physicians and medical treatments in Josaphat Buddha’s life

Buddhas have long been regarded as great physicians.  As stories of the first Buddha’s life disseminated from central Asia westward and became the story of Barlaam and Josaphat, they incorporated references to physicians, sickness, medical treatments, and healing.  These references moved fluidly between technical medical terminology and abstract spiritual metaphors.

Medicine Buddha from The Pure Land of Bhaisajyaguru

Early Buddha sutras gave healing powers to a person acting by oneself.  Elite, sophisticated physicians in the ancient world imposed complex treatments on their patients and amassed enormous wealth.  Jesus of Nazareth, who came to be regarded as a great physician, cured patients at no cost with only his touch or his word.  Buddhas took a similar position to Jesus in the ancient medical market.  Buddhas, however, had an additional competitive advantage: the healing power of a Buddha did not require the Buddha’s personal presence, or even the presence of a holy disciple of the Buddha.  In a medicine Buddha sutra written no later than the seventh century, Medicine Master Lapis Lazuli Light Tathagata vowed:

in the future, when I attain perfect enlightenment, sentient beings afflicted with various illnesses, with no one to help them, nowhere to turn, no physicians, no medicine, no family, no home, who are destitute and miserable, will, when my name passes through their ears, be relieved of all their illnesses. [1]

To have the name of Medicine Master Lapis Lazuli Light Tathagata pass through one’s ears requires only the sick person to say that name.  Medical treatment via a Buddha is a matter of personal, willed activating of the Buddha’s medical powers for oneself.

An early Arabic intextualization of the first Buddha’s life gave considerable importance to corporal reality and a physician’s professional knowledge.  The Arabic text seems to have been written by an Ismaili (person following a branch of Shia Islam) in central Asia in the second half of the eighth century GC.  It includes an account of a “skilled physician.”  The skilled physician diagnoses a bodily condition and understands bodily effects of medicinal substances:

The skilled physician, when he sees a body debilitated by corrupt humors, and he wants to strengthen it and give it more mass, he doesn’t give it at first nourishment that produces flesh and force, knowing that the introduction of nourishment to corrupt humors brings it neither benefit nor strength.  But he gives it at first medicine, by which he diminishes in it the corrupt humors, and purifies the vessels and veins of the body.  Once he has finished this, he begins to give it nourishment and drink that suits it.  Only then the body feels the benefit of nourishment, gains flesh and fat, and increases in strength. [2]

The physician’s description of the patient is impersonally physical: body, flesh, fat.  Humors, vessels, and veins are technical medical terms.  The Arabic text implicitly recognizes that curing illness requires more than spiritual enlightenment.  In this text, curing illness is a physical matter that requires material substances and the professional skills of the physician.  That shift from word-power medicine in the Medicine Buddha sutra to external bodily interaction is consistent with a more general shift to an external transforming agent in the early Arabic life of Buddha.[3]

An early Christian intextualization of Buddha’s life shifted emphasis from the corporal body to God.  The early Arabic Buddha’s life was adapted into Georgian by a Christian probably early in the ninth century.  This adaptation eliminated technical medical terms and added deference to the will of God in healing:

When a skilled physician sees a body deranged by grievous ailments and wishes to restore it to health, he does not attempt to build up the flesh by gorging it with food and drink.  For he knows that if food and drink are mixed with the corrupt humours, they would disagree with the system and harm the body rather than doing it any good.  But those through whom God in His providence operates the conquest of disease will rather impose a regime and administer medicine.  As soon as the distemper and the corrupt humour have been expelled through God’s grace, then it is that they will nourish the patient with food and drink; and straightway the palate will acquire a relish for good cheer, and he whose death God wishes to avert will be restored to health. [4]

Immediately following this account is an ascetic’s account of how he escaped from absorption in worldly life.  The early Arabic source, in contrasts, at this point goes on to analogize the treatment of the body to skilled preparation of a field for cultivation.  The early Georgian Christian adaption shifted away from the material world, but not toward Buddha’s self-willed transcendence.  The Georgian Christian adaptation brought forward dependence on God, an external transforming agent, for liberation from worldly burdens.

