Opaque watercolor and ink on paper; page: H. 9 in. (22.9 cm), W. 6 11/16 in. (17 cm)
Gift of George D. Pratt, 1925 (25.83.6)
In Iran in the third quarter of the sixteenth century, an increase in the production of single-page paintings and drawings 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.
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.
The origins of such images are unknown, although some scholars believe that the concept originated in ancient Central Asia. Some have suggested that these images reflect the dominion of the heavenly over the natural world and, by implication, the power of a ruler over his land and people. Other interpretations propose that the composite aspect of the animals allude 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. 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.