borders of what would soon become Protestant lands and the famous Inquisitorial theater of the Counter-Reformation. Engravings were how, for instance, a German artisan would know about the celebrated new pictures of the Italian Renaissance –engravers would make faithful copies of their compositions. And this is how he could incorporate groundbreaking Renaissance discoveries about anatomy composition and perspective into his own pictures.
Durer has drawn St John and Mary soberly contemplating the crucifixion of Jesus, with Mary Magdalene, another saint, and Jesus’s Roman tormentor lurking in the background. Durer has foreshortened St John’s face as he looks up at the cross so that we can look up his nostrils and the gap-toothed gum under his upper lip. I imagine an angle like this would have seemed rude to a Mughal miniaturist. Durer’s perspective suggests we are viewing the figures from a low angle; they are at a height above us and that literally puts this holy event on an elevated status, one the viewer is not “on par” with. A miniaturist’s solution would be to put the looker (us or himself or a minion) in the picture and draw him as a midget in profile to show the degrees of star-power of various characters within the important event. A tad simple, a tad didactic, similar to early Christian icons, but nonetheless effective as a narrative tool.
This is why Abul Hasan cannot understand foreshortening even when it’s in front of him. This confusion becomes a larger problem of perspective that can be seen again and again in the quaint representations of architecture in relation to the human body in miniature painting. (Abul Hasan is an exception. His perspective, even in miniature painting, is almost perfect; and this has something to do with his extraordinary powers of simulating the lessons learned from his exposure to European art.) He doesn’t understand that what seems wrong in the process of drawing makes a sketch plausible when it is regarded by the eye. For instance, John’s head seems too tilted for a Mughal painter who is used to aquiline profiles. So the Mughal painter lifts it in an effort to tidy it, stiffening it in the process. He airbrushes the unflattering angle of the nostrils. He still makes an effort for the saint to give that very Christian pose of the upward melancholy gaze but because he doesn’t know what happens to a round temple and wet eyes when seen from below, his drawing of St John’s eyes is skewed, resembling someone caught half-blinking in a photograph.
(Abul Hasan’s picture is what most miniature illuminations look like before they were colored. Ironically, most European Old Master under-paintings looked the same under layers of colored glazes! A monochrome raw umber or sienna drawing usually.)
Abul Hasan has drawn the figure with a thin brush. He doesn’t want to move too fast, drawing with a flow his training could afford him. He is treading, after all, on foreign ground. He has to make a smooth drawing, worthy of a king, out of a mad foreign picture. He must be scared.
[quote]This is just cloth. And it’s not even silk![/quote]
He traces the major lines in the saint’s clothes. But where the European painter would revel in the beautiful possibility of the folds of creasing fabric, the young Abul Hasan becomes confused and loses interest. Just look at how he apes the eccentricity of Northern drapery on his saint’s sleeve. It’s too much for him! Cluttered and unnecessary. A madness! Why would anyone want to create such a confusion? If there had been embroidery and brocade here, or jewels of some sort, he would have drawn them with a feverish passion. But this is just cloth. And it’s not even silk!
[quote]The painters of the royal atelier are trained to summon the sublime through elements other than the human body[/quote]
He clearly loves the curls on John’s head and has made a poignant effort to be faithful to them. He has even used the brush like the incising tool used by an engraver, totally linear. No fine airbrushing here! You can see every little line used to describe the flow of hair in Durer’s print, but Abul Hasan’s curls are tedious details that get carried away and forget the shape of the head on which they happen to sit. Durer anticipates a scalp under the strands of hair, stretched over a skull and a more or less plausible body underneath John’s clothing. But in the miniaturist’s training, his way of looking, the fabric becomes an end unto itself. It has a somewhat distant relation with the body it could conceal (unless the miniaturist wants to show sheer fabric for the purposes of preciousness or pornography). It is an ideaof a fabric, and that is quite enough to give pleasure to the eye and provide meaning to the story being told. Mughal painters certainly focus on details of costume (they share that love of costume with the European tradition) but without a deep curiosity about the textures of different materials, or the nature of a costume subject to wind and weather. But no matter! The lucky painters of the royal atelier are trained to summon the divine, the sublime, through elements other than the human body. They do this usually through ornamentation, touching the very limits of delicacy. The body with its expressive contortions and its capacity for pain was not exactly useless in the miniature tradition, because there are famous examples in Abul Hasan’s work which prove otherwise. But the body in Mughal India was not, as it was in the European tradition, a heroic yardstick with which to measure the pains and pleasures of the world.
[quote]Abul Hasan cannot understand foreshortening even when it’s in front of him[/quote]
For us, today, Abul Hasan’s drawing is wonderful because of its innocence: the artist doesn’t know he is participating in the first improbable meeting of aesthetics from worlds far apart.
That Abul Hasan chose Albrecht Durer, a master of the Northern Renaissance, is peculiar. The Northern artists were different in their tempered Christian earnestness from those sunny, passionate Italian inheritors of the Roman love affair with the human body. The Northern Renaissance was drearier, excelling not in the depiction of bodily ecstasies and expensive garbs, but in pain, dark comedy, peasantry, landscape, torture, a kind of edited realism that the Italians would have found vulgar. (Just look at the nail hammered viciously through the bones of the foot of Jesus in the engraving by Durer. Also look at the macabre Grunwald altarpiece and you’ll see what I mean.) I imagine an Italian painting from the late 16th century would have been way more impressive to a painter working in the royal atelier in India than a print of Durer’s.
But Abul Hasan probably had no choice in the matter. He was ordered to paint this image. He was a well-known art star and he could produce the best likenesses, so Jehangir summoned him to win a wager with Sir Thomas Roe. Roe had brought “pictures” from an unidentified European master for Jehangir who:
took extreme content, showing it to everie man neare him; at last he sent for his cheefe paynter, demanding his opinion. The foole answered he could makes as good wherat the King turned to me, saying my man sayth he can do the like and as well as this: what say yow? I replyed: I knew the contrarie…for I know none in Europe but the same master can performe it…
At night he sent for mee, being haiste to triumph in his workman, and shewed me six pictures, five made by his man, all pasted on one table, so like that I was by candle light troubled to discern which was which…
This ‘cheefe paynter’ was probably Abul’ Hasan, and he was only twelve years old at the time.
Sadly, only some biographical details about him are available to us. Chiefly: he was the son of Aqa Reza, a man in the employ of Jehangir, who gave him the title Nadir-uz-Zaman, Wonder of the Age. Funnily enough, he would use this title to sign his pictures. Imagine him thinking: If you’re consequential, you’ll know who I am. In those days in India, the Emperor seems to have given a title to almost everyone around him (could you please ask Wonder of the Age to polish those five sketches by tomorrow morning? The King of Kings [Jehangir] and Paragon of the Palace [Noor Jehan] are losing patience…)