"Preparing Medicine from Honey", from a Dispersed Manuscript of an Arabic Translation of De Materia Medica of Dioscorides, 'Abdullah ibn al-Fadl, Ink, opaque watercolor, and gold on paper

"Preparing Medicine from Honey", from a Dispersed Manuscript of an Arabic Translation of De Materia Medica of Dioscorides

'Abdullah ibn al-Fadl
Object Name:
Folio from an illustrated manuscript
dated A.H. 621/ A.D. 1224
Attributed to Iraq, Baghdad
Ink, opaque watercolor, and gold on paper
H. 12 3/8 in. (31.4 cm)
W. 9 in. (22.9 cm)
Credit Line:
Bequest of Cora Timken Burnett, 1956
Accession Number:
Not on view
One of the most influential medical treatises handed down to Muslims was De Materia Medica, by a first-century b.c. Greek physician in Cilicia (southern Anatolia). The left page concerns making medicine from honey and water, prescribed to cure weakness and loss of appetite. A doctor holds a gold cup while stirring the boiling honey and water in a cauldron as he prepares to scoop it up for the seated patient. The architectural setting suggests that the drugs are being produced in a pharmacy like those attached to hospitals in the Seljuq lands. In the illustration on the right, a doctor and his assistant or patient stand on either side of a sieve through which grapes are pressed and then combined with brine and an onion-like herb to produce a medicine to cure digestive disorders.

Two Folios from a Dispersic Arabic Translation of De Materia Medica by Dioscorides (MMA 57.51.21 and Walters Art Museum, Baltimore, W675)

One of the most influential medical treatises handed down to the Muslims from antiquity was De Materia Medica, by a first-century B.C. physician, Pedanius Dioscorides of Anazarba, in Cilicia. In ninth-century Baghdad, Istifan b. Basil translated Dioscorides’ Greek text into Arabic. Hunayn b. Ishaq (d. 873), who had translated the Greek original into Syriac, then corrected Istifan b. Basil’s Arabic text.[1] This corrected version, considered definitive, was widely disseminated throughout the medieval Muslim world, including Seljuq Iran, Anatolia, and the Jazira as well as other parts of Syria and Iraq. Several variants have been identified, however, including the somewhat abbreviated text that accompanies this illustrated version.[2] These two pages are from a group of thirty-one folios of the Arabic translation that were removed from a manuscript in the Hagia Sofia Library in Istanbul before 1910.[3]

Both illustrations come from book 5 of Dioscorides’ text on wines and minerals. The Metropolitan Museum's page (57.51.21) concerns the making of a medicine from honey and water, prescribed to cure weakness and loss of appetite. The honey-mead wine onomali can be made by washing beeswax and reserving the water, but Dioscorides admonished against cooking and drinking it because of the amount of wax dirt in it.[4] In the picture a doctor holding a gold cup in his left hand stirs the honey boiling with water in a large cauldron as he prepares to scoop it up for a seated patient who awaits his cure. On the floor above them, on either side of a row of amphorae in which medicines or their ingredients are stored, a figure at the left drinks from a glass beaker, and another kneels at the right stirring a pot.

The Walters Art Museum page (W675) depicts two figures, the one at the right a doctor and the other variously identified as another doctor, an assistant, or the patient.[5] They stand on either side of a tripod holding a sieve through which liquid drips into a large bowl. The liquid is juice from pressed grapes, which is mixed with brine and squill (an herb similar to an onion) to produce a winelike medicine used to treat disorders of the digestive system. As with the previous image, the doctor wears a robe with a short skirt over leggings. The figures are framed by a pomegranate tree and an orange tree, both showing a distinctive jointed treatment of their trunks. This type of tree trunk is also found in the Kitab na‘t al-hayawan wa manafi’hi (Properties of animals and their uses) of Ibn Bakhtishu‘, which has recently been assigned
variably to the northern Jazira and Baghdad.[6]

