An Outdoor Gathering of Dervishes - ROM2021_18079_1


An Outdoor Gathering of Dervishes

Maker: Artist's name unrecorded
Medium:Ink, opaque watercolour, and gold on paper
Geography: Iran, possibly Isfahan
Date: ca. 1615–1650
Period: Safavid Period
Height 19.3 cm × width 14 cm
Object number: 937.40
Not on view

This ink drawing with details painted in white, blue, and red washes of watercolour, depicts fourteen men and a small boy seated in an outdoor rocky landscape in front of a gnarled tree with several birds inhabiting the tree and rocky hill. The single-page drawing is trimmed and mounted on a detached album folio and has a narrow blue border painted with gold flowers. The figures, identifiable as Sufi mystics or dervishes, are engaged in a range of activities such as praying, contemplation, washing, preparing intoxicants, drinking, smoking, and gesticulating. They are dressed in a variety garments and headgear – pointed felt hats, turbans, skullcaps, long-sleeved robes, shawls, trousers, waist girdles, and slippers. The drowsy (or ecstatic), somewhat disrobed dervish on the bottom, centre, wears prayer beads around his neck resembling a type associated with Hindu ascetics (i.e. rudraksha). The figure on the top, far right, holding a white manuscript under his arm, wears a hoop in his pierced earlobe. The adept on the top, centre, holds his hands up in prayer, whereas, in contrast, the two dervishes on the bottom corner, right, have fallen asleep. The figure leaning against the praying dervish uncharacteristically stares directly at us, and one wonders about his importance in the scene. Is this a self-portrait of the artist? The little boy on the far right, wearing a sheepskin over his shoulders, holds his finger to his lips, a standardized gesture of wonderment in pre-modern Persian painting (perhaps the grey-bearded figure next to him is his parent/guardian).

The ceramic vessels depicted in the drawing include blue-and-white Chinese porcelain bowls and storage jars as well as bowls decorated with red, blue or blue-and-white designs on a beige ground. According to Sheila Canby, the inclusion of such large pieces of blue-and-white pottery may reflect the accessibility of such porcelains which were openly displayed (and possibly used) at the Safavid ancestral shrine at Ardabil in the Chini-khaneh (literally ‘house of ceramics’ or ‘ceramics room’) during the reign of Shah 'Abbas (r. 1587–1629) following the donation of his prized collections of manuscripts and ceramics to the shrine in 1611 (S. R. Canby, Shah ‘Abbas: The Remaking of Iran, p.167).

Such genre scenes featuring gatherings of dervishes preparing and partaking of intoxicants were popular artistic subjects in Iran from about 1615 until the mid-17th century. During this period, single-page drawings, paintings, and calligraphies were collected as a newly affordable art form and mounted in personal albums. There are several examples of similar compositions of dervishes merrymaking in outdoor settings in museum collections. The earliest versions include a painting in the Oriental Institute, St Petersburg (Canby, ibid, fig.57), produced in Isfahan ca. 1615; and one at the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston (14.649,, dated ca. 1610–1620. Later examples, which continue to resemble the earlier compositions include those in the British Museum, dated ca. 1640, (1920,0917,0.300,; the Metropolitan Museum of Art (52.20.7,, dated mid-17th c.; and a tinted and gilded drawing produced in the Deccan, India, that follows earlier Persian models (sold at Christie’s, London, 13 Oct 2003, Lot 149), dated ca. 1640. The ROM’s undated and unsigned drawing would have been produced during the same time period (ca. 1615–1650). When comparing these works as a group, many of the figures perform similar actions in the same places in the various compositions, with some unique aspects and details in each painting. This attests to the circulation of templates (or albums of templates) that were accessible to artists in various painting workshops. Canby suggests that the painting in the St Petersburg collection is the likely prototype for later versions (Canby, ibid).

As for the subject matter, according to Francesca Leoni’s interpretation of these drawings: "One aspect that is shared by all versions of this scene is the reference to wine. The love of God is often compared to ruby nectar because, like wine, the love of God can be intoxicating. The suitability of this idea to express the rapturous nature of mystical love is one of the reasons why the metaphor of wine—and its associated imagery—became a preferred topos in Sufi poetry. Thus the cup (jam) stands for the heart, always longing to be filled with the heavenly juice. The cup-bearer (saqi) becomes the carrier of the ecstatic experience brought by wine, and he himself a further mundane manifestation of divine presence when not associated directly with God. Finally, the tavern (maykhana) turns into the ideal meeting place for lover and Beloved outside the dervish’s lodge." (L. Akbarnia with F. Leoni, Light of the Sufis, 2010, pp. 62–63). In contrast, Canby argues that "By including praying figures next to wine drinkers the artist [of the British Museum’s painting] may have had a satirical aim, reflecting the officially negative view of the excesses of Sufis during the reign of Shah ‘Abbas." (Canby, ibid).

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