- Rudolf Ernst
- The Venerated Elder
- signed R. Ernst (lower right)
- oil on panel
- 36 1/2 by 28 in.
- 92.7 by 71.1 cm
Private Collector, Missouri (and sold: Sotheby's, New York, October 26, 2004, lot 34, illustrated)
Acquired at the above sale by the present owner
It is often tempting to search out the architectural references, photographic sources, and factual errors in Ernst's Orientalist paintings. His collage-like compositions yield a wealth of information about nineteenth-century studio practices, the temperament of the art market, and popular misconceptions about the cultures he portrayed. In the present work, however, one of most compelling of Ernst's career, these pursuits seem not to matter. The sensitive portrayal of an elderly Arab cleric, at the side of his Nubian aide, shifts our attention from the mechanics of the painted surface to something more profound.
Ernst's affection for this subject is evident not merely in the touching postures he has chosen to portray - the withered hand of the old man clasps his companion's shoulder, in a gesture at once practical and poignant - but in the number of times it appears in his expansive oeuvre. Indeed, one can almost trace the footsteps of the frail turbaned figure as he shuffles from site to site (fig. 1). Often, a younger individual aids him in this endeavor, a supplement to the cane the Elder also grips. Patient and reverent, this supportive friend conveys an attitude that European travelers were quick to admire: "Filial piety is one of the more remarkable virtues of [the Egyptian people] . . . Great respect is also shewn [sic] by the young to those far advanced in age; and more especially to such as are reputed men of great piety or learning," (Edward William Lane, An Account of the Manners and Customs of the Modern Egyptians, London, 1860, p. 293).
This trio of features – Elder, aide, and cane - recalls a popular trope in nineteenth-century Orientalism: that of the blind Arab beggar. One such image, drawn ca. 1878 by Ernst's compatriot Leopold Carl Müller (1834-1892) for Georg Ebers' Egypt: Descriptive, Historical, and Picturesque, is particularly close (fig. 2). If deliberate, the allusion to blindness would add layers of complexity to Ernst's already transfixing work: The blind held a special place in Muslim society, often serving in the capacity of muezzin, or one who leads the call to prayer. In the Qur'an, moreover, those who do not respect the blind are openly reproached (Sura 'Abasa 80:1-10).
The respectful comportment of the Elder's dignified companion is here particularly apt, due to the additional duty that he performs. The Qur'an, temporarily removed from the inlaid wooden box on the left, is cradled in his arms, in appropriately elevated fashion. (The rules surrounding the use and storage of the mus'haf, or bound copy of the Qur'an, are extensive, and include the following stipulations: The Qur'an must only be touched by those who have performed wudu, or ritual cleansing with water; the Qur'an should be held and carried well above the floor; and when not in use, the Qur'an should be closed and stored in a high and clean place, with no other object on top of it. A special wooden box or cupboard, its shape dictated by the format of the particular manuscript, was sometimes built for this purpose. It is this object that Ernst portrays beside the tiled pillar.) Ready for the Friday prayer - or perhaps already having completed it - the two men walk slowly through the mosque, a truly noble pair.
The depiction of mosques and scenes of prayer form a distinctive subgroup within nineteenth-century Orientalist painting. For some artists, such as William Holman Hunt (1827-1910), it was the urge to find the Bible in the actuality of the Middle East that drove their compositions; for others, it was a deep respect for the role of religion in Muslim daily life. Among the most powerful images are those by the French painter Jean-Léon Gérôme (1824-1904), in which religious practices and Islamic architecture are artfully combined (fig. 3). The similarities between Gérôme's work and The Venerated Elder are subtle, to be sure, but their spirit is the same: While both contain moments of imprecision, either in their architectural accuracy or, in the case of Ernst, the wearing of slippers within a mosque, they effectively communicate the awe of the artist, as he witnesses or imagines an affecting episode of Muslim life.
This catalogue note was written by Dr. Emily M. Weeks.