The Story of Hossein Behzad, Miniature Painter of Iran,  Servant of Christ

Excerpt from a letter by William McElwee Miller, circa 1934, taken from the book, My Persian Pilgrimage.  
(Used by permission of William Carey Library, copyright 1989. All rights reserved. Materials are not to be distributed to other web locations for retrieval, published in other media, or mirrored at other sites without permission of William Carey Library.  )

". . . you would have been especially interested in the story of Behzad, one of the leading artists in Tehran, whose exquisite miniature paintings are being sold at a high price in America this year.   He said his chief ambition had been to be a first class artist and win fame, but when he achieved his desire, he found he was not yet happy.   Opium and drink and fast living had ruined his health, and life had become very empty for him.   Then two years ago he had found Christ, and all had changed.  For the first time he had become truly happy, and Christ was giving him victory over sin.   I suppose it was the first time this timid little man had every spoken in public, but he showed no sign of fear as he gave his witness."

One of the best services during Holy Week of  1934 was that on Palm Sunday when we had a joint baptismal service.   The Reverend Geoffrey Rogers form the Anglican church in Isfahan was in Teheran, and it was arranged that he would baptize a group of ten adults, converted Jews and Muslims, using the rite of the Episcopal church.   One of those baptized by him was Behzad.   Then I baptized about the same number of children using the rite of our church.  It was a most impressive service, and we all rejoiced in the unity we have in Christ.

Story taken from Tales of Persia, Behzad and His Beautiful Paintings, by William McElwee Miller
Used by permission of P & R Publishing Company, copyright 1979. All rights reserved. Materials are not to be distributed to other web locations for retrieval, published in other media, or mirrored at other sites without permission of P & R Publishing Company. )

I first saw Behzad one night in the church in Teheran. There had been a meeting in the church to which Muslims and Jews, as well as Christians, were invited. The minister told the people how Jesus Christ had come from heaven to save us from our sins and to make us children of God, and he invited everybody to believe in this Savior.  When the meeting came to an end and the minister had said the final prayer, most of the people left the church. Then one of the Christian men came to me and said, "I have brought my friend Behzad here tonight, and he is sitting in the back of the church. He needs Jesus Christ very much.  Please come and meet him!"

So I went to the back of the church, and there I saw a little man who looked very unhappy.  It was Behzad.  He was an artist, and he was able to paint beautiful pictures.  But, sad to say, his own life was not beautiful, for Behzad had acquired a few bad habits.  He was using opium and alcohol, and he had become sick and weak, and he was not able to quit these habits.   He was really a slave bound by these evil chains, and he could not get free.  Naturally he was sad and hopeless. 

Behzad's Iranian friend told him that Jesus Christ had the power to set him free, and he urged him to believe in Christ and be saved.   Behzad did this, and later his wife also believed.  Previously both of them were Muslims.   After they had studied the Bible and understood who Jesus is and what he has done and will do for us, they were baptized and became members of the church in Teheran.   With the help of Christ, Behzad was able for many years to continue his painting, and he became known as the best miniature artist in Iran.

I used to visit Behzad and his wife to pray for them and to talk to them about Jesus Christ, and I often saw him at work.  He always sat on the floor with his legs crossed under him as he painted his pictures on a low table beside him.

After he became a Christian, Behzad painted a little picture of Jesus Christ and gave it to me. I have it before me now as I write this story. It represents our Lord surrounded by clouds of glory, and there is a halo of light about his head. Under the clouds are written these words in the beautiful Persian script:

            Master of Love, Lord of Truth,
                   Savior of all, Christ the Lord.

And he signed the picture, "Servant of Christ, Behzad".  How very happy I was to receive this lovely gift from my friend!  After that Behzad painted a number of Bible pictures for me and for other friends.

There was at that time an organization in New York called "Lit-Lit" which intended to teach people who had never gone to school how to read and write (this is literacy) and to prepare books for them in a language they could read (this is literature).  Now you see why it was called "Lit-Lit".  The people who did this work hoped that many of those who learned how to read would read the Bible and believe in Jesus Christ.

In order to get money for printing books, every year Lit-Lit sold many thousands of Christmas cards. They asked Christian artists in all lands to paint the very best pictures they could about the birth of Christ and to send them to New York, where the best of all the pictures they received would be chosen for the Christmas card of the year.   Behzad's missionary friends in Iran heard about this and urged him to enter the contest. He did so, and he painted a beautiful picture of the Wise Men bringing their gifts to the Baby Jesus, who is resting in the arms of his mother, Mary.  This picture won the prize, and in 1958 more than three hundred thousand of Behzad's cards were sold and sent to the people all over the world by their friends.  How happy we all were that Behzad was able in this way to serve his Savior!

To thank Behzad for this lovely picture, Lit-Lit sent him a citation and a special medal made for him. Three of his Christian friends in Teheran went to his little home to present them to him.  He was at work in his studio, sitting on the floor as usual. He stood up. And when the medal was presented and words of appreciation were spoken, Behzad replied, "I have received many honors in my life, but I prize this honor more than any of the others. For the other honors came to me from men, but this has come from Jesus Christ."

