Art/ Collection/ Art Object

Emaciated Horse and Rider

Object Name:
Illustrated single work
ca. 1625
Attributed to India, Deccan, Bijapur
Ink, opaque watercolor, and gold on paper; marbleized paper
4 x 6 3/8in. (10.2 x 16.2cm)
Credit Line:
Rogers Fund, 1944
Accession Number:
Not on view
Mystical interpretations about the yearnings of the soul have been ascribed to such striking images of mortification, which became an established genre in Indian painting in the seventeenth century. In some cases, the motif of an emaciated horse and rider was created through the use of pounced outlines, or charbas. Here, the application of marbling is typical of Deccan taste.

MMA (44.154) and Morgan Library and Museum, NY (Ms. M458.30v)

A wizened, bearded man wearing only a loincloth rides an equally emaciated old nag, his feet locked beneath its belly. These two images were likely made from positive and negative stencils cleverly cut from the same sheet of paper, creating the marbled body and background in both compositions. While the riders are drawn in black ink, their apparent disparities suggest the hands of two different artists. Both horses are rendered in an unnatural, highly exaggerated fashion, and the facial features and outstretched arms of both riders recall Mughal depictions of Majnun, who in the famed tale starves himself out of grief over his separation from his beloved Layla.[1]

Three other marbled drawings of emaciated horses also exist, but curiously lack a rider; instead, two depict crows attacking open, bloody wounds on the poor creature’s back.[2] Those riderless images are clearly derived from satirical images from the fifteenth to seventeenth century of a horseman whose aged mount appears pathetically frail and on the verge of death.[3] One such model in the Metropolitan Museum depicts the horseman forced to carry his saddle, while crows relentlessly feast on the open, fistulous withers on the back of his tired, old nag.[4] Such imagery was undoubtedly inspired by a darkly comic genre of Persianate poetry that ridicules a pitiful, dying nag unfit for a soldier defending the realm.[5] A composition attributed to the Safavid painter Mu’in served as a direct model for a marbled drawing of an emaciated horse now in the Museum of Islamic Art, Doha, further proving that such satirical works inspired the marbled compositions featuring a riderless emaciated horse attacked by crows.[6] Nevertheless, the horsemen observed in those drawings are curiously omitted from the marbled versions. Scholars have interpreted all of the marbled emaciated horses as symbolic of nafs al-ammarah (base ego or lower self) in mystical sufi thought.[7] While the present works may allude to training the ego, a preliminary stage on the sufi path, their far more extreme depictions of a horse on the verge of death suggest that they represent a highly advanced stage of fana (annihilation), the level immediately preceding the final goal of baqa (subsistence) in the divine, which is also a central theme in the story of Layla and Majnun. Interestingly, in an elegy written toward the end of his life, the Iranian poet Ashraf Mazandarani (died 1704) bemoaned his pain and suffering, desiring release from his predicament. He described his body as white and lifeless, trembling with age, and then made the startling comparison to marbled paper: "My limbs have become clouded [abri]; my colors have become mixed."[8]

Other scholars have attributed the scene to European allegorical images of death riding an emaciated horse including two works by the German painter Albrecht Dürer (1471–1528).[9] The pose of the nag—head down, hind legs crossed, and tail in between—is intriguingly similar to that of a horse pulling a cart in the foreground of the Triumph of Death (ca. 1562) by the Netherlandish painter Pieter Bruegel the Elder (ca. 1525–1569) and subsequently copied by members of his family.[10] The artist may have seen such allegorical images but interpreted them differently, based on more familiar imagery.

A final clue is offered by a very different marbled equestrian portrait, now in the Fitzwilliam Museum, Cambridge, for it confirms how Deccani artists cleverly adapted European imagery. In this drawing, modeled on an engraving of Charles Howard, 2nd Baron Howard of Effingham and 1st Earl of Nottingham, by the British artist Thomas Cockson (active 1591–1636), the artist faithfully imitated many features but recast the earl’s hat, adorning it with an aigrette, a familiar Indian expression of nobility.[11] Such adaptations help to explain the hybridized, multivalent imagery seen here that simultaneously recalls Persian caricatures of stranded soldiers, Renaissance allegorical images of death, and the story of Layla and Majnun.

Jake Benson in (Haidar and Sardar 2015)


1. See, for example, the depictions of Majnun in Barbara Brend, “Khamsa”of Nizāmī, 1995, pp. 29–32, figs. 17–22. Completed for Emperor Akbar in 1594 (British Library, London, Or. 12208)

2. The three drawings are Aga Khan Museum, Toronto (1983.425); Museum of Fine Arts, Boston (14.695); and Museum of Islamic Art, Doha (MS.653.2008).

