Composite Camel with Attendant by Unknown Iranian Artist

Unknown Iranian artist

Composite Camel with Attendant, Late 16th century, Opaque watercolor and ink on paper, 229 x 170 mm, The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York; Gift of George D. Pratt, 1925, 25.83.6, www.metmuseum.org

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Composing the Kingdom

Individual Commentary
Commentary by
Charles A. Gillespie

This Composite Camel with Attendant represents an anonymous miniature manuscript illumination, potentially from late-sixteenth-century Iran. Lavish colours and textures are used to suggest the sky, ground, and cargo which frame its central subject, the camel, whose outline circumscribes a visual puzzle in browns and beiges.

Using a popular technique, perhaps an image of the oneness of all creatures in God, the camel consists of animals, fantastic beasts, and people of differing cultures. Caravans connected the world and its wealth through the profits of foreign trade and cultural exchange. Could we imagine this camel as a Silk Road stitched together? In talking about camels and eternal life (Mark 10:25), Jesus adapts a well-known proverbial motif in which a big animal squeezing through a tiny space is used to suggest something impossible or surreal (Babylonian Talmud Berakhot 55b; Marcus 2009: 731, 736). The metaphor of the camel, needle, and entrance to the kingdom of heaven also appears in the Qur’an (al-A’rāf 7.40). Ideas and scriptural poetry spread by trade, as well as commodities. Does this image point us beyond the comforting boundaries we often impose on the Gospels?

This patchwork vision of a camel might also invite us to juxtapose Jesus’s challenge about the salvation of the rich in Mark with the camels of a Nativity scene: Luke’s caravan of three royal magi following a star. They were the first Gentiles to recognize Christ. Here too something new is stitched into the story, and again we may ask: what role will wisdoms from other cultures and traditions play along the way to eternal life?

‘Then who can be saved?’ (Mark 10:26) Impossible combinations may also be scary and unsettling—not unlike Jesus’s promised ‘persecutions’ (v.30). This multiplex camel has a single attendant, but his identity too is ambiguousWe may imagine him as a figure for Christ, for the rich young man, for us who ‘attend’ to the story and each other.

The least expected are suddenly revealed as first (v.31). Perhaps the ‘hundredfold’ gifts in the ‘age to come’ will arrive like a composite kingdom (v.30): a quilted-camel greater than the sum of its parts. Perhaps this paradoxical composite camel—monks and lovers, demons and dogs, rabbit-hooves and fox-tails—suggests, in one moment, the whole of Creation’s long caravan toward God.

 

References

Marcus, Joel. 2009. Mark 816: A New Translation with Introduction and Commentary (New Haven: Yale University Press)