The Georgian Christian adaptation’s closer association of physician and God also appears in the ascetic’s claim to be a physician.  In both accounts, the ascetic functions as a guide for Josaphat Buddha in his transformation.  To get from Josaphat Buddha’s tutor access to the secluded and not yet transformed Josaphat Buddha, the ascetic claimed to be a merchant with a special jewel to offer.  In the early Arabic Buddha’s life, the ascetic described the special jewel as having extraordinary powers.  The Georgian Christian adaptation expanded those powers to describe the jewel implicitly as a transformative encounter with Jesus:

The treasure I possess is finer than red brimstone, since it restores sight to blind men’s eyes and hearing to the deaf, makes the dumb speak, cleanses the lepers, causes the lame to arise and walk, strengthens the ailing, enriches those that are in want, and cures all ailments; it grants victory over the foe, drives out devils from the possessed, and furnishes a man with all his heart’s desire. [5]

In both texts, the ascetic goes on to declare himself to be a physician as well as a merchant.  He claims to be a physician in order to perform a crafty diagnosis of the tutor.  That crafty diagnosis prompts the tutor not to press his prior demand to see the jewel before allowing the ascetic access to Josaphat Buddha.[6]  In the early Arabic text, the ascetic’s claim to be a physician functions merely in this trick.  In the Georgian Christian text, the ascetic’s claim to be a physician connects to his description of the jewel and his subsequent proclamation of Jesus to Josaphat Buddha.

In the early Arabic Buddha’s life, the account of the skilled physician provides a worldly, analogical justification for asceticism.  The influential late tenth-century Greek Christian adaptation of the early Georgian Christian text eliminated the story of the skilled physician.[7]  Christians had no need of a physician skilled in Greek medicine to justify other-worldliness.  Jesus, understood as the perfect physician among ancient Christians, provided sufficient authority for Christian other-worldliness.

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[1] Medicine Buddha Sutra, from Chinese trans. Chung Tai Translation Committee (2009).  Medicine Master Lapis Lazuli Light Tathagata achieved perfect enlightenment and thus became a Buddha.

[2] Kitab Bilawhar wa-Yudasaf (Bilauhar and Budasaf), from Arabic trans. into French, Gimaret (1971) p. 87, my translation into English.

[3] A more structurally important change is in the path of enlightenment/transformation.  In the earlier tradition of Buddha’s life, enlightenment comes through the personal achievement of willed self-transcendence.  In the Arabic Buddha’s life, Budasaf’s enlightenment/transformation occurs with the help of four angels acting on behalf of a monotheistic God.  For relevant analysis, MacQueen (2001).

[4] Balavariani, from Georgian trans. Lang (1966) p. 84.

[5] Id. p. 71.  At the corresponding position, the earlier Arabic Kitab Bilawhar wa-Yudasaf has the ascetic-merchant declare:

My {special} ware is better than red sulfur: it gives sight to the blind, it heals illnesses, it makes the deaf hear, it strengthens the weak, it protects against madness, it gives victory over the enemy.

From Arabic trans. into French, Gimaret (1971) p. 83, my translation into English.  That this text invoked Jesus for the Georgian Christian adaptor is apparent in the ironic depreciation that the adaptor adds to the response of Josaphat Buddha’s tutor to the Jesus-based expansion of that text:

You do not look a fool to me, O stranger, though your words sound like the prattle of some loquacious babbler.

Balavariani, from Georgian trans. Lang (1966) p. 72.  On Christian foolishness, see 1 Corinthians 1:21, 4:10.  In the place of “red sulfur,” the Balavariani refers in English translation to “red brimstone.”  Both are probably garbled references to a medicinal clay.  Early Islamic literature frequently refers to eating red earth (terra sigillata).  See Schippers (1999) p. 153.

[6] The ascetic-merchant-physician claims that if a person with weak eyes and suffering from sin looks at the ware, that person will be blinded.  The ascetic-merchant-physician declares that the tutor looks weak.  Hearing this diagnosis, the tutor does not press his prior demand to see the ware.  Subsequently in the Arabic text the ascetic-merchant-physician declares that his ware is a box containing books.  Gimaret (1971) p. 84.  The Georgian Christian text makes no mention of the ascetic-merchant-physician bringing books.  Eliminating the reference to books is consistent with personal encounter with Jesus being the focus for spiritual transformation in the Georgian-Christian version.