Although the continuing use and embellishment of De Materia Medica manuscripts in the early thirteenth century underscores the utility of its contents, its illustrations do not necessarily provide specific information about the practice of medicine and pharmacology under the Seljuqs. Rather, they suggest the setting in which drugs were produced and administered, even if the specific potions discussed in the text may not have been in use during the Seljuq period. While the Walters illustration provides little precise information on the location in which the grape and squill mixture is being made, the two fruit trees indicate a garden, presumably one associated with or in the interior courtyard of a hospital. Although a number of notable hospitals were constructed in the ninth century, the eleventh-century Seljuq vizier Nizam al-Mulk endowed hospitals in association with the madrasas he commissioned in Nishapur, Isfahan, Balkh, and Baghdad.[7] Following suit, the Seljuq successor Nur al-Din Zangi endowed madrasas and hospitals in Aleppo and Damascus in a period of intense building activity among the successor states. The Metropolitan Museum image may well represent a pharmacy within a hospital, where, in addition to in-patients, doctors saw patients in an outpatient clinic and prescribed medicine that would have been supplied by the in-house pharmacy.

Sheila R. Canby in [Canby, Beyazit, and Rugiadi 2016]


1. Saliba, George, and Linda Komaroff. “ Illustrated Books May Be Hazardous to Your Health: A New Reading of the Arabic Reception and Rendition of the Materia Medica of Dioscorides.” Ars Orientalis 35 (2008), p. 8.

2. Ibid., pp. 14–20, 41.

3. Grube, Ernst J. “Materialien zum Dioskurides Arabicus.” In Aus der Welt der islamischen Kunst: Festschrift für Ernst Kühnel zum 75. Geburtstag am 26. 10. 1957, edited by Richard Ettinghausen, Berlin, 1959, p. 172. This manuscript, the bulk of which is now in the Topkapı
Sarayı Museum, Istanbul (Ahmed III, 2147, no. 49316, formerly Ayasofya 3703), contains the fourth and fifth books of De Materia Medica.

4. Saliba and Komaroff 2008 (reference in note 1 above), pp. 30–31.

5. Doctor: Walters Art Museum, Baltimore, website, http://art.thewalters.org/detail/33697/single-leaf-from-the-arabic-versionof-dioscorides-de-materia-medica-2/ (accessed January 6, 2016). Assistant: Grube 1959 (reference in note 3 above), p. 176. Patient: Buchthal, Hugo. “Early Islamic Miniatures from Baghdad.” The Journal of the Walters Art Gallery 5 (1942), p. 24, fig 1.

6. Contadini, Anna. A World of Beasts: A Thirteenth-Century Illustrated Arabic Book on Animals (the Kitab Na‘t al-Hayawan) in the Ibn Bakhtıshu‘ Tradition. Leiden and Boston, 2012, pl. 48. Contadini, ibid., p. 149 n. 12, admits that her “previous, if tentative attribution to the North Jazira requires revision.” On close inspection of the illustrations to the Kitab na‘t al-hayawan in comparison to those of the Ibn al-Sufi manuscript in the Reza Abbasi Museum, Tehran (M. 570), and the 1224 Dioscorides illustrations, Contadini rejects an attribution to the northern Jazira, ibid., pp. 149–53. Saliba and Komaroff 2008 (reference in note 1 above), pp. 32ff., firmly attributes the manuscript to Baghdad, following and amplifying the reasoning of Buchthal (1942 [reference in note 5 above], p. 31).

7. Sajjadı, Sadeq. “Bımarestan.” In Encyclopaedia Iranica 1982– , vol. 4 (1990), pp. 257–58.

This illustrated folio is from an Arabic manuscript of Dioscorides’ De Materia Medica (Kitab al-Khawass al-Ashjar) probably produced in Baghdad and dated A.H. 621/1224 A.D. The painting depicts the interior of a two-storied house in which two male figures stand at either side of a large caldron over a burning fire, one mixing a medicine made of honey called abuma’ ali, prescribed to cure weakness; another figure on the second story transfers the concoction into large jugs. A row of vessels, which were probably used to preserve the medicine, can be seen at the center of the top floor.
De Materia Medica was one of the most popular Greek scientific manuscripts translated into Arabic. The author, Dioscorides, was a physician from Asia Minor who served in the Roman army in the first century B.C. Translated in Baghdad in the mid-ninth century, the treatise describes ways to prepare medicines from up to five hundred plants. Developed in the fourth century B.C. and continuing in the Byzantine period, the Greek tradition of herbals provided the model for Islamic herbals and pharmacological texts.[1]
The illustration of Islamic herbal manuscripts developed in two directions: pictures of plants alone or vignettes including human figures, as in this example.[2] Characteristic of the Baghdad School in the mid-thirteenth century are the two-dimensionality of the painting, the bright colors, the sprightly figures in contemporary local garb with halos crowning their heads, and the bilateral symmetry of the composition. Representing a skillful blend of Persian, Byzantine, and Arab features typical of the Baghdad School,[3] the paintings are compositionally and stylistically akin to those in a manuscript of the Maqamat by al-Hariri produced in Baghdad and dated A.H. 634 /1237 A.D., now in the Bibliotheque Nationale de France, Paris.[4]
This folio is from a manuscript dated A.H. Rajab 621/June–July 1224 A.D., the bulk of which is presently in the Suleymaniye Library, Istanbul.[5] The text, which is in naskhi script, is by the calligrapher ‘Abdullah ibn al-Fadl. Additional folios from the same manuscript are preserved in the Arthur M. Sackler Gallery in Washington, D.C., the David Collection in Copenhagen, and the British Museum in London, among other collections.[6]
Maryam Ekhtiar in [Ekhtiar, Soucek, Canby, and Haidar 2011]
1. Hoffman, Eva R. "The Beginnings of the Illustrated Arabic Book: An Intersection between Art and Scholarship." Muqarnas 17 (2000), pp. 37–52..
2. James, David Lewis, and Richard Ettinghausen. Arab Painting. New York, 1977, p. 88.
3. I bid., p. 87.
4. Bibliotheque Nationale de France, Paris (ms. Arabe 5847). Ibid., p. 121.
5. Suleymaniye Library, Istanbul ( Aya Sophia no. 3703).
6. See London 2009, p. 204.
Inscription: In Arabic language and in Naskhī script:
لا یشتهي الطعام او من کانت قوته تحلل و صفته علی هذه الصفة/ (و من ماء العیون جزء) یؤخذ من العسل جزء فیخلطونه بالعسل و یطبخونه علی الصفة الی ان یذهب/ الثلثین ثم یرفعونه هـ هـ هـ و قد یتخذ شراب/ یقال له ابو مالي علی هذه الصفة یؤخذ من شمع الشهد فیغسل/ بالماء و یؤخذ ذلک الماء و یرفع و ینبغي اذا شرب هذا الشراب ان/ یصرف و من الناس من یطبخه و هو غیر موافق للمرض لکثرة ما فیه من وسخ الشمع
… [who] has no appetite or is feeling weak, its description is as follows: take one part honey (in the margin is added and take one part tears [lit. water of eyes]); mix with honey and cook in a pot until two thirds of it is gone; then take it from the pot.
And to make wine called Abū Ma'ālī with this recipe: take beeswax and wash it with water; and that water took out and if this wine drink it must … and some of people cooked it but it is not good for disease because it is a lot of dirty of wax.

F. R. Martin, Stockholm (by 1910–at least 1912); V. Everit Macy, New York (by 1922–at least 1927); Cora Timken Burnett, Alpine, NJ (until d. 1956; bequeathed to MMA)
Theresienhöhe. "Meisterwerke Muhammedanisher Kunst," 1910, no. 583.

Museum für Islamische Kunst, Pergamonmuseum, Staatliche Museen zu Berlin. "The Arts of Islam. Masterpieces from the M.M.A.," June 15, 1981–August 8, 1981, not in catalogue.

Washington. National Museum of Natural History, Smithsonian Institution. "Old Herbs," May 2007–August 2007, no catalogue.

Munich. Haus der Kunst München. "Changing Views Islamic Art 1920 and Today," September 2010–January 2011, not in catalogue.

The Metropolitan Museum of Art. "Court and Cosmos: The Great Age of the Seljuqs," April 25, 2016–July 24, 2016, no. 107a.

Anet, Claude. "Exhibition of Persian Miniatures at the Musee des Arts Decoratifs, Paris." Burlington Magazine vol. 22 (1912). pp. 15-16, ill. pl. I, A (b/w).

Martin, F. R. The Miniature Painting and Painters of Persia, India and Turkey from the 8th to the 18th century. vol. 1. London: Bernard Quaritch, 1912. no. volume 2, p. 7, ill. pl. 5b.

Sarre, Friedrich Dr, and F. R. Martin. "Die Stoffe, die Waffen, Holz und Elfenbein." In Die Ausstellung von Meisterwerken Muhammedanischer Kunst in Munchen 1910. Munich: F. Bruckmann A.-G., 1912. no. 583, vol. 1, ill. pl. 5b.

