A Meditation on Medieval Muslim Painting

Even though paintings depicting people and animals are not allowed in Islam, during the Middle Ages, illustrations for holy books and books of legends were popular among the upper classes in the Ottoman Empire and among the Persians and Uzbeks.

During the golden age of manuscript illustration in the Islamic world a set rule was introduced. A painter was judged great by how closely he followed the pattern set down by previous masters. It was considered unseemly to introduce any innovations whatsoever that would identify the artist. For an artist to sign his name to his painting was considered unthinkable. To introduce any innovation or new idea was to tantamount to claiming that the artist was better than the old masters who had come before him.

Every painter who set out to illustrate, for instance, the love story of Khosrow and Shirin by Nizami was bound to follow the decisions made before him by other, greater painters. To introduce innovation was to introduce imperfection.

In Matthew 22 Jesus said “Render therefore unto Caesar the things which are Caesar’s; and unto God the things that are God’s.” The coins of the Roman Empire each bore a crude likeness of Caesar but only in profile. In contrast, each of us carries about the likeness of God. In contrast to the old masters of the east, God has no problem stamping each of us with His image but yet each of us are different. We are admonished by Jesus to render ourselves to God as bearers of His image. We do Him and His creativity a disservice by not recognizing that He introduces innovation in each of our lives. Not to introduce imperfection but to bring Himself glory.

When Jesus held up that coin to the crowd and they recognized the image on it they nevertheless failed to see the image of God stamped on their own lives.

As a saying among the Muslim painters went, “Painting is the silence of thought and the music of sight.” So God has created each of us specifically to bring Him glory by showing His image to the world. Instead of a silent painting we are to be God’s living, breathing paintings on earth “For we are his workmanship, created in Christ Jesus unto good works, which God hath before ordained that we should walk in them” (Ephesians 2:10).