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The miracle of the bees

Page from volume IV of the Siyar-i nebi commissioned by Murad III
Turkey, Istanbul, c. 1595
Gouache, ink and gold on paper
Page: H. 37 cm; W. 26 cm
Painting: H. 20 cm; W. 18 cm
Musée du Louvre, gift of the Friends of the Louvre
MAO 927

This page depicts an episode from the life of the prophet Muhammad, one of the popular stories that grew up around him, rather than an actual event concerning the prophet himself. According to this legend, Ali, Muhammad’s son-in-law ordered the bees belonging to Abbas, the Prophet’s uncle, to follow Muhammad and the first members of the Muslim community in their flight (Hegira) from Mecca to Medina.
The restrained composition of the page is based on the contrast between flat areas of different vibrant colors. The two leaders of the bees fly ahead of the squadron in the sky, just as the human guides lead the Muslim community on the ground. The page comes from the Siyar-e Nabî of Murad III, a work that can be placed within the context of the production of the imperial nakkashane at the end of the sixteenth century – when the Ottoman arts of the book reached their apogee.
The Siyar-i Nebi was commissioned by Murad III (1574-1595), but was only finished during the reign of Mehmet III (1595-1603). Volume IV, which was completed in 1594-1595 (1003 hegira), was copied by the calligrapher Mustafa ibn Veli, and originally contained 158 or 159 miniatures. It was included in a manuscript which contained five other volumes and a total of 814 illustrations.
The Turkish prose text of the Siyar-i Nebi – the History of the Prophet – was written in Cairo at the court of the sultan Barquq by Mustafa ibn Yusuf al-Erzerumi, known as Zarir, a mevlevi dervish from Erzerum. It was taken from the Arabic text by Waqidi, and finished in 1388. The text is a compilation and reinterpretation of very diverse sources, and the illustrations are just as composite.
We still do not know the names of all the calligraphers and painters directed by Lufti Abdullah, the chief court painter. There are both differences and similarities in the illustrations: compositions can be more or less dense, the background can be filled with buildings or left relatively empty. The general unity is revealed in the recurring use of the blues, mauves and oranges, in the same bluish tint employed for the hills and mountains, and of course in the style of calligraphy and the treatment of the cartouches framing the inscriptions. The choice of color and the rendering of the personages and the mountains in the Miracle of the Bees are very close to those used in the page depicting Moses drawing water from a rock in the desert for the tribes of Israel to drink as they flee from Egypt.

The miracle of the bees
The miracle of the bees
MAO 927
© RMN / Berizzi