‘Mughal Painting’: Tiny works tell a story of vast wealth

A review of “Mughal Painting: Power and Piety,” exquisite miniature paintings from the wealthy dynasty that ruled India for hundreds of years. At Seattle Asian Art Museum through Dec. 7.

By Nancy Worssam
Special to The Seattle Times

One of the major figures depicted in “Mughal Painting” is Akbar, shown on horseback in this 17th-century painting. He <br/>was
One of the major figures depicted in “Mughal Painting” is Akbar, shown on horseback in this 17th-century painting. 

Emeralds and empires, rubies and royalty, pearls and power. In the early 16th century, Muslim invaders from the West swept into Hindu India and established a dynasty that lasted into the mid-19th century. These Mughal emperors became immensely wealthy, enabling them to commission astounding artworks and jeweled adornments.

The small but dazzling collection now exhibited at Seattle Asian Art Museum, “Mughal Painting: Power and Piety,” offers a peek at the lifestyle and history of the Mughal Empire and an insight into the extent of its wealth.

The paintings are miniatures, an art style that fuses Indian and Persian art traditions. They were created by hundreds of the finest artists of their time working in ateliers set up by the Mughals to produce art that honored the royal line and depicted its epics, triumphs and daily life.

Not only are the paintings artistic jewels, but jewels were incorporated within the materials from which they were made. Gold paint is prevalent, and the blues are made from lapis lazuli.

Though shown in this exhibit as framed paintings, at the time they were created they were preserved in albums or within manuscripts to illustrate texts. Of course, the Mughal and his court reserved these for their own use. Sadly, over time most of them have been lost, a fact that makes this exhibit especially important.

Complementing the paintings are a number of extravagant cultural items such as daggers, a mirror, a pen case and walking-stick heads. They are made of the finest jade and crystal, each adorned with gems and gold. They remind one of the collections at Topkapi Palace in Istanbul.

Look carefully at the displayed paintings and you will see similar items. Fortunately, the museum has provided magnifying glasses in the gallery so visitors have an opportunity to compare and marvel at the detail.

One of the major figures depicted here is Akbar, the third in the Mughal line, reigning at the same time as Elizabeth I of England. Akbar was amazing in many ways. A man of great intellect, he couldn’t read. Scholars today suggest he was dyslexic, but that never crushed his quest for knowledge. He commanded his artists to create these classic and historically important images. Written explanations were mounted on the rear of the pictures and read to him.

Akbar demanded realism as his artists depicted religious narratives and conquests and illustrated the milestones of his life. One of the miniatures depicts Akbar’s son Jahangir saluting his father.

Akbar respected the Hindu maharajahs he conquered, allowing them to rule their lands as long as they loyally tithed and provided armies for him when they were needed. He also saw the value of marrying one of their daughters and allowing her to retain her own religion.

In a world of religious intolerance, he respected others; among the miniatures on display is one of the Virgin Mary, while another depicts the Hindu god Krishna in a battle scene.

Because works on paper cannot be exposed to light indefinitely, another exhibition of SAAM’s Mughal art will replace this one in December. I look forward to it.

Nancy Worssam: ngworssam@gmail.com
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