Mahmud Muzahhib (literally 'Mahmud the illuminator') is regarded as one of the leading artists of the sixteenth-century Bukhara school. Following the fall of the Timurid Empire as a result of the conquest of Samarqand by the Shaybanid Dynasty, the shift of power and artistic production moved first to Samarqand and then to Bukhara. Muzahhib played an important role in the establishment of this new kitabkhaneh (library-book production atelier) under the Shaybanids and was influential in the transmission of styles from the Timurid ateliers traditionally established in Herat to Bukhara. A contemporary account by Mirza Muhammad Haydar Dughlat notes that “Under ‘Ubaydullah Khan, Bukhara has become such a centre of arts and sciences that it recalls Herat in the days of Mirza Sultan Husayn” (B. Gray, The Arts of the Book in Central Asia, London, 1979, p.264).
Mahmud Muzahhib is most recognised for his paintings, and notably his illustrations on numerous manuscripts taken from Herat by the Shaybanids including a copy of Jami’s Tuhfat al-Ahrar copied in 905 AH/1499-1500 AD by Sultan ‘Ali Mashhadi now in the Bibliothèque Nationale, Paris (Supplement Persan 1416). He is also known for his other accomplishments in the arts of the book, and often worked in collaboration with other calligraphers, illuminators and artists. Eleven folios now in the Metropolitan Museum of Art testify to his calligraphic skills, and he is said to have once been a pupil of Mir ‘Ali (A. Sakisian, ‘Mahmud Mudhahib, miniaturiste, enlumineur et calligraphe persan’, in Ars Islamica, IV, 1937, p.339), the famous calligrapher from Herat, and together they brought the art of Bukhara to new heights. Indeed Hasan Nisari noted in 1566 that “the gilders and illuminators of the studio, having brought decoration and painting to perfection, with a single hair point depicted faces so that in portrait drawing [even] a hair tip of a person depicted had no flaw – and in art everyone of them was another Mani and better than Bihzad’s pupils” (Gray, op.cit., p.264).
In excellent condition, the present miniature stands out for the incredible vividness of the colours of the paint as well as the gold overlay. Each detail is intricately drawn, resulting in an array of expressive faces set in a multitude of poses and organised around the page in a rhythmic composition. The ornate and detailed treatment of the canopy above the Sultan is akin to the finest book illuminations of the period and can be compared to another miniature from the Gulistan of Sa’di sold at Christie's, 25 April 2013, lot 27, A Private Collection donated to Benefit the University of Oxford, Part 3. A number of elements, such as the pair of seated figures on a carpet, or the clusters of men in lively discussions with animated movements recall the Herat school in which it was already characteristic to borrow groups of figures or compositions to populate a painting (T.W. Lentz and G.D. Lowry, Timur and the Princely Vision, Exhibition Catalogue, Los Angeles, 1989, esp.pp.376-79).
Illustrated is a scene from the Gulistan of Shaykh Muslih al-Din Sa’di. Belonging to the fourth story in the first section, and titled ‘On the Manners of King’, the image depicted is more particularly that of ‘the captured Arab robbers before the King’. In front of the King appear four robbers who have been captured and who he has just given the order to be slain. A vizier (standing in front of the King) intercedes on behalf of the youth that appears near him on his knees with the precept that a bad foundation can be changed by the society of pious men, and notably that one can profit by education and acquire the disposition of a wise person. Unillustrated here is the ending of the story, in which the King spares the life of the youth despite disagreeing with the vizier, arguing that a wolf’s whelp will always be a wolf, even if it is raised with mankind. Eventually, the youth grew up to become a robber who killed the vizier and joined a group of bandits, resulting in the King's recounting of the moral "to do good to the wicked is like doing evil to good men".
Below is a selection of known manuscripts illustrated by Muzahhib. Although most probably a small portion of his corpus of works, each is of comparable interest. The stars indicate manuscripts which were later illustrated by him, and in some instances, it must be noted that he worked with other artists who signed paintings, or to whom early attributions exist in the same manuscript.
Jami, Tuhfat al-Ahrar, 905*, Sultan Ali Mashhadi, Bibliothèque Nationale, Paris, Supp.Pers.1416
Amir Khusraw Dehlawi, Qirani Sa'dayn, 925*, Muhammad Khandan, Israel Museum
Jami, Diwan, 926*, Sultan Ali Mashhadi, The New York Public Library, New York City, M&A Pers.ms.1
Nizami, Makhzan al-Asrar, 944, Mir Ali Haravi, Bibliotheque Nationale, Paris, Supp.Pers.985
Sa'di, Bustan, 949, Mir 'Ali Harawi, Calouste Gulbenkian Foundation, Lisbon
Various, Rawdat al-Muhibbin, 956, Mir Ali Harawi, Salar Jung Museum, India, A.Nm.1611
Jami, Baharistan, 958, Mir Husayn al-Husayni, formerly in the collection of E. de Lorey, Paris
Sa'di, Gulistan, dispersed, 968 (?), two paintings sold at Christie’s, A Private Collection, Donated to Benefit the University of Oxford, Part II, 4 October 2012, lots 12 and 13
Sa'di, Bustan, 969-70, sold at Christie’s, A Private Collection, Donated to Benefit the University of Oxford, Part II, 4 October 2012, lot 14
Sa'di, Bustan, 970, Mir 'Ali Harawi, Golestan Palace, Tehran, no. 2164
Jami, Yusuf wa Zulaykha, 973, Mahmud b. Ishaq, Art and History Trust, no.80
Jami, Diwan, date unknown, offered at Christie’s, A Private Collection, Donated to Benefit the University of Oxford, Part II, 4 October 2012, lot 15
Jami, Tuhfat al-Ahrar, circa 1550 AD, Mir Ali Haravi, Sackler Gallery, Washington DC, S86.0046
Sa'di, Bustan, date unknown, Keir Collection, London, III-330-1
Sa'di, Gulistan, dispersed, 968 (?), two paintings sold at Christie’s, A Private Collection, Donated to Benefit the University of Oxford, Part III, 25 April 2013, lots 26 and 27