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Battle of Karbala

Abbas Al-Musavi

Arts of the Islamic World

This painting commemorates the martyrdom of Imam Husayn, the grandson of the prophet Muhammad and the third imam, or leader, of the Shica Muslims. Husayn was killed by the forces of the Umayyad caliph Yazid I (r. 680–683) in the desert of Karbala in central Iraq in 680 c.e. This battle emphasizes the divide between the Sunni and Shica branches of Islam; Husayn led a resistance against what the Shica Muslims believed was the Umayyads’ illegitimate rule. The focus of this painting is Husayn’s half brother, cAbbas, mounted on a white horse as he stabs a member of Yazid’s army. Individual episodes related to the agonies suffered by Husayn and his companions leading up to and during the battle are illustrated in smaller-scale vignettes on the left. The hereafter is shown at the right, with Husayn and his companions in heaven above and their opponents in hell below.

“Coffeehouse” Paintings

Paintings such as The Battle of Karbala show how the monumental genre, developed for the Zand and Qajar courts (see paintings displayed nearby), was reinterpreted for popular audiences during the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. This account of Husayn’s martyrdom inspired annual reenactments through ceremonial processions and the tacziya, the ritual theater of Iran. Narrative paintings served as portable backdrops, or pardas (curtains), that could be rolled up and transported from location to location, where a reciter (pardadar) would point to images as he recounted the story. As they were also presented in coffeehouses, such canvases are commonly referred to as qahvakhana, or “coffeehouse,” paintings.
MEDIUM Oil on canvas
  • Place Made: Isfahan, Iran
  • DATES late 19th–early 20th century
    DYNASTY Qajar
    PERIOD Qajar Period
    DIMENSIONS 69 1/16 × 134 1/2 × 2 1/4 in. (175.4 × 341.6 × 5.7 cm)  (show scale)
    SIGNATURE In Persian: "Darvish Abbas Uvaysi, Isfahan"
    INSCRIPTIONS The name of the patron and city of production (Darvish 'Abbas Uvaysi, Isfahan) as well as the artist's name ('Abbas al-Musavi) are found in two important Persian inscriptions in the painting.
    CREDIT LINE Gift of K. Thomas Elghanayan in honor of Nourollah Elghanayan
    CATALOGUE DESCRIPTION Ghahvehkhaneh or "coffeehouse" painting genre. Religious narrative painting depicting scenes from the Battle of Karbala which commemorates the martyrdom of Imam Husayn. This tragedy, which is at the core of Shi'ite belief, occurred on the tenth of the month of Muharram, A.H. 61 (October 10, A.D. 680) when Imam Husayn was killed by the Sunni caliph Yazid in the Karbala desert (70 miles from Kufa, Iraq). In the painting, the individual scenes from the battle and the life of Imam Husayn are presented from left to right, but without logical progression. The central figure of the painting is 'Abbas (Husayn's half brother and standard bearer), mounted on a white horse stabbing a member of Yazid's army. Depicted on the left are scenes from the battle showing the agonies of Husayn and his followers. On the right are scenes from Paradise including Husayn and his followers above corresponding scenes from the underworld populated by Yazid and his supporters. The expressive, charged scenes depicted in gory details with vibrant colors seek an emotional response from an audience at a ta‘zieh theatrical performance, where paintings such as this one served as pardeh (curtains or portable backdrop paintings) for a reenactment of the Karbala tragedy. The name of the patron and city of production (Darvish 'Abbas Uvaysi, Isfahan) as well as the artist's name ('Abbas al-Musavi) are found in two important inscriptions in the painting.
    MUSEUM LOCATION This item is not on view
    CAPTION Abbas Al-Musavi. Battle of Karbala, late 19th–early 20th century. Oil on canvas, 69 1/16 × 134 1/2 × 2 1/4 in. (175.4 × 341.6 × 5.7 cm). Brooklyn Museum, Gift of K. Thomas Elghanayan in honor of Nourollah Elghanayan, 2002.6 (Photo: Brooklyn Museum, 2002.6_PS2.jpg)
    IMAGE overall, 2002.6_PS2.jpg. Brooklyn Museum photograph, 2010
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    RIGHTS STATEMENT No known copyright restrictions
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