Buraq, the beast on which Muhammad is said to have made his "night journey," is depicted, without a rider, as a fantastic creature with the face of a beautiful woman. The body is a composite of many small animals, fish, and birds—a convention generally popular in the eastern Islamic world. The unusually subdued palette is found in a number of paintings and album borders from Golconda, while the portrait is stylistically related to a Bijapur type.
The Qur’an contains descriptions of Buraq, the fantastic mount that the Prophet Muhammad rode on his mi‘raj (night journey) to Paradise. Depicted here without its rider, this hybrid beast has the face of a beautiful woman wearing jewels, the body of a horse with wings, and a knotted tail that terminates in a dragon’s head. Buraq’s body is inhabited by an assortment of animals, including elephants, lions, fish, and birds. Several lionlike beasts nibble other animals, while the dragon gnaws at Buraq’s wings.
The figure is rendered in a subdued palette of beige and green, with gold outlines that show scattered plants in gold against a deep green ground. The combination of a somber palette with the bright natural color in Buraq’s face is quite dramatic. The surrounding decorations in gold are related to a late sixteenth-century album border from Golconda; the actual depiction of Buraq is technically and stylistically akin to the painting of a composite horse inhabited by human figures and animals from the early seventeenth century in the Museum für Islamische Kunst, Staatliche Museen zu Berlin, which also displays dark tones similar in feeling to this work. However, in terms of composition, the present painting is closest to a seventeenth-century Mughal composite Buraq with its head turned back (Bodleian Library, Oxford), although the latter, Mughal example differs in treatment and palette from the Museum’s.
While composite animals have a long tradition in Iranian and Indian art, and other examples from the Deccan are known, there are few such portrayals of Buraq. Most involve elephants, horses, camels, and lions, depicted with riders. The origins of such images are unknown, although some scholars believe that the concept originated in ancient Central Asia. Several composite paintings of camels and young princes and princesses inhabited by human forms are attributed to sixteenth-century Iran and Central Asia (see MMA no. 25.83.6). In India, there is a long history of similar imagery in Mughal, Deccani, and Hindu traditions. Nevertheless, the composite paintings of Buraq from the Deccan in this distinct style were the ones that served as models for later Indian/Deccan examples.
As scholars have attempted to interpret these images, some have suggested that they reflect the dominion of the heavenly over the natural world and, by implication, the power of a ruler over his land and people. However, these are only hypotheses, and the meaning of these curious paintings remains ambiguous. What is certain is that their playful, enigmatic qualities entertained their patrons and owners in much the same way as they intrigue us today.
Maryam Ekhtiar in [Ekhtiar, Soucek, Canby, and Haidar 2011]
1. Zebrowski, Mark. Deccani Painting. London and Berkeley and Los Angeles, 1983, pp. 170–72.
2. Ibid., p. 146, pl. 18.
3. MS. Pers. b. t, f 10r. See Topsfield, Andrew. Paintings from Mughal India. Bodleian Library, University of Oxford. Oxford, 2008, pl. 59.
4. There is a composite painting of a lion attributed to the Deccan in the Dorn Album in the National Library of Russia (former Saltykov Shchedrin Library) in St. Petersburg. I would like to thank Navina Haidar for bringing this work to my attention.
5. Del Bontà, Robert J. “Reinventing Nature: Mughal Composite Animal Painting.” In Flora and Fauna in Mughal Art, edited by Som Prakash Verma. Mumbai, 1999, p. 70.
6. The composite painting of a princess by Muhammad Shari Musavvir with margins by Muhammad Murad Samarqandi is in the Arthur M. Sackler Gallery, Washington (no. S86.0304), reproduced in Lowry, Glenn D., with Susan Nemazee. A Jeweler’s Eye: Islamic Arts of the Book from the Vever Collection. Washington D.C., 1988, pl. 67. Its pendant, a composite painting of a seated prince is in the Musée du Louvre, Paris (no. OA 7109). See also MMA no. 25.83.6.
7. Das endlose Rätsel: Dalí und die Magier der Mehrdeutigkeit. Exhibition, Museum Kunst Palast, Düsseldorf. Catalogue by Jean-Hubert Martin, Stephan Andreae, and Uta Husmeier. Düsseldorf, 2003, pp. 153–63.
8. Del Bontà 1999 (see note 5 above), p. 81.
Richard Colley, Marquis of Wellesleyand governor-general of India (until d. 1842); by descent to his granddaughter-in-law, Mrs. Colley Wellesley(until d. ca. 1941); by descent to the 7th Duke of Wellington(1947–d. 1972); [ Terence McInerney; until 1992; sold to MMA]
Bernus-Taylor, Marthe. "Musée du Louvre 23 avril–23 juillet 2001." In L'Etrange et le Merveilleux en Terres d'Islam. Paris: Musée du Louvre, 2001. p. 289, ill. fig. 191.
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. 270, pp. 381–82, ill. p. 382 (color).
Haidar, Navina, and Marika Sardar. "The Metropolitan Museum of Art Symposia." In Sultans of the South: Art of India's Deccan Courts. Brugge, Belgium: The Metropolitan Museum of Art, 2011. p. 66, ill. fig. 4.