Behzad did something else for which I was very grateful. I am sure you know that when missionaries leave their native land and go to other countries to serve Jesus Christ, people in the churches from which they go often give the money that is needed for their travel and for their living expenses in their new home.  For many years the members of the Calvin Presbyterian Church in Philadelphia gave the money for my support in Iran.

They also prayed for me and wrote letters to me and encouraged me in doing God's work. Not only the grown-ups but also the children in the Sunday school helped to support me by their gifts, and the different classes sent me cards at Christmas, signed by all the children. So, of course, I greatly appreciated all that the people of Calving Church did for me.

Once when I was planning to come to America for a visit, I wanted to bring a nice gift to Calvin Church to show my gratitude. What could I bring?  As you know, Iran is famous for its Persian rugs, so I decided to take to the church a rug woven in Iran.  But instead of an ordinary rug to be put on the floor, I wanted to take one with a picture of Christ woven into it to be hung on the wall. Where could I get such a rug? Of course it could not be bought in the bazaar.

I had a friend in the town of Semnan named Bagher who was a master rug weaver.  He had married the daughter of Gasem, and he, too, had become a Christian.  

Once when I was a guest in their home, I asked Bagher if he could weave a rug for me to give to the church that would have in it a picture of Christ. "Yes," he replied, "I can do that.  But you must get someone to draw the pattern for me.  I can't weave it without a pattern."

Have you ever looked closely at a Persian rug?  If so, you noticed that it was made up of thousands of little knots of wool thread of different colors tied onto strong white cotton cords.  From the pattern the weaver knows how many knots of each color he must tie in each row to form the picture.  When he follows the pattern carefully, the picture will come out beautifully.   It takes a long time to weave a good rug, for every separate knot is tied by hand.

When Bagher said he needed a pattern, at once I thought of Behzad.  "Do you think Behzad could prepare a pattern for you?" I asked.  "Oh, yes," he replied, "No one could do it as well as Behzad."

When I returned to Teheran, I went to see Behzad.   I asked him if he would make a pattern in which there would be a picture of Christ.   At once he agreed to do this, and he choose as the subject Martha kneeling before the grave.   You can read the whole story in the eleventh chapter of John.  When Behzad finished drawing the pattern, he brought it to me, and I wish you could have seen it -- it was a beautiful picture of Christ!

Then I took it to Semnan to Bagher, and he went to work weaving the little rug.   He took many weeks to finish it, for he worked on it only in the evening after his other work was over.   When at last I saw the finished rug, I was delighted, for it was a thing of beauty, with its bright colors of red and blue and green and yellow, I was sure the Calvin people would love it. 

When I reached America and was invited by the pastor of Calvin Church to speak on Sunday morning, I took the rug with me and hid it behind the pulpit.

When I spoke, I told the people how Behzad and Bagher had become Christians and how they had used their wonderful talents to make a rug in which was women a picture of Christ.   Then suddenly I lifted the rug from behind the pulpit and held it up for all of them to see.   So surprised and so thrilled were the people by the beauty of this work of art that a murmur of "oh" went up from the congregation.   They did indeed love this gift from Iran. They made a frame for it and put glass over it to keep it safe and clean. 

Today it is hanging on the wall of the church for people to admire.  I wish you could see it!

The picture in the rug reminds us that Jesus Christ, who gave physical life to Lazarus after he had been dead and buried for four days, is able to give spiritual life also to people like Behzad, who are captives to sin.  Christ gives them new hearts and makes them happy and strong to serve God.  If Christ had not given this new life to Behzad, he would never have painted all those beautiful pictures, which have brought joy to so many people.

Martha said to Jesus, "Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died. But even now I know that God will give you whatever you ask."  Jesus told her, "Your brother will rise again." "Yes," Martha said, "when everyone else rises, on resurrection day." Jesus told her, "I am the resurrection and the life. Those who believe in me, even though they die like everyone else, will live again. They are given eternal life for believing in me and will never perish. Do you believe this, Martha?" "Yes, Lord," she told him. "I have always believed you are the Messiah, the Son of God, the one who has come into the world from God."  John 11:21-27.

Since I left Iran, God has enabled me to do the following . . . 19) To assist the Reverend Archie Crouch and Lit-Lit in New York in preparing a filmstrip of the Christian paintings of Husayn Behzad.  I was distressed that when Behzad died in Tehran in 1968 he was buried as a Muslim.  Neither in the big funeral service for him in the mosque nor in the lengthy accounts of his life in the Tehran newspapers was any mention made of his being a Christian.  The Muslims did not want to admit that this famous artist had become a Christian.  I was eager that in some way the reality of his Christian faith be attested.  I owned a number of Behzad's religious paintings, and I took them to Dr. Crouch.  With his supervision, a filmstrip with a narrative recording was produced, the title of which was "Christ in the Art of Husayn Behzad of Iran".  Later I assisted Mr. Payne in preparing an album of Behzad's religious paintings, the originals of most of which are in my possession.  I have a copy of the filmstrip and also a copy of the album.

If you have information about the location of the Christmas card that Behzad painted, the filmstrip or album, please contact us so that we may present the full Christian works of Behzad, Servant of Christ.

Below are some of Behzad's other pictures. Click on the pictures to enlarge them.

Other Weblinks to the works of Hossein Behzad: