Saint John the Evangelist

This drawing, after an engraving of the Crucifixion by Albrecht Dürer of 1511, is the earliest known work by the famous artist Abu’l Hasan, then aged twelve. It is already more of a creative reinterpretation of its original engraving than a mere copyist’s exercise. Within a few years, Abu’l Hasan’s refined naturalistic technique, together with his psychological insight, would make him the foremost portraitist at Jahangir’s court.

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  • Catalogue text

    This small and unusually expressive rendering of the figure of St. John from the engraving of Crucifixion in Albert Dürer’s Passion series of 1500 is the earliest known work by Abū’l Hasan, one of the most favoured artists of the emperor Jahāngīr (r.1605-27). An even keener connoisseur of painting than his father Akbar, Jahāngīr admired above all Abū’l Hasan’s brilliantly naturalistic technique and the sympathetic insight of his portraiture. In 1618 he wrote of the artist, “at the present time he has no rival or equal”, and he bestowed on him the title “Wonder of the Age”

    The son of the distinguished Persian painter Aqā Rizā, Abūl Hasan had grown up in the service of Prince Salīm (the future Jahāngīr). This drawing was executed in October 1600, when Salīm was already in revolt against the ageing Akbar and, as the Persian inscription tells us, Abūl Hasan himself was only twelve years old (in his “thirteenth year”). The copying of European prints played an important part in the training of Mughal artists at this time. But Abūl Hasan’s dextrous reinterpretation of the figure of the Evangalist is more than a technical exercise. Mr Robert Skelton has recently written of it, “… for a copy, particularly from one medium to another, it is a remarkable achievement. Working with a more subtle instrument than the graver’s burin, the young Indian has substituted for Dürer’s accomplished rendition of conventional saintly grief, a troubled expression of inner disquiet, which is all the more exceptional in that introspection of this sort is totally foreign to either Indian or Iranian art.”

    In: Harle, J. C., and Andrew Topsfield, Indian Art in the Ashmolean Museum (Oxford: Ashmolean Museum, 1987)

Further reading

Harle, J. C., and Andrew Topsfield, Indian Art in the Ashmolean Museum (Oxford: Ashmolean Museum, 1987), no. 84 on pp. 76-77, p. xiv, illus. p. 77

Topsfield, Andrew, Indian Paintings from Oxford Collections, Ashmolean Handbooks (Oxford: Ashmolean Museum in association with the Bodleian Library, 1994), no. 8 on p. 22, p. 6, illus. p. 23

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