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Sarlawh: Page from an Akbarnama Manuscript


Not on view

Mansur, the artist responsible for the dazzlingly executed throne of Prince Salam also painted the jewel-like arabesques, interlaced floral designs, and Timurid-style strapwork that enrich this folio from the first edition of the Akbarnama. The sarlawh serve as decorative chapter openers, and they were given especially lavish attention in the imperial editions produced under Akbar’s direction, as is witnessed by the participation of Mansur in this folio. The illumination of a closely comparable sarlawh belonging to a Khamsa of Amir Khusrow datable to the mid-1590s is also signed by Mansur (Walters Art Museum, Baltimore).

About the Artist

Active at Mughal courts in Delhi and Lahore in late 1580s, Allahabad 1600–1604, and Agra until ca. 1626

Ustad (master) Mansur received the highest accolade from emperor Jahangir, the title of Nadir al-Asr (the Wonder of the Age), for his ability to paint and preserve the likenesses of the animals and flowers that engaged the emperor’s attention. Jahangir devoted the longest passage given to any artist in Mughal history to Mansur, stating that “in painting, he is unique in his time.” By studying the flora and fauna of India, Jahangir was continuing a tradition begun by his great-grandfather Babur, whose Baburnama has a section devoted to this subject. Jahangir prided himself in being the first to direct artists to record these marvels of nature in natural history paintings. And in this, no one surpassed Mansur.

Mansur appeared as a named painter in the late Akbari period, first as one working for a senior master (notably Kanha, Miskin, and then Basawan), and later independently. He is accredited by the library scribes for his contributions to the first edition of the Akbarnama (1589–90), Baburnama (1589) and Chinghiznama. It is the Baburnama that reveals for the first time Mansur’s unique gift for animal studies, for which he was quickly rewarded with the title of Ustad (master), presumably by Akbar himself. Mansur was also recognized for his gold illuminated and calligraphed frontispieces (sarlawh) and owner-title pages (shamsa), which were as esteemed as much as painting, if not more, in some connoisseur circles. In one extraordinary joint work, Mansur employed his unsurpassed skills in gold work to depict the throne-dais on which Prince Salim sits imperially, in exile in Allahabad.

Under Jahangir, whom he served first as a prince-in-exile at Allahabad, Mansur increasingly came to work on independent paintings intended to be gathered into imperial albums (muraqqas) rather than contribute to integrated illustrated manuscripts, Akbar’s favored format. Mansur worked principally in fine line brushwork with thin washes of pigment, capturing the exotic nature of his subject, which he placed against a lightly sketched ground sparingly described with tufts of grass or wildflowers. What set Mansur apart from his contemporaries, and natural history painters in general, was his deep empathy for his subject matter, the creatures and plants of India. He routinely accompanied the emperor on his numerous travels, witnessing and recording his subjects firsthand. In spring 1620, Jahangir toured Kashmir to admire its natural beauty, and he recorded in his Memoirs, “The flowers seen in the summer pastures of Kashmir are beyond enumeration. Those drawn by the Master Nadir al-Asr Mansur number more than a hundred.” Mansur was always at hand to capture these wonders for Jahangir’s curiosity and aesthetic pleasure.

Sarlawh: Page from an Akbarnama Manuscript, Mansur (active ca. 1589–1626), Ink, opaque watercolor, and gold on paper, India (Mughal court at Lahore)

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