While composite animals such as this one are known from earlier periods of Persian art, they gained in popularity toward the end of the sixteenth century. Here, comprising the overall shape of a camel, are found images of demons (divs), dervishes, embracing couples, rabbits, dragons, and even a Buddhist monk, sporting an earring and carrying a khakkhara (sounding) staff. The meaning of such images is open to interpretation, but many scholars believe them to have mystical significance—likely referring to the unity of all creatures within God.
In the third quarter of the sixteenth century, an increase in the number of single-page paintings and drawings produced in Iran reflected a broadening of patronage and a decline in the preference for illustrated manuscripts. Additionally, subject matter shifted from the heroic to the lyrical, with genre scenes and portraiture gaining importance. A painting such as this, depicting a young groom leading a camel composed of human and fantastic creatures and bedecked with fancy textiles, combines the genre type with the suggestion of a mystical meaning. On the basis of style—particularly, the round face, long neck, and slender body of the groom—the painting can be attributed to Khurasan and dated to the 1570s or 1580s.
A late fifteenth-century prototype, attributed to the Timurid master Bihzad, depicts a groom spinning wool on a spindle while leading a camel. Even if the artist of the present work was unaware of Bihzad’s painting, he may have been familiar with a Safavid image of the same subject, signed by the court artist Shaikh Muhammad. Couplets concerning taming the haughty camel, composed by the artist, appear in the border of that painting. While the work under consideration here differs from Shaikh Muhammad’s painting in style and in details of the groom and camel, the general subject matter and composite makeup of the camel suggest that both artists were responding to a similar mystical impulse. Even if the artist here was inspired by Shaikh Muhammad’s work or a copy of it, he has misunderstood the animal’s trappings, transforming the metal bar that arches over the front of a camel’s hump into a tear-shaped standard with bells on it. Likewise, the shape of the cloth covering the hump bears no relation to the form of either the hump or a saddle.
Although composite animals have figured throughout the history of Iranian art, they enjoyed a notable revival in the last third of the sixteenth century. Unlike the harpies and sphinxes of medieval Iranian art, composites under the Safavids consisted of humans, real and fantastic animals, and demons (divs) combined into the shape of known animals such as horses and camels. These were especially favored in Khurasan, the northeast province of Iran, which encompasses the cities of Mashhad and Herat. In addition to the painting by Shaikh Muhammad, a key work for the understanding of this image is an illustrated Hadiqat al-haqiqat (The Walled Garden of Truth) of Sana’i, a mystical poet of the eleventh–twelfth century, that contains four illustrations of composite animals. In the simplest terms, the composite aspect of the animals alludes to the mystical idea of the unity of all creatures within God, while the animals themselves represent base instincts that must be overcome to achieve spiritual purity.
Sheila R. Canby in [Ekhtiar, Soucek, Canby, and Haidar 2011]
George D. Pratt, New York (until 1925; gifted to MMA)
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Ekhtiar, Maryam, Sheila R. Canby, Navina Haidar, and Priscilla P. Soucek, ed. Masterpieces from the Department of Islamic Art in The Metropolitan Museum of Art. 1st ed. ed. New York: The Metropolitan Museum of Art, 2011. no. 142, pp. 214-215, ill. p. 215 (color).