Master Osman tells a story about Abdullah Khan, a suspicious ruler who did not allow his miniaturists to copy from one another’s work. He welcomed two famous masters fleeing war to his court, but refused to let them see each other’s paintings, which made both of them desperately curious. When Abdullah Khan died, the masters immediately rushed to each other’s rooms to view their paintings, only to be disappointed that they did not live up to their imagination. Standing in the treasury, Osman does not have the same experience; instead, he thanks God for the opportunity to view so many glorious manuscripts. Osman knows that, as a true master, he will eventually go blind, but he is glad that this has not happened yet. Pointing out a vivid red to Black, he claims that Allah only shows the true red in the blood of humanity. Throughout the night, they discuss the paintings, pointing out details and themes to one another.
Master Osman’s comments about the color red further illuminate the important role that the color plays within the novel. Red is shown to have a special, magical power, and in this passage it becomes clear that this power is linked to the fact that red is the color of blood. Although Master Osman is not aware of this, after Enishte dies he also experiences the color red when he is close to God. Red thus symbolizes the life force that connects God to humanity. The fact that artists can use the color red (even if it is less vivid than the divine red) suggests that art can indeed be a way for humanity to come nearer to God.
Master Osman wonders if Black and Jemzi Agha have the same intense emotional reaction to the books as he does. He feels that only “true artists” who have suffered during their lives can render portrayals of violence, pain, and suffering in a vibrant way. Osman feels a profound sense of melancholy at the fate of miniaturists, who spend their lives laboring over art only to eventually disappear into “anonymity and blindness.” Looking at a painting, he recalls a time earlier in his life when he felt a profound desire for a beautiful young boy; thinking about his past brings tears to his eyes. Osman opens another volume at random and is astonished to find it is the work of the great master Bihzad. He tells Black: “We miniaturists are brethren… but now everything is coming to an end,” meaning miniature painting is being killed by the European style.
Overall, Master Osman is not presented in a particularly sympathetic light; he is often shown to be vain, stubborn, narrow-minded, and cruel. In this passage, however, Master Osman’s sense of profound sadness about the disappearance of the past and the miniaturist tradition reveal him to be more sensitive and vulnerable than the reader may have previously assumed. In one sense, Osman can perhaps be condemned for trying too hard to hold onto the past. At the same time, his sorrow over the disappearance of the brotherhood of miniaturists is rather moving.
In the middle of the night, after Black has fallen asleep, Master Osman discovers the enormous Book of Kings. Osman feels distracted as he looks through it and wishes he could lose himself in it. By the time dawn arrives, Osman still hasn’t found a horse’s nose that will give any clue about the murderer’s identity, although he reminds himself that he still has one day left to look. He also sadly concludes that the Persians have produced “more masterpieces” than the Ottomans. Suddenly, Osman is seized by the impulse to scratch out the eyes of the figures lying before him. After he has done so, he wishes that blood would pour from the pages. In another book, Osman reads that, at the end of his life, Bihzad gouged his own eyes out with his painting needle. With Jemzi Agha’s help, Osman retrieves this same needle from another part of the treasury and shivers thinking about the fact that Bihzad held it in his own hands. Gazing into the mirror, Master Osman takes Bihzad’s needle and begins to gouge out his own eyes, smiling as he does so. The colors he can see begin to “bleed” into each other. Osman looks forward to seeing the most beautiful thing of all, God’s vision of the world.
This passage is a dramatic depiction of the mimeses (mirroring) of stories, images, and reality. Looking at the picture, Master Osman experiences an inexplicable impulse to “blind” the figures before him, before remembering the story about how Bihzad blinded himself. These two stories—one visual, one lodged in Osman’s memory—compel Osman to use Bihzad’s needle to blind himself. Does he do so because he feels that there is a strong parallel between his own life and these stories, or perhaps because he wants to create such a parallel? Osman’s act seems to confirm that he experiences life as if he is living inside one of his paintings or the stories that inspire them. Furthermore, it demonstrates Osman’s faith in the story that miniaturists who blind themselves will be rewarded with God’s vision.