On the Path of Madness: Representations of Majnun in Persian, Turkish, and Indian Painting

, Harvard University Art Museums/Arthur M. Sackler Museum
  • Layla visiting Majnun in the Desert (painting, verso; text, recto), illustrated folio from a manuscript of the Haft Awrang (Seven Thrones) by Jami (d. 1492)

    Layla visiting Majnun in the Desert (painting, verso; text, recto), illustrated folio from a manuscript of the Haft Awrang (Seven Thrones) by Jami (d. 1492)

  • Plea for Tax Relief, folio from an album

    Plea for Tax Relief, folio from an album

  • Layla and Majnun

    Layla and Majnun

    Seated on a carpet with a lattice and floral design is a female figure, identified as “Layla” through the Urdu inscription above her head. She wears an elaborate headdress, a long red dress, a green shawl, and ornate jewelry, which includes a head ornament, necklaces, armlets, bracelets, earrings, and a nose ring. In her right hand she holds a green flask, while her left hand holds out a small blue and white cup. Her palms are dyed with henna. In front of her are two cups, a flask, two apples, a bowl, a tray of grapes, and a book on a stand. Across from her, seated on the ground and under a sapling, is an emaciated male figure. He is identified as “Majnun” through the Urdu inscription above his head. He is depicted with dark skin, curly hair, a beard, a pink loin cloth. The tale of the star-crossed lovers Layla and Majnun, who have been compared to Juliet and Romeo, has inspired many poets through the centuries. The best known version is that written by Nizami Ganjavi (1141-1209) in the 12th century.

  • Illustrated Manuscript of the Khamsa by Amir Khusraw of Delhi (d. 1325)

    Illustrated Manuscript of the Khamsa by Amir Khusraw of Delhi (d. 1325)

  • Illustrated Manuscript of Layla and Majnun by Hamdi

    Illustrated Manuscript of Layla and Majnun by Hamdi

    This is a small illustrated copy of Hamdi’s Layla and Majnun. Hamdi (d. 1503) was an Ottoman poet who wrote his Layla and Majnun in Turkish in 1499 after the famous Persian work of Jami with the same title. In fact Hamdi references in his own poetry Hatifi, the nephew of Jami who also composed a Layla and Majnun in Persian. Although this copy is not dated, notes added to the empty space at the beginning of the manuscript by the same hand who copied the rest of the manuscript include poems dedicated to Sokollu Mehmed Pasha’s death in 987 H/1579. The manuscript was therefore copied in or around 1579 and it may have been planned for this Pasha who was the grand vizier at that time. The square and oval shaped seals on the first and second folios must have belonged to later but unidentified owners. The manuscript has 123 folios copied in two columns and 17 lines of nastaliq script. There is a small illuminated panel at the beginning of the text and seven illustrations spread to the entirety of the manuscript on folios 14r, 22v, 39v, 46v, 50v, 108v, and 110r. Although the relationship between the text and the illustrations is strong the painter uses his Ottoman context to depict a story that takes place in an Arab desert. The last folio which may have contained an original colophon has been replaced by another one. The lacquer binding is not original and probably belonged to a Qajar manuscript of late 18th century from Iran. Most likely the doublures (inner side of the covers) have been reversed to serve as the outside covers. The subject of the illustrations are: 14r: Majnun disguised as a blind beggar comes to Layla’s house. 22v: Majnun’s father visits Layla’s father to marry his son to Layla. 39v: Layla and her friends enjoy the countryside on a spring day. 46v: Majnun Sees the Battle between his Tribe and Layla's. 50v: The End of the Battle 108v: After Layla’s invitation Majnun happily goes to her and all the animals in the desert follow him. 110r: The Lovers are reunited under the Tent.

  • An Image of Majnun with Verses from the Poem Layla va Majnun

    An Image of Majnun with Verses from the Poem Layla va Majnun

    The unmistakable image of Majnun—dreamy-eyed but skeletal—marks the vertical axis of this work. The figure is boxed in by 20 lines of Persian poetry. The rubric “Image of Majnun” is written in Persian above his head, and a small gazelle reposes below his feet. In his hands he holds an open copy of the Qur’an. A blue floral border frames the work.

  • Layla and Majnun at School (painting, verso; text, recto), illustrated folio from a manuscript of the Khamsa (Quintet) of Nizami

    Layla and Majnun at School (painting, verso; text, recto), illustrated folio from a manuscript of the Khamsa (Quintet) of Nizami

  • Majnun as a Sheep Looking at Layla (painting, recto; text, verso), illustrated folio from a manuscript of Mantiq al-Tayr (Conference of the Birds) by Farid al-Din Attar (d. 1221)

    Majnun as a Sheep Looking at Layla (painting, recto; text, verso), illustrated folio from a manuscript of Mantiq al-Tayr (Conference of the Birds) by Farid al-Din Attar (d. 1221)

  • Layla visiting Majnun in the Desert (painting, verso; text, recto), illustrated folio from a manuscript of the Haft Awrang (Seven Thrones) by Jami (d. 1492)
  • Plea for Tax Relief, folio from an album
  • Layla and Majnun
  • Illustrated Manuscript of the Khamsa by Amir Khusraw of Delhi (d. 1325)
  • Illustrated Manuscript of Layla and Majnun by Hamdi
  • An Image of Majnun with Verses from the Poem Layla va Majnun
  • Layla and Majnun at School (painting, verso; text, recto), illustrated folio from a manuscript of the Khamsa (Quintet) of Nizami
  • Majnun as a Sheep Looking at Layla (painting, recto; text, verso), illustrated folio from a manuscript of Mantiq al-Tayr (Conference of the Birds) by Farid al-Din Attar (d. 1221)
Harvard University Art Museums/Arthur M. Sackler Museum

No tale is told the same way twice, not even a story as universal as the romance of Majnun and Layla, archetypal star-crossed lovers of 7th-century Arabia. Transmission inevitably introduces transformation as a tale is stretched for new audiences, and the story of Majnun, whose longing for his beloved Layla sets him on the path of madness, has traveled far from its origins. This exhibition includes independent images of the lovers as well as illustrations for Persian, Turkish, and Indian poetic texts. Variations in these paintings reflect the broad geographical and chronological ranges of their production, but the differences also speak to the nature of the story itself—at once universal and elastic.

Organized by Mary McWilliams, Norma Jean Calderwood Curator of Islamic and Later Indian Art, and Sunil Sharma, senior lecturer, Boston University.