Next, Black arrives at Stork’s house. He mentions Master Osman’s question about time, and asks Stork for his thoughts. Stork begins his response by discussing the fact that, in the past, Arab painters would not use the perspective technique that the Europeans now boast about. This left their paintings “dull and limited.” Stork then launches into his own three stories, the first of which is set in Baghdad 350 years ago. During this time, Ibn Shakir was the best calligrapher in the entire Islamic world and he believed that his books would last forever. However, when Mongol soldiers invaded Baghdad, Ibn Shakir watched them destroy the whole city, including his books. He swore to never write again, but he felt compelled to express the pain he felt through painting, an art form he had previously condemned. This gave birth to the 300-year “renaissance” of the tradition of Islamic illustration, in which Ibn Shakir’s desire for his work’s immortality was truly realized.
It may seem like the Islamic illustration tradition is defined by a lack of passion imposed by strict rules and humility before God. However, Stork’s first story explains that the renaissance of Islamic illustration was in fact inspired by a single individual’s moment of great emotion. Ibn Shakir’s torment and his desire to express it via painting were so powerful that they overrode his previous condemnation of painting, suggesting that sometimes human emotion can be more forceful than the restraint required by strict religious observance. Once again, this idea creates a great sense of tension at the heart of the Islamic painting tradition.
The second story is set at an unspecified point in the past, when Fahir Shah’s army defeated the soldiers of Selahattin Khan and tortured their leader to death. After this victory, Fahir Shah visited Selahattin Khan’s library and replaced images of the dead ruler with himself. He then visited Selahattin Khan’s harem and attempted to seduce the most beautiful woman there, Neriman Sultan. Neriman implored Fahir Shah not to destroy an illustration that depicted herself and Selahattin Khan in the place of the lovers from the famous romance Leyla and Mejnun, and Fahir Shah agreed. The two then fell in love, but five years later Fahir Shah was still troubled by the illustration, believing that as long as it existed he would not “join the ranks of the immortals with his wife.” He altered the illustration to resemble himself, but upon seeing it, the royal librarian became convinced that it had been altered to resemble Fahir Shah’s enemy. On hearing this rumor, the enemy decided to attack, killing Fahir Shah and marrying Neriman.
This story functions as a warning against several different kinds of desire: romantic desire, the desire for immortality, and the desire to be represented in art. Note that these desires are presented as more dangerous than the more obviously sinful behavior in the story. Fahir Shah is not punished for the fact that he tortures Selahattin Khan to death, but he is punished for the desire to be immortally preserved alongside his wife in a painting. The story thus reflects the particular tensions that are facing the miniaturists during the time the book is set—namely, the social and cultural impact of the new styles used by European painters.
The final story is about Tall Mehmet, a master illustrator who worked until the age of 110 before going blind. Mehmet was famous for being absolutely faithful to the old masters and having no distinct style of his own. By the time he was 80, some people believed Mehmet would never die, and they claimed that he went blind because he was immortal. At age 119, Mehmet, who was still a virgin, met a beautiful 16-year-old apprentice with whom he fell in love and seduced through “deception and trickery.” Although he succeeded in winning the boy’s heart, before long he became completely blind, and soon after he died.
Tall Mehmet’s story suggests that even the most virtuous people are only ever a hair’s breadth away from sin. Mehmet lives his entire life in a virtuous manner, dedicating himself entirely to his art and to honoring the tradition of the great masters. However, even the fact that this righteous dedication makes him immortal is not satisfactory, and he ends up falling into the trap of sinful lust and—as a result—mortality.
Once the story is over, Black stares at the picture of the Sultan that Stork is working on. Stork feels uncomfortable about the way Black is looking around his workshop, including at his “comely” assistant and the collage album he secretly made to sell to a European traveler. Stork tells Black that he is familiar with the sights of battle, and that he makes sure he illustrates everything he remembers seeing. Black asks about the moral of each story Stork told. Stork replies that the first story shows that it is only time that can make a picture perfect, and the second suggests that time can only be escaped through painting. He asks Black to tell him the moral of the last story, and Black replies that it reveals that those who give up the “perfect life and perfect illuminating” will soon experience the end of time in death.
By the end of this chapter, it is clear that many people believe that miniature painting is a way of circumventing the passage of time as well as mortality. The most faithful miniaturists evade the pull of time, and to be represented in a painting is to be preserved in an immortal state. However, it’s not clear if this is a good or a bad thing—surely painting’s power over time is sacrilegious, a challenge to God. Furthermore, is it really good for people to transcend time? After all, mortality is arguably the most important element of the human condition.