My Favourite Painting: Dr Fitzroy Morrissey

The author of 'A Short History of Islamic Thought' chooses a fascinating image from half a millennium ago.

Dr Fitzroy Morrissey on School Scene by Mir Sayyid Ali

‘I love how this Persian miniature humanises the pre-modern Muslim world. The setting is a mosque school, but, rather than the austere scene we might expect, the place is a hive of activity. I feel I can relate to these figures, from the student practising his calligraphy to the cooks waiting patiently for the pot to boil.

‘There are wonderful details: a row of shoes left untidily outside the school; freshly made paper hung on a washing line to dry; verses of the great Hafez just visible on the rug at the painting’s centre. This is Islamic history brought vividly to life.

Dr Fitzroy Morrissey is an Examination Fellow at All Souls College, University of Oxford, and the author of A Short History of Islamic Thought

Charlotte Mullins comments on School Scene

School Scene by Mir Sayyid Ali teems with detail. There are men making paper and hanging it out to dry in a garden filled with blossom trees. Students copy calligraphy in the ornate schoolhouse, their shoes stashed in alcoves by the entrance. One student may have been caught sleeping on the job, as the schoolmaster has a cane raised to strike him. Three men sit around a large pot on an open fire as another student — barefoot in a blue robe — appears to be rolling out clay. The master pops up on the school roof and again in the garden, inspecting all their work.

Ali was a Persian painter who was recruited by the exiled Mughal emperor Humayun in about 1540, when this was painted. Originally, the full-page painting would have been part of a large, bound manuscript. Persian artists often used stock images for figures — the master beating the student appears in other 16th- century paintings, for example — but they wove them into new narratives.

There is no Western perspective here, no attempt to trick the eye into thinking that this is a window on the real world. Instead, scale and colour are put to work to help tell the story. The master appears larger than those who serve him because he is the most important person in the scene; flat bands of colour are all that are needed to divide School Scene into courtyards, rooms and gardens. The end result is a 500-year-old painting packed full of storytelling, action and intricate details.

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