Painting of an old pilgrim by an anonymous artist

Isfahan, Iran, late AD 1500s to early 1600s

The hunched figure in this drawing, depicted alone in a wasteland, evokes the solitude and hardship experienced by those who travelled long distances on foot to pray at the shrine of Imam Riza in Mashhad, Iran during the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. Despite his age, as illustrated by his posture, long beard and wrinkled brow, his eyes are focused on a point beyond the edge of the picture.

A number of drawings of aged figures from this period exist and suggest a new awareness of and participation in pilgrimage during the rule of Shah 'Abbas I (1571 –1629). The Shrine of Imam Riza contains the tomb of 'Ali ibn Musa al-Riza, the eighth Shi'i Imam, who died suddenly in AD 818 in a village near the present-day city of Mashhad. Imam Riza was thought to have been poisoned and thus martyred. ‘Mashhad’ means place of witness or place of martyrdom. He is the only Shi'i Imam buried in Iran and therefore his tomb is hugely important to Shi'i Iranians. Shah 'Abbas first visited the shrine as shah in 1598.

During the 1590s a style of drawing developed that emphasized the calligraphic treatment of line, and in this small image the anonymous artist has varied the thickness of contour lines to suggest volume and the movement of drapery. Despite the small size of the picture, the artist has incorporated a range of tints, from the red rocks in the background to the two tones of tan for the robe and shawl and subtle white highlights on the turban.

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Height: 9.90 cm
Width: 4.90 cm 

Museum number

ME 1920, 0917.0.279.2


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