[7] St. Euthymius the Georgian adapted the early Georgian Christian version into Greek about 980 GC at Mount Athos.  St. Euthymius’ Greek text eliminated the physician and patient fable, the amorous wife (chivalric warrior) fable, and the fable of the dogs and carrion.  See Encyclopedia of Islam, 2nd ed., entry for Bilawhar Wa-Yūdāsaf, Table 2, for comparison of the fable contents of early versions of Buddha’s life.  All three of the eliminated fables are quite worldly.   St. Euthymius’ Greek text was translated in Latin in 1048 as part of Beati loannis Damasceni Opera.  That Latin text was the source for subsequent Barlaam and Josaphat texts popular in European vernaculars.

[image] Medicine Buddha Bhaisajyaguru, detail from The Pure Land of Bhaisajyaguru, wall mural, c. 1319, Yuan Dynasty, China.  At the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York City.  Image thanks to Wikipedia.


Chung Tai Translation Committee. 2009. The Sutra on the Original Vows and Merits of the Medicine Master Lapis Lazuli Light Tathagata.  From the Chinese translation by Tripitaka Master Xuan Zang, 7th century.

Gimaret, Daniel, ed. and trans. 1971. Le Livre de Bilawhar et Būd̲āsf: selon la version arabe ismaélienne. Genève: Paris, Droz.

Lang, David Marshall, ed. and trans. 1966. The Balavariani (Barlaam and Josaphat). Berkeley: University of California Press.

MacQueen, Graeme. 2001. “Rejecting enlightenment? The medieval Christian transformation of the Buddha-legend in Jacobus de Voragine’s Barlaam and Josaphat.Studies in Religion/Sciences Religieuses. 30 (2): 151-165.

Schippers, Arie. 1999. “Ibn Zabara’s Book of Delight (Barcelona, 1170) and the transmission of wisdom from east to west.” Frankfurter Judaistische Beiträge 26: 149-161.

understanding Byzantine iconomachy: venerating icons preceded Islam

Iconomachy, a battle over the authoritative status of icons, occurred in the Byzantine Empire from the mid-eighth to the mid-ninth centuries.  Icons are figural paintings that, in the sense of the believer, function as media for sacred communication and action.  Historical accounts created after Byzantine affirmation of icons present Byzantine iconomachy as an irruption of iconoclasm within an well-established practice of venerating icons.

Recent scholarship asserts that venerating icons was not a well-established Byzantine practice before Byzantine iconomachy.  Compared to relics and pilgrimages, icons provided a scalable, cost-effective means for extraordinary contact with God.  Recent scholarship argues that Christian veneration of icons largely began about 680 in response to Islamic successes and Byzantine failures.  According to that view, Byzantine empowering of icons in response to Islam led to elite political conflicts and Byzantine iconomachy.  The traditional history of Byzantine iconoclasm is interpreted as merely the winning icon-supporters’ construction of a threatened tradition of icon veneration.[1]

Despite this recent scholarship, good evidence and reason exists for believing that Christians widely venerated icons prior to Islam.  Early in the eleventh century, the Muslim scholar al-Biruni was far from any constructed Byzantine tradition of icon veneration.  Al-Biruni lived in Central Asia and did not read Greek.[2]  As a pious Muslim, al-Biruni abhorred idols.  Practices like venerating icons al-Biruni described as “foul and pernicious abuse” among “common, uneducated persons”; justifying those practices were “mad raving” and “ludicrous views.”[3]  A Byzantine constructed history of venerating icons would fit neither al-Biruni’s milieu nor his scholarly and religious interests.

Al-Biruni described pre-Islamic Arabian Christians using idols as sacred media.  In Al-Biruni’s study of India, a chapter describing the beginning of idol-worship observed:

When the heathen Arabs had imported into their country idols from Syria, they also worshipped them, hoping that they would intercede for them with God. [4]

Christians lived and prospered in the ancient Islamic world.  However, the statement “heathen Arabs had imported into their country idols from Syria” is inconsistent with a Muslim writer describing Christian Arabs living as dhimmi in an Islamic caliphate.  “Their country,” the country of the “heathen Arabs,” is most plausibly Arabia prior to the Islamic conquest of Arabia.[5]  Early Christians prayed especially to Mary, the mother of Jesus, for intercession with God.  Syria was near the center of early Christianity.  Al-Biruni’s statement, plausibly coming through early Arabic sources, suggests that early Christians in Syria and Arabia venerated Marian icons. The importance of Mary in Arabia at the coming of Islam is consistent with the prominence of Mary in the Qur’an.[6]