3. S. C. Welch 1959, p. 141, no. 13, in his description of A Turkman Warrior Leading an Emaciated Horse (now in the Arthur M. Sackler Museum, Harvard Art Museums, Cambridge, Mass., 1977.198), observed that such Persian images were likely inspired by Mongol images, such as those by the thirteenth-century Yuan dynasty painters Gong Kai and Ren Renfa, who drew emaciated horses symbolizing the excesses and decline of the prevailing state.

4. An Emaciated Horse Led by His Master (45.174.11); Swietochowski and Babaie, Persian Drawings in The Metropolitan Museum of Art, 1989, pp. 36–37, no. 13.

5. Schimmel, Annemarie "Nur ein storrisches Pferd . . ." In Ex Orbe Religionum: Studia Geo Widengren, vol. 2, 1972, pp. 98–107. Studies in the History of Religions (Supplements to Numen) 22. Leiden: E. J. Brill. Schimmel, Annemarie, "A Two-Colored Brocade: The Imagery of Persian Poetry. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press. 1992b, pp. 114, 194–95.

6. Hermitage Museum, Saint Petersburg, Polotsov Album (VR-735); Adamova 2012, p. 239, no. 55; Museum of Islamic Art, Doha (MS.653.2008).

7. Zebrowski, Mark, "Deccani Painting". London: Sotheby’s; Berkeley: University of California Press, 1983a, p. 138, n. 11. Hutton, Deborah S., "Art of the Court of Bijapur" Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2006, p. 193, n. 43.

8. Ashraf Mazandarani, "Divan-i Ashraf Mazandarani". Edited by Muhammad Hasan Sayyidan. Tehran: Bunyad-i Mawqufat-i Duktur Mahmud Afshar, 1994, p. 274. Afshar,Iraj "Kaghaz dar zindagi va farhang-i irani". Tehran: Markaz-i Pizhuhishi-i Miras-i Maktub, 2011, p. 148.

9. F. R. Martin, "The Miniature Painting and Painters of Persia, India, and Turkey, from the 8th to the 18th Century". 2 vols. London: Bernard Quaritch, 1912, pp. 93–94. Seyller, John, "Deccani Elements in Early Pahari Painting" in Haidar and Sardar 2011, pp. 80, n. 9.

10. Museo del Prado, Madrid, ca. 1562 (PO1393).

11. Fitzwilliam Museum, Cambridge (PDP 3447). Christopher Alan Bayly in "The Raj: India and the British, 1600–1947" 1990, p. 76, no. 72, with contributions by Brian Allen et al. Exh. cat. National Portrait Gallery; 1990 – 91. London: National Portrait Gallery Publications. Schmitz, Barbara in "Islamic and Indian Manuscripts and Paintings in the Pierpont Morgan Library", 1997, p. 168, with contributions by Pratapaditya Pal, Wheeler M. Thackston, and William Voelkle. New York: Pierpont Morgan Library. The author is grateful to Amy Marquis, Curator of Prints and Drawings at the Fitzwilliam, for this identification of the engraving. Note how the spiked plumes atop the aigrette closely resemble the contours of the crowning feathers of the horse’s headdress.
Sarkis Katchadourian, New York (until 1944; his sale, Parke-Bernet,New York, January 28, 1944, lot 15, to MMA)
New York Public Library. "On Paper: The History of Art," December 8, 1990–March 2, 1991, no catalogue.

New York. The Metropolitan Museum of Art. "Indian Court Painting," March 25, 1997–July 6, 1997, no. 35.

New York. The Metropolitan Museum of Art. "Sultans of Deccan India, 1500-1700: Opulence and Fantasy," April 20, 2015–July 26, 2015, no. 73.

Zebrowski, Mark. Deccani Painting. Berkeley, CA: Sotheby Publications, 1983. p. 137, ill. fig. 105.

Kossak, Steven M., ed. Indian Court Painting 16th–19th century. New York: The Metropolitan Museum of Art, 1997. no. 35, p. 68, ill. pl. 35 (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. 68, ill. fig. 5.

Haidar, Navina, and Marika Sardar. "Opulence and Fantasy." In Sultans of Deccan India 1500–1700. New York: The Metropolitan Museum of Art, 2015. no. 73, pp. 162-164, ill. pl. 73 (color).

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