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Akbar on horseback receiving homage

Photo: Paul Macapia

Akbar on horseback receiving homage

17th century

The Emperor Akbar is one of the most famous rulers in the history of the Mughal Empire. He presided over an opulent court that was renowned for its interest in culture and knowledge.  Akbar had a history of his reignthe Akbarnama or Book of Akbarcomposed for him by his friend, the courtier Abu'l Fazl. These two manuscript pages likely formed part of an Akbarnama manuscript.

Images from historical chronicles, more so than for other literary texts, most often served as illustrations and were secondary to the written text. Outside the context of the chronicle, these images were often difficult to decipher and could be understood only in a general, superficial way. Combined with the text, however, these images enlivened the narrative, as specific people, places and events could be recognized.

In the reception scene, Akbar leans down from the back of his horse to receive the greeting and supplication of a figure on the ground.  This image parallels a sixteenth-century illustration in the Akbarnama in which Akbar receives homage from a potentially rebellious subordinate. The ruler's superiority is clear, as he is the only figure on horseback. A large standard bearing the royal insignia covers his head and provides another indication of his elevated status. The massive elephant in the foreground and the formidable fortress in the background also allude to Akbar's power, strength and right to rule. The minute detail and naturalistic style of Mughal painting invite the viewer into the image, animating the historical text that was meant to highlight Akbar's unique personality and the greatness of his reign as Mughal emperor.
Opaque watercolor, ink and gold on paper
9 5/8 x 5 5/8 in. (24.5 x 14.3 cm)
Eugene Fuller Memorial Collection
Photo: Paul Macapia
Not currently on view

Related Objects in SAM's Collections

Photo: Paul Macapia
Akbar on horseback receiving homage, 17th century, Islamic, Indian, Mughal, 41.204
Photo: Paul Macapia
Akbar Hunting Scene; border from Farhangi-Jaharangiri manuscript, late 16th-early 17th century, Indian, Mughal, 45.69
Photo: Paul Macapia
Babur Scene from the Akbarnama manuscript; border from Farhangi-Jahangiri manuscript, late 16th century, Indian, Mughal, 46.28
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Prince Miranshah greets Princess Serai Malak Khanum, ca. 1435-36, Northern Iranian, 49.133
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Mourning scene, perhaps the death of Iskandar (Alexander the Great), 17th century(?), Persian, 55.14
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Zal riding on the neck of Simurgh (the mythical female phoenix), late 15th-16th century, Persian, 47.95
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Talhand's Mother Learns of his Death / A Lamentation Scene:  Mourning for a Dead Hero, ca. 1493, Persian, 47.98


Although works of fiction generally received the most acclaim in the literary world, historical chronicles also played an important role in courtly life and artistic production. The model for most Islamic historical texts was the Shahnama, or Book of Kings, which is actually a work of fiction. The popularity of the Shahnama encouraged rulers from all over the Islamic world to create histories of their reigns with the Shahnama as their model. In these adaptations, the content of the accounts shifted from the mythical past to the historical present.

The Mughal dynasty in India, with its deeply rooted Persian court culture, enthusiastically adapted the format of the Shahnama to its own political and cultural ends. Numerous historical chronicles were written and illustrated under Mughal patronage, and these texts alternated between generic descriptions of royal activities (battles, hunts, receptions, ceremonies) and minute historical detail. The images accompanying these texts reflected this dichotomy.
Akbar Hunting Scene; border from Farhangi-Jaharangiri manuscript, late 16th-early 17th century, Indian, Mughal, 45.69
Photo: Paul Macapia

Art and Literature

Islamic writers in the Middle Ages and early modern period (ninth to nineteenth centuries) practiced a number of prose genres—history, biography, and travelogue among them—but poetry in the Persian language was considered the highest form of literary accomplishment. Persian was the language of high culture in the Islamic world, and many royal courts used Persian as their official language. Poetry was associated with venerable Arabian oral traditions as well as the poetic quality of the Qur'an, and mastery of this genre in Persian or Arabic required extensive knowledge of languages and texts. Poets were important members of royal courts, holding much higher positions than painters, for example. In the relationship between art and literature in the Islamic world, the word always took precedence over the image. Only in the modern period do visual artists achieve the same level of fame and fortune as their literary counterparts.

In Islamic manuscripts, images serve mainly to illustrate the texts provided, which does not mean that the images were not enjoyed as artistic creations themselves or that the work of painters was completely derivative. This situation simply indicates the working conditions painters faced in the Islamic world. As an adornment to the excellence of Persian poetry, Persian painting achieved great fame in the visual arts. And like poetry, Persian painting was exported across Islamic lands, with famous poets and painters collaborating to create luxurious, lavishly illustrated literary manuscripts.
Miniature: Line Drawing of Artist at Work, ca. 1600, Persian, 62.205


Karen Mathews, Assistant Professor of Art History, University of Miami, on Akbar receiving homage


Published ReferencesJoice, Gail, Michael Knight, and Pamela McClusky. "Ivories in the Collection of the Seattle Art Museum." Seattle, WA: Seattle Art Museum, 1987, illus. opp. p. 1

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