Al-Biruni provides more detailed description of Marian figural statues in Sicily about 670.  Al-Biruni reported:

that idols are only memorials, was also held by the Caliph Mu’awiya {reigned 661 to 680} regarding the idols of Sicily.  When, in the summer of A.H. 53 {675}, Sicily was conquered {other sources date the conquest to 652}, and the conquerors sent him golden idols adorned with crowns and diamonds which had been captured there, he ordered them to be sent to Sind {India}, that they should be sold there to the princes of the country [7]

Historical records aren’t entirely consistent about the date of the brief Muslim conquest of seventh-century Sicily, but all are before 680.[8]  The First Council of Ephesus of the Christian Church in 431 declared Mary to be “Mother of God.”  That title naturally led to the Marian title “Queen of Heaven.”[9]  The captured “golden idols adorned with crowns and diamonds” are most plausibly Marian figural statues that were objects of lavish veneration.  Such statues occupied well-known destinations for pilgrimages in medieval western Europe.[10]

Between 608 and 630, the Ka’ba in Mecca contained images of Jesus and Mary. After being destroyed in a fire in 608, the Ka’ba was rebuilt. The ninth-century historian al-Azraqi, whose family had lived in Mecca for hundreds of years, conveyed reports of images in the rebuilt Ka’ba. These reports indicate that a fresco of Jesus and Mary existed when the Prophet of Islam entered the Ka’ba in 630. One report also described an image that might have been a statue:

I have heard that there was set up in al-Bayt {the Ka’ba} a picture / statue (timthāl) of Maryam {Mary} and ‘Isa {Jesus}. {Ata} said: “Yes, there was set in it a picture / statue of Maryam adorned (muzawwaqan); in her lap, her son ‘Isa sat adorned.” [11]

Reports conflict on whether the Prophet ordered the images of Jesus and Mary to be destroyed. Those conflicting reports suggest tension about the function of those images.[12]

Other considerations also favor Christian veneration of icons prior to Islam.  Icons typically feature starkness in figural depiction and direct gaze to the viewer.  The hodegetria iconography, which may predate Islam, exemplifies these features.  These iconographic characteristic are associated with sense of presence.  Moreover, extra-representational response to images is common across cultures and throughout history.  In light of that broader evidence, the right prior belief for evaluating how early Christians related to images is that they probably related to them like the ancient Greeks did or like Hindus have for thousands of years.  Convincing evidence that early Christians did not venerate icons is necessary to make that the more probable belief.

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iconomachy in India?


[1] Brubaker & Haldon (2011).  On the new attitude to icons from about 680, see id. pp. 58-60, 777.  Noble (2009) also finds little credible evidence of a cult of images among the Carolingians prior to the Byzantine iconoclasm controversy.  See id. pp. 8, 30, 35, 40-44.  Early Christians attributed mediating power to biblical figures (especially Mary, mother of Jesus, the mediatrix), saints, and marytrs, as well as to relics associated with those persons.  One type of relic was an image not made by human hands, such as an image of the face of Jesus thought to have been created through contact with Jesus.  The technical term for such images are acheiropoieta.  Three acheiropoieta are attested to have existed in the second half of the sixth century  Brubaker & Haldon (2011) p. 35.  Icons, in contrast to acheiropoieta, are human-made images with mediating power.

[2] He didn’t know Syriac either.  Sachau (1910) p. xli.

[3] Al-Biruni, Indica, trans. Sachau (1910) pp. 111, 112, 122, 124.

[4] Id. p. 123.  Brock (1977) argues that Monophysite, who were prevalent in Syria before Islam, were not iconoclastic.   Id. p. 56 observes:

Incidental references to icons or figurative painting and mosaics are not common in Monophysite literature up to the end of the Iconoclast period, but the few that there are suggest that no offense was taken of them. …  In all there might be a dozen such references belonging to the sixth to eighth century available in Syriac sources.