Musée des Arts Décoratifs. Miniatures Persanes. Vol. vols. 1-2. Paris, 1913. ill. pl. 1, XXXVIII, Illustrated another leaf from this manuscript, dated here 1222, entitled "Le chien enrage", in Mutiaux collection (same leaf illustration in Anet reference), pl. XXXVIII (ill. another leaf, in Sambon collection (same leaf illustrated in Rosenberg collecti.

Ricci, Seymour. Catalogue d'une Collection de Miniatures Gothiques et Persanes appartenant à Léonce Rosenberg. Paris: Montassier et Odend'hal, 1913. pp. 36-37, ill. pl. XVIII.

Kühnel, Ernst. Miniaturmalerei im Islamischen Orient. Berlin, 1922. ill. pl. 5.

Gluck, Heinrich, and Ernst Diez. Die Kunst des Islam. Propylaen Kunstgeschichte, vol. 5. Berlin: Propylaen-Verlag, 1925. pp. 95, 502, ill. (b/w).

Dimand, Maurice S. "A loan of Near Eastern Miniature Paintings." Metropolitan Museum of Art Bulletin vol. 22 (1927). p. 127.

Dimand, Maurice S., ed. "Dated Specimens of Mohammedan Art in the Metropolitan Museum of Art." MMA Studies 1, pt.2 (1929). p. 208.

Stchoukine, Ivan. La Peinture Iranienne sous les derniers 'Abbasides et les Il-Khans. Bruges, 1936. no. II, Description of this manuscript.

Ackerman, Phyllis. "The Iranian Institute, New York." In Guide to the Exhibition of Persian Art. 2nd. ed. New York: The Iranian Institute, 1940. no. case 72F, p. 189.

Buchthal, Hugo, Otto Kurz, and Richard Ettinghausen. "Supplementary Notes to K. Holter's checklist of Islamic Ill. Mss. before 1350." Ars Islamica vol. 7 (1940). no. 27, pp. 151-152.

Buchthal, Hugo. "Journal of the Walters Art Gallery, vol V, 1942." Early Islamic Miniatures from Baghdad V (1942). no. 9, 10, 15, pp.19-39, 20, ill. fig. 12, 13, 17, Leaves from MS now in Top Kapu Saray, Istanbul, which has colophon giving name of copyist and date Rajab AH 621. No. 9, fig. 12 illustrates 56.20; no. 10, fig. 13 illustrates 57.51.21; no. 15, fig. 17 illustrates 13.152.6.

Dimand, Maurice S. "New Accessions of Islamic Art." Metropolitan Museum of Art Bulletin vol. 16 (April 1958). p. 229, ill. p. 229 (b/w).

"Austellung 27 Mai bis 5 Aug., 1962." In Kunstschatze aus Iran. 1962. no. 556, ill. pl. 82.

Kurz, Otto. "Folding chairs and Koran stands." In Islamic Art in The Metropolitan Museum of Art, edited by Richard Ettinghausen. New York: The Metropolitan Museum of Art, 1972. p. 302, ill. fig. 5.

Kirketerp-Moller, Hertha. Det Islamiske Bogmaleri. Copenhagen, 1974. p. 5, ill. fig. 6.

Welch, Stuart Cary. The Islamic World. vol. 11. New York: The Metropolitan Museum of Art, 1987. pp. 34-35, ill. fig. 22 (color).

Saliba, George, and Linda Komaroff. "Illustrated Books May be Hazardous to your Health." Ars Orientalis vol. 35 (2005). pp. 30-31, ill. fig. 10 (b/w).

Canby, Sheila R. Shah 'Abbas: The Remaking of Iran. London, 2009.

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. 55, pp. 6, 87, 94, ill. p. 94 (color).

Ekhtiar, Maryam, and Claire Moore, ed. "A Resource for Educators." In Art of the Islamic World. New York: The Metropolitan Museum of Art, 2012. pp. 100-101, ill. pl. 18 (color).

Canby, Sheila R., Deniz Beyazit, and Martina Rugiadi. "The Great Age of the Seljuqs." In Court and Cosmos. New York: The Metropolitan Museum of Art, 2016. no. 107a, pp. 178-179, ill. p. 178 (color).