Judith gets the Gold Touch

16 Sep

This is a truly unique work of art for several reasons, the main one being that the artist is Muslim.

Muhammad Zaman, “Judith with the Severed Head of Holofernes,” c. 1680, opaque gold and watercolor on paper, Isfahan, Iran

So I am trying to figure out why he would choose a subject from the Apocrypha.  And why he would depict human figures – since that is forbidden in Islamic art.  There is obviously a story here (like, maybe he is not really Muslim) but the only thing I can find is the image on WikiMedia Commons.

Nevertheless, this is an intensely colorful and detailed rendering of the Judith story.   It is hard to believe it is watercolor, which I do not think of in such vivid tones.  The detail to botanicals and background scenery is amazing.

So where can I see this incredible artwork?

My sleuthing has allowed me to piece together these facts.

1)  In John Onians’ Atlas of World Art, I found a Persian miniature by Muhammad Zaman – Fitna astonishing Bahram Gur (1675). (1)

2)  Persian miniatures were added to books – like illuminations – that were popular among the ruling Safavid dynasty from the 16th to early 18th centuries.

3)  Persian art under Islam never completely forbid the human figure, and the depiction of figures is central in the miniature tradition because it is a private artwork, kept in a book or album and only seen by to those the owner chooses.

4)  The most important book containing miniatures is the Shahnameh, the national epic poem of over 50,000 couplets, written by the Persian poet Ferdowsi around 1000 AD – telling the mythical and historical past of Iran, much like the Old Testament.

5)  Islam acknowledges the veracity of the Jewish Old Testament, which would have included the story of Judith.

Therefore, it is highly likely that Zaman’s artwork was intended as a page in a book that provided Old Testament connections to the Shahnameh for the ruling Safavid.  If some intrepid graduate student would like to pirate this hypothesis for a doctoral thesis, go for it.  I am too tired.

(1) Onians, John. (Ed.), Atlas of World Art, Laurence King Publishing (2004)


Posted by on September 16, 2011 in Glory


Tags: , , , ,

2 responses to “Judith gets the Gold Touch

  1. Wang Daiyu

    December 29, 2014 at 7:34 pm

    Also Muhammad Zaman was actually Muhammad Paolo Zaman who converted to Christianity and hence the overwhelming use of biblical themes in his work. Even after his conversion he was patronized by the Muslim rulers.

    • judith2you

      January 2, 2015 at 10:12 pm

      Thank you for more information on Zaman. His conversation helps to explain the biblical themes that otherwise seem out of place. But it is so interesting to see his interpretation from the perspective of Islamic art.


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