[5] That’s clearly the context of  “in the times of Arab heathendom. … Among the heathen Arabs” in Al-Biruni, Indica, trans. Sachau (1910) pp. 108-9.

[6] The hymn Sub Tuum Praesidium, surviving in a Greek papyrus dated to the third century, shows petitioning to Mary:

Beneath your compassion,
We take refuge, O Mother of God:
do not despise our petitions in time of trouble:
but rescue us from dangers,
only pure, only blessed one.

The Qur’an refers to “worshiping” Mary:

Allah will say:
“O Jesus the son of Mary!
Did you say to men,
“Worship me and my mother
As gods in derogation of Allah?”
He will say, “Glory to You!
Never could I say
What I had no right {to say}

Qur’an 5:116, trans. ‘Abdullah Yusuf ‘Ali (I’ve modernized the English). The Qur’an frequently mentions Mary, and Sura 19 (Maryam) bears her name. While honoring Mary, the Qur’an opposes treating Mary as a god. Prayers to Marian icons might easily be regarded as treating Mary as a god. That was a matter of bitter dispute over Mary in sixteenth-century England.

[7] Al-Biruni, Indica, trans. Sachau (1910) p. 124.

[8] The historical records contain some confusion about the date.  See Davis-Secord (2007) pp. 96-99. The account of Persian historian al-Baladhuri (d. 892) is consistent with al-Biruni’s account, but is less detailed.  See trans. Hitti (1916) p. 375.

[9] See Council of Ephesus, Second and Third Letters of Cyril to Nestorius, and Twelve Anathemas Proposed by Cyril and accepted by the Council of Ephesus (anathema 1).  Corippus, in 566 in a hymn to the Virgin as guardian of Constantinople, described Mary as “queen of heaven” (excelsi regina poli). See Cameron (1978 ) p. 82.

[10] See, e.g., Our Lady of Walsingham in England.

[11] Al-Azraqi, Akhbar Makka, vol. 1, p. 167, trans. King (2004) p. 221. Peters (1994), p. 48, translates timthāl as statue. Daniel (1997), p. 209, states: “Muhammad ‘called the Christians deviators because he thought they adored three gods as well as images.'” The quoted text is cited as “Annotator, ad Az. I; MS (CCCD 184, right margin, high) and Bibl. p. 224.” That may be an annotation to a manuscript of al-Azraqi’s text.

[12] Cf. Qur’an 5:116 (see note [6] above).


Brock, Sebastian. 1977.  “Iconoclasm and the Monophysites.”  Pp. 53-57 in Anthony Bryer and Judith Herrin. Iconoclasm: papers given at the ninth Spring Symposium of Byzantine Studies, University of Birmingham, March 1975. Birmingham, Eng: Centre for Byzantine Studies, University of Birmingham.

Brubaker, Leslie, and John F. Haldon. 2011. Byzantium in the iconoclast era (c. 680-850): a history. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Cameron, Averil. 1978. “The Theotokos in Sixth-Century Constantinople.” The Journal of Theological Studies. XXIX (1): 79-108.

Daniel, Norman. 1997. Islam and the West: the making of an image. Oxford: Oneworld.

Davis-Secord, Sarah C. 2007. Sicily and the medieval Mediterranean: communication networks and inter-regional exchange. Thesis (Ph. D.)–University of Notre Dame, 2007.

Hitti, Philip K. 1916. Aḥmad ibn Yaḥyá Balādhurī.  The origins of the Islamic state. New York: Longmans, Green.

King, G. R. D. 2004. “The Paintings of the Pre-Islamic Ka’ba.” Muqarnas: An Annual on the Visual Culture of the Islamic World XXI: 219-230.

Noble, Thomas F. X. 2009. Images, iconoclasm, and the Carolingians. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press.

Peters, F. E. 1994. The Hajj: the Muslim pilgrimage to Mecca and the holy places. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press.

