A Mughal artist tells the story of the Magi in Persian perspective

The scene gleams out of the Renaissance — the three wise men kneel before the barefoot, tired new parents and the infant. The color, perspective and detail come out of Persian miniatures and Mughal paintings from northern India. And the artist is a British painter in the middle of World War I.

On a winter afternoon afternoon, Jaimee Comstock-Skipp, a graduate student in art history at Williams College, stood at a meeting of worlds, when she explained Edmund Dulac’s Adoration of the Magiin the gallery talks series at the Williams College Museum of Art.

In Dulac’s imagination, the three wise men have clear expressions and bright robes. An African prince in red holds an incense burner. Mary sits in the doorway of a white, domed tent, holding her baby, and Joseph, standing in the tent behind her, bends over her with his hands at her elbows.

Mary’s hands, resting below the baby’s wide-open arms, give him the look of an Indian divinity, a dancing Shiva.

A British artist looks East

Dulac painted the scene in 1917. Born in France, he became a British citizen in 1912. The British had secured control in India from the Mughals in 1858, 30 years before he was born, Comstock-Skipp said, as she showed me the miniature at the museum as she prepared for the talk. Dulac could have seen Mughal and Persian miniatures in museums and exhibitions. She would travel to London later in the winter to search for his sources.

He seems to have had an active and liberal curiosity. He became known for his illustrations of the Thousand and One Nights, the Persian tales Scheherazade told her sultan. He explored occult phenomena with W.B. Yeats, Comstock-Skipp said — and he died in 1953 while dancing a Flamenco.

In the heat of World War I, he was drawn to an art formed out of the Mongol invasions.

Persian art in India 

The Mongols sacked Baghdad in 1258 and held sway over Iran, central Asia and parts of India. In the wake of their invasions, they brought growth and artistic freedom. Their influence in Persia led Persian painting and book-making to its height.

By the 1550s, Persian artists had carried the tradition to the Mogul or Mughal court in northern India. The name Mughal in fact comes from “Mongol” — the Mongols led forces into northern India, and the first Mugal emperor, centuries later, claimed to trace his descent from them.

Dulac preferred the heightened detail and hue of Persian paitings to photographic realism. Rennaisance artists accused Persian miniatures of being “flat,” Comstock-Skipp said. The Renaissance known for perspective, a feeling for three-dimensional space and details of place and people that drew an onlooker into the scene. Persian paintings lie in one plane and capture one moment.

They often showed secular scenes. A woman in a sari watches peacocks strut under spring-green trees. Rostam, a warrior in a leopard skin and a cat-shaped helmet, battles with his son, Sohrab — and does not know who he is fighting.

Comstock-Skipp was stunned, she said, to find that WCMA had this illustration from the Shahnameh, the “Book of Kings.” The Persian poet Firdowsi wrote this epic, a history, mythology and love story, around 1000 A.D.

Chinese, Mughal and Persian miniatures were “a way of capturing the flux of the world,” she said. “Miniatures are about expressing lots of different viewpoints at one instant.”

An illustration from an unidentified manuscript, possibly the Masnavi of Jalal al-Din Muhammad Rumi, an Iranian manuscript from the Safavid dynasty, 1501-1723, now at the Yale Art Museum in New Haven.
Iranian manuscript, Masnavi of Rumi / Yale Art Museum

An illustration from an unidentified manuscript, possibly the Masnavi of Jalal al-Din Muhammad Rumi, an Iranian manuscript from the Safavid dynasty, 1501-1723, now at the Yale Art Museum in New Haven.

Mughal artists look West

Mughal painters studied other myths and cultures, just as Dulac studied them. Many Mughal artists painted their own scenes of the Madonna and child in the 17th century, Comstock-Skipp said.

It seems a good scene for an exchange between intelligent, open and hardy minds. The story of the Magi is about traveling to feel awe in another place.

Comstock-Skipp argues that the Magi are kin to theosophists, spiritual seekers of the 19th century. The theosophists — people looking for knowledge of God — were remarkable in the west in heir time, because they did not limit themselves to Christian philosophies. They could have knowledge of many faiths and arguments, from Buddhism to Brahmanism to Zoroastrianism to atheism.

In the context of World War I, she said, their movement grew from a desire for a universal conversation. They wanted passionately not to pick sides.

Sharing perspectives

Comstock-Skipp has shared their curiosity for many years.

When she was a girl, she had an illustrated Arabian Nights from 1907, with pen-and-ink drawings and Arabic inscriptions. She would pore over the Arabic script she could not read. At the age of 4, she said, she decided that she would travel and learn that language. And she does.

Growing up in the Lutheran church, she felt drawn to the Magi, with their turbans and camels; some medieval manuscripts give them North African and Middle Eastern homelands, she said.

Later, at Berkeley, she studied Arabic, and a Persian boyfriend expanded her interests toward Iran.

She finds both languages beautiful, as she finds the Persian paintings. The cadances in the poetry may not always carry over easily into English, she said. So she values translators, the people who know both worlds and can help people in one world to feel the cadances, the cultural context, the textures of the other.

And many elements in the poetry will feel familiar in any place — its love stories and conflicts.

A reader in the Berkshires may hear the breeze in the shadowed leaves of luxuriant trees in the Indian twilight.

“Everything is a mix of similarities and differences,” she said.


This story first ran in the Berkshire Eagle in my time as editor of Berkshires Week, on Dec. 1, 2011. My thanks to editor Kevin Moran. The image above is an illustration from an unidentified manuscript, possibly the Masnavi of Jalal al-Din Muhammad Rumi, an Iranian manuscript from the Safavid dynasty, 1501-1723, now at the Yale Art Museum in New Haven. Photo by Kate Abbott

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