This painting illustrates a story that stresses the importance of the quest (talab). The story is as follows: Shaikh Mahneh (Abu Sa'id Mihna'i, 967–1049), a famous shaikh of Khorasan, wandered in the wilderness in a state of depression. He saw a peasant in the distance cultivating wasteland with an ox-plow. The peasant emitted light. Shaikh Mahneh approached the peasant and told him of his painful condition. The peasant advised him to be patient and pursue the endless quest.
This illustration depicts the conversation between the peasant and Shaikh Mahneh in the foreground. On the other hand, a group of men weighing melons and a dervish sleeping at the base of a tree have no connection to the text itself. The reason for the inclusion of this scene awaits further research.
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Title:"Shaikh Mahneh and the Villager", Folio 49r from a Mantiq al-Tayr (Language of the Birds)
Author:Farid al-Din `Attar (Iranian, Nishapur ca. 1142–ca. 1220 Nishapur)
Geography:Made in present-day Afghanistan, Herat
Medium:Opaque watercolor, silver, and gold on paper
Dimensions:H. 7 3/4 in. (19.7 cm) W. 5 3/4 in. (14.6 cm)
Credit Line:Fletcher Fund, 1963
Four Folios from the Mantiq al-tair
Farid al-din ‘Attar’s epic poem the Mantiq al-tair (Language of the Birds), composed about 1187, is a parable about the desire for union with God that is couched in the terminology of sufism. It describes a physical and spiritual journey through seven valleys by a group of birds that move from their initial quest (talab) to their final goal of annihilation of the self (fana) through unity with God. The stages of their journey are explained through the use of anecdotes.
This copy is notable for its high-quality illustrations produced in two distinct periods and places. The earlier phase, in which most of the text and four of the paintings were executed, is linked to the city of Herat (folios 63.210.28, .35, .44, .49). Its colophon (63.210.1), signed by Sultan ‘Ali al-Mashhadi, dates the work to the first day of the fifth month of the second year of the last ten years preceding 900—that is, to A.H. 892/April 25, 1487 A.D. The later phase occurred about 1600, when the manuscript was refurbished, probably for Iran’s ruler, Shah ‘Abbas I (r. 1587–1629). Elements from this phase include the binding, the illuminated opening folios signed at Isfahan by Zain al-‘Abidin al-Tabrizi, and four of its pictures, one of which is signed by Habiballah (folios 63.210.4, .11, .18, .22). In 1609 Shah ‘Abbas donated this manuscript to the ancestral tomb of the Safavid family at Ardabil.
Sultan ‘Ali al-Mashhadi is known to have worked for Herat’s contemporary ruler, Sultan Husain Baiqara (r. 1470–1506), and for one of its leading intellectuals, Mir ‘Ali Shir Nava’i, whose interest in the theme of this text is signaled by the fact that he composed an analogous poem in Turki titled Lisan al-tair (The Speech of the Birds).
All of the subjects to be illustrated in this copy of the Mantiq al-tair were determined at the time of its copying by Sultan ‘Ali al-Mashhadi in the late fifteenth century, but the manuscript’s first four scenes were not completed until about 1600 in Isfahan. Three of these are frequently depicted in other copies of ‘Attar’s text: the initial gathering of the birds at the onset of their quest (63.210.11) and two scenes from the story of a sufi, Shaikh San‘an, who loved a Christian maiden (63.210.18, .22). These pictures seem to have a clear connection to major themes in ‘Attar’s text, although Habiballah, the artist who signed the "Concourse of the Birds" on a small rock at the center of the picture, has added the superfluous figure of a man holding a rifle.
Two of the manuscript’s remaining four paintings, made toward the end of the fifteenth century in Timurid Herat, present more oblique references to ‘Attar’s text. Both "The Son Who Mourned His Father" (63.210.35) and "The Drowning Man" (63.210.44) have been interpreted as sufi allegories. The other two fifteenth-century paintings (63.210.28, .49) appear to be more illustrative than symbolic. Yumiko Kamada has suggested that these more subtle paintings reflect the appreciation of textual and pictorial intricacy in late fifteenth-century Herat.
Priscilla P. Soucek in [Ekhtiar, Soucek, Canby, and Haidar 2011]
1. For an overview of publications about this manuscript through 2010, see Kamada, Yumiko. "A Taste for Intricacy: An Illustrated Manuscript of Mantiq al-Tayr in the Metropolitan Museum of Art." Orient: Reports of the Society for Near Eastern Studies in Japan 45 (2010), pp. 129–75.
2. I bid., pp. 136–40, and Kia, Chad. "Is the Bearded Man Drowning?: Picturing the Figurative in a Late-Fifteenth-Century Painting from Herat." Muqarnas 23 (2006), p. 97.
3. Kamada 2010 (footnote 1), pp. 144–49.
Marking: Seal of Shah Abbas upper right; word "waqf"
Shah Abbas I, Isfahan, Iran (ca. 1600–1608; presented to the Shrine ofShaikh Safi Al-Din, Ardabil, Iran); Shrine of Shaikh Safi Al-Din, Ardabil, Iran(ca. 1608–sack of Ardebil, 1826); M. Farid Parbanta(until 1963; sale, Sotheby's, London,December 9, 1963, no. 111, to MMA)
Washington. Arthur M. Sackler Gallery, Smithsonian Institution. "Timur and the Princely Vision. Persian Art and Culture in the Fifteenth Century," April 14, 1989–July 6, 1989, no. 154.
Los Angeles. Los Angeles County Museum of Art. "Timur and the Princely Vision. Persian Art and Culture in the Fifteenth Century," August 13, 1989–November 5, 1989, no. 154.
The Hagop Kevorkian Special Exhibitions Gallery, New York. The Metropolitan Museum of Art. "Princely Patrons: Three Royal Manuscripts of the Timurid Dynasty," March 4–June 4, 1995, no catalogue.
Lukens, Marie G. "The Language of the Birds: The Fifteenth-Century Miniatures." Metropolitan Museum of Art Bulletin vol. XXV, no. 9 (May 1967). pp. 334–37, ill. figs. 29, 30, 31, 34 (b/w).
Swietochowski, Marie. "The Historical Background and Illustrative Character of the Metropolitan Museum's Mantiq al-Tayr of 1483." In Islamic Art in the Metropolitan Museum of Art, edited by Richard Ettinghausen. New York: The Metropolitan Museum of Art, 1972. p. 61, ill. fig. 27 (b/w).
Lentz, Thomas W., and Glenn D. Lowry. "Persian Art and Culture in the Fifteenth Century." In Timur and the Princely Vision. Los Angeles: Los Angeles County Museum of Art, 1989. no. 154, p. 361.
Bahari, Ebadollah, and Annemarie Schimmel. Bihzad, Master of Persian Painting. London, New York: I.B.Tauris Publishers, 1996. pp. 91–93, fig. 44 (color).
Barry, Mike, and Stuart Cary Welch. "et l'Enigme de Behzad de Herat (1465–1535)." In L'Art Figuratif en Islam Medieval. Paris: Flammarion, 2004. pp. 321–22, ill. p. 322 (color).
Kia, Chad. "Is the Bearded Man Drowning? Picturing the Figurative in a Late-Fifteenth-Century Painting from Herat." Muqarnas vol. 23 (2006). pp. 85–105, ill. p. 100, fig. 3 (color).
Kamada, Yumiko. "An Illustrated Manuscript of Mantiq al-Tayr in the Metropolitan Museum of Art." Orient vol. XLV (2010). pp. 140–41, 168, 173, ill. fig. 4.
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