Sachau, Eduard. 1910. Muḥammad ibn Aḥmad al-Bīrūnī. Alberuni’s India. An account of the religion, philosophy, literature, geography, chronology, astronomy, customs, laws and astrology of India about A.D. 1030. London: K. Paul, Trench, Trübner & Co.

glamour and mystery in life

The December, 1920, issue of The Strand Magazine had its cover emblazoned with the title of a sensational article, “Fairies Photographed – An Epoch Making Event Described by A. Conan Doyle.” Arthur Conan Doyle was the famous author of the Sherlock Holmes detective stories.  Above is one of the photos that Doyle presented as documenting the existence of fairies.  In that article, Doyle declared:

These little folk who appear to be our neighbours, with only some small difference of vibration to separate us, will become familiar. The thought of them, even when unseen, will add a charm to every brook and valley and give romantic interest to every country walk. The recognition of their existence will jolt the material twentieth-century mind out of its heavy ruts in the mud, and will make it admit that there is a glamour and a mystery to life.

The fairies came to be called the Cottingley Fairies.  In 1922, Doyle wrote a book, The Coming of the Fairies, providing further evidence of their existence and a “theosophic view of fairies.”

In our age of powerful photo editing software, no one would find in the above photo any glamour and mystery.  That’s not a loss to the wonder of life.

meditation on media

The truth is in the candle.  And the candle still burns, and the media cannot overcome it.

The video above contains pieces from: Olafur Eliasson,  Round Rainbow, at the Hirshhorn Museum; Paul Sharits, Shutter Interface, at the Hirshhorn Museum; and Nam June Paik, One Candle, Candle Projection, at the U.S. National Gallery of Art.

sports rules for reviewing audio-visual evidence

In professional sports, instant replay technology typically must provide “indisputable visual evidence” of a mistaken call in order for officials to overturn the call.  Understanding the “indisputable visual evidence” standard of review for audio-visual replays requires recognizing that:

  • major-league professional sports are primarily entertainment
  • entertainment value (excitement) increases with spectators’ immersion in the stream of on-field events

Officials’ deliberating about what is the correct call isn’t an exiting spectator sport.  Such deliberations should be limited to correcting blunders, meaning calls that are obviously incorrect to most fans in the midst of their real-time experience of the competition.

An interesting recent law article argues against the “indisputable visual evidence” standard of review and in favor of de novo review.  The article emphasizes a competitor’s perspective and just deserts. In the context of primarily considering major-league professional American football, the article states:

the value of error-correction gains strength from views about what those who participate in a rule-governed competition deserve, and about the justice of arranging institutions to yield outcomes that comport with desert.[1]

Major-league professional football players have more interesting work, higher pay, and greater social status than most persons, including persons arguably much more deserving of such rewards.  The factual correctness of officials’ calls in professional football has little significance to all but the narrowest evaluation of justice and desert for professional football players.  Major-league professional sports are a big-money entertainment business.  Considering standards of review for instant replay should begin from that economic reality.

Apart from obvious officiating blunders, erroneous reversal of an official’s initial call reduces the entertainment value of sports significantly more than erroneous affirmation of a mistaken call.   The excitement of sports is largely in the moment of the game.  Immersed in the game, fans interpret what they see within the rules of the game.  Officials support that diegetic experience.  Making a call later is a poor substitute for making the call in the stream of the game’s normal competitive activity.  A human psychological tendency toward loss aversion makes regret likely to weigh more heavily than pleasure across two opposing fans after a reversed call.[2]  In addition, reversal of calls undermines the general experience of immersion in the game by raising the salience in consciousness of extra-diegetic activity.  Lessening immersion in the game reduces the entertainment value of sports.

Officiating rules need to be considered in conjunction with game presentation technologies and practices.  More cameras, higher-definition images, and more use of replays in game presentations may not make for more entertaining games.  Game presentation technology that allows fans to judge the game more accurately than officials undermines officials positions as supports for fans’ immersion in the game-world.  Sports officiating technology and standards of review should be chosen to support fans’ immersion in the sports game-world.

Related posts:

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[1] Berman, Mitchell N., Replay (March 7, 2011). Available at SSRN: Quote from p. 37.  Berman is a pathbreaking scholar in the legal analysis of sports.  A least one government bureaucrat has asserted the value of sports officiating in developing regulatory expertise.

[2] Berman (2011) pp. 37-9 considers this effect and argues that its importance increases with the extent that the relevant sport is valued as entertainment.

communication models in portraiture

Portraiture can be used to bring a person into a painted narrative, to provide information about a person, and to generate a sense of presence of a person. Mughal portraiture indicates the importance of these different purposes.
Fayum mummy portrait
A frontal view of a face, where the face is a large feature of the painting and the eyes of the face gaze out directly at the viewer, effectively creates a sense of presence. Some coffins in Roman-occupied Egypt about 2000 years ago included portraits of the deceased (Fayum mummy portraits). These portraits were not intended to identify who was in the coffin. Persons concerned about the deceased undoubtedly knew who the deceased was. Nor did such portraits contribute significantly to the story. Death is a regular episode in every human life. The value of the portraits is best understood in terms of presence. The portraits brought the presence of the dead to life.

The Mughals did not design portraits to create a sense of presence of a person. Existing Mughal portraits never depict a face where it is a large feature of the painting and the eyes of the face gaze directly out at the viewer. When Jesuit missionaries brought a painting of Mary, the mother of Jesus, to the Mughal ruler Akbar’s court, it attracted great interest.  That Byzantine-style painting was designed, like the mummy portraits, to create a sense of presence of Mary.  For the Mughals, the effect was probably unprecedented.

portrait of Mughal ruler Shah JahanMughal portraiture used three-quarter and profile views of faces. The three-quarter view was associated with action-oriented, narrative paintings. These paintings were relatively common under Akbar. The three-quarter view of a face helps indicate the three-dimensional space of narrative action. The profile view is associated with individual, static portraits and with documenting the presence of particular individuals within scenes. These types of paintings were relatively common in the albums assembled in the reins of Akbar’s successors Jahangir and Jahan. The profile view probably provides the most economic means to identify painted persons. [*] Thus the three-quarter and profile views of faces support narrative and informative alternatives to presence as communicative models for portraiture.

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Note [*]:Wright (2008) sets out this explanation.Filippino Lippi, Portrait of a Youth Id. p. 166 states, “If one wishes to produce the most accurate and hence most identifiable record of a figure’s face, then it is, of course, a side view that must be used, for it is only through the profile that the exact outline of the nose, mouth, and chin can be recorded, and silhouetting the figure against a plain-colored ground, usually light or dark green, highlights the whole form but especially the profile of the figure [notes omitted].” This is an overstatement. Several decades of psychology experiments indicates that the three-quarter view best serves human identification of faces, but some recent evidence favors a frontal view. See, e.g. Stephan and Caine (2007) and Turati, Bulf, and Simion (2006). Roughly a three-quarter view of faces best serves machine-programmed recognition of faces (Liu, Rittscher and Chen (2006)). Processing of images of irises, which are best seen in the frontal view of a face, seems to have been important in the evolution of humans and is likely to dominate future machine-programmed identification systems. The advantage of the profile view needs to be understood with respect to the cost of painted identification. Even if frontal-view portraits can provide better identification of a person, a satisfactory profile view is probably easier to paint.

Images: Gayet mummy portrait; The Emperor Shah Jahan standing upon a globe (detail), 17’th century, prob. c 1627-30, Sackler Gallery; Portrait of a Youth, Filippo Lippi, c. 1485, in the collection of the U.S. National Gallery.


Liu, Xiaoming, Rittscher, J.; Tsuhan Chen (2006), “Optimal Pose for Face Recognition,” Computer Vision and Pattern Recognition, 2006 IEEE Computer Society Conference on Volume 2, Issue , 2006 Page(s): 1439 – 1446.

Stephan B C M, Caine D, 2007, “What is in a view? The role of featural information in the recognition of unfamiliar faces across viewpoint transformationPerception 36(2) 189 – 198.

Turati, C. , Bulf, H. and Simion, F. (2006, Jun) “Newborns’ face recognition over changes in viewpoint” Paper presented at the annual meeting of the XVth Biennial International Conference on Infant Studies, Westin Miyako, Kyoto, Japan . 2008-06-11 from

Wright, Elaine (2008), “Mughal Portraiture and Drawing,” in Wright, Elaine, Muraqqa’: Imperial Mughal Albums from the Chester Betty Library, Dublin (Alexandria, VA: Art Services Int.) pp. 165-77.

puppet and puppeteer

Alone in bed, her black hair untied across her pillow, she laments the white snow piling up in it. The open-faced puppeteer moves with her, their gestures double, her loneliness is his loneliness.

In many forms of puppetry, the puppeteer isn’t visible. In Bunraku, a famous Japanese style of puppetry, three puppeteers visible on stage operate one puppet. Kuruma ningyo, a less well-known Japanese style, has only one puppeteer operating the puppet. The puppeteer sits on a cart and uses his legs to move the puppets legs, his left hand to control the puppet’s left hand, and his right hand to control the puppet’s right hand and head. The visible puppeteers are clothed in black, and often they were black masks. So, even when the puppeteer is visible, he or she is effaced as a person.

Nishikawa Koryu V, Hachioji kuruma ningy, Kurokami

Nishikawa Koryu V performed puppetry for the song Kurokami (Black Hair) using Hachioji kuruma ningyo at the Freer Gallery yesterday. His face was exposed as he controlled the puppet and moved with the puppet. The doubling of the puppet and the puppeteer was a beautiful aspect of the performance.

rapid rise of commercial photography

Photography was the first mass-market presence technology. A British observer noted in 1857:

Portraits, as is evident to any thinking mind, and as photography now proves, belong to that class of facts wanted by numbers who know and care nothing about their value as works of art.[1]

Photography provided sense of presence like that of a painted portrait, but much cheaper and with obvious product differentiation.

The work of leading amateur photographers does not provide a good indication of the business model that drove commercial photography. The Edinburgh Calotype Club, formed in the early 1840s, was the world’s first photography club. In two albums of its members’ works, calotypes with subjects other than portraits comprise roughly 70% of the photographs.[2] An exhibition at the U.S. National Gallery of Art, British Photographs from Paper Negatives, 1840 to 1860, includes many calotypes of nature and built structures. In contrast, commercial photography at this time almost surely consisted of not much more than portraits.

old photograph of an old man

Photographic portraits were an astonishingly successful good. While photographs of any type were first displayed about 1840, photographic portraits were widely offered commercially in Britain by 1857:

who can number the legion of petty dabblers, who display their trays of specimens along every great thoroughfare in London, executing for our lowest servants, for one shilling, that which no money could have commanded for the Rothschild bride of twenty years ago?[3]

At the high end of the market, drawing and painting complemented photography:

There is no photographic establishment of any note that does not employ artists at high salaries — we understand not less than 1 £ a day — in touching, and colouring, and finishing from nature those portraits for which the camera may be said to have laid the foundation. … The coloured portraits to which we have alluded are a most satisfactory coalition between the artist and the machine. Many an inferior miniature-painter who understood the mixing and applying of pleasing tints was wholly unskilled in the true drawing of the human head. With this deficiency supplied, their present productions, therefore, are far superior to anything they accomplished, single-handed, before. Photographs taken on ivory, or on substances invented in imitation of ivory, and coloured by hand from nature, such as are seen at the rooms of Messrs. Dickinson, Claudet, Mayall, Kilburn, &c., are all that can be needed to satisfy the mere portrait want, and in some instances may be called artistic productions of no common kind besides.[4]

But the main effect of photography was to greatly expand the market for non-artistic portraits. By 1857 in Britain:

[photographers] are wanted everywhere and found everywhere. The large provincial cities abound with the sun’s votaries, the smallest town is not without them; and if there be a village so poor and remote as not to maintain a regular establishment, a visit from a photographic travelling van gives it the advantages which the rest of the world are enjoying. Thus, where not half a generation ago the existence of such a vocation was not dreamt of, tens of thousands (especially if we reckon the purveyors of photographic materials) are now following a new business….[5]

Even with the rapid rise of novels in the last quarter of the eighteenth century, the occupation of author developed much more slowly than that of photographer. In the U.S. in 1860, the occupational Census reported 627 authors and reporters, 2994 editors, and 3154 daguerreotypists and photographers.

Those looking to create business models for new media might think about the rapid commercial success of photographers and the long history of impecunious authors.

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[1] From Lady Elizabeth Eastlake, “Photography,” London Quarterly Review (April 1857), pp 442-68.

[2] A search for the keyword “portait” returns 89 calotypes out of 332 total in both Edinburgh Calotype Club albums. Among both these totals are 70 duplicate prints. The number of calotypes returned for keywords “castle” and “church” are 33 and 35, respectively.

[3]-[5] Lady Eastlake, “Photography,” op. cit.