Christ in the Art of Hossein Behzad of Iran

Although he was a Christian, Hossein Behzad was respected by Muslims and Christians alike, for, in his work, he brought together the best artistic traditions of Persia's past and his own contemporary experience of Christian faith.

This essay focuses on the art from the Christian period in Behzad's life. 

This painting, Wise Men from the East, is one of his most popular works.
Hossein Behzad received a medal for this painting from the National Council of Churches, USA, as recognition of its choice for the National Council's 1958 Christmas card of the year.  William Miller had the privilege of presenting him their medal and citation.  When the medal was presented and words of appreciation were spoken, Behzad said, "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.
Since the end of the nineteenth century, a clamor for Persian miniatures in the style of Behzad of Herat and Riza-i-Abbasi has brought success to talented artists such as Hossein Behzad. 
Hailed as one of the best miniaturist painters since Riza-i-Abbasi, Hossein Behzad carried to a natural conclusion Riza-i-Abbasi's pioneering changes, eliminating all oriental trappings and firmly establishing perspective.

Detail from Christ and the Woman Taken in Adultery -- Behzad
One of Hossein Behzad's first Biblical works, Adoration of the Wise Men, was painted at the request of the Presbyterian Mission in Iran.   Hossein Behzad, then about 45 years old, was an established artist in Teheran, Iran's capital.  He was also a convert from Islam.
Hossein Behzad preferred to think of his life story as that of the prodigal son, a Biblical parable he once painted in two compositions.  Behzad was born in 1894, son of a highly regarded traditional miniaturist and painter.  Behzad's father taught his son how to paint, and later the boy expanded his skills at a Muslim school.

The Prodigal Son - Behzad
Unfortunately, Behzad's father soon died, and young Behzad was compelled to drop out of school and apprentice to a calligrapher.

Detail from The Prodigal Son - Behzad
However, Behzad continued to train as a painter, copying the great masters, particularly Behzad of Herat and Riza-i-Abbasi.   By his seventeenth birthday, Hossein Behzad was self-confident enough as a painter to move to Teheran and work alone.

Detail from The Prodigal Son - Behzad
He fell into depression and dissipation in Teheran.  He was intelligent and talented, yet he drank and used opium.

The Prodigal Son Returns - Behzad
A Christian friend, who was a convert from Judaism, was greatly distressed to see Behzad in this sad condition, and took him to his church where he heard the Good News of a Savior for the first time.

Detail from The Prodigal Son Returns - Behzad
This new awakening for Behzad may be symbolized by this detail showing a servant of the prodigal son's father bringing new clothing and shoes for the tattered youth.

At the evangelist's urging, Behzad accepted the Good News, opened his heart to Christ and became a Christian.

Detail from The Prodigal Son Returns - Behzad
Later, Behzad painted, "The Good Shepherd", a theme that he felt was autobiographical.  Christ is sitting inside the fold, the walls of which are in disrepair; there is a door, through which sheep are entering.   Christ is both the door and the shepherd.  Behzad knew that he had been the lost sheep found by Christ.

The Good Shepherd - Behzad
This theme, Christ the Good Shepherd, was later used for a tapestry design by Behzad for Princeton Theological Seminary's Robert E. Speer Library.   Christ the Good Shepherd has gone out into the dark mountain of sin to seek and save the lost lamb.

He finds the lamb and holds it lovingly in his arms, as he takes it to the sunlit fields of salvation, where his sheep graze happily.  Behind the Good Shepherd is the Tree of Life, in the top of which is the cross formed from blossoms.  The Stream of the Water of Life flows from the Shepherd's robe.

Flowers bloom beside the stream.  Such vivid symbolism is common to all of Behzad's Christian theme paintings and miniatures.
The first picture by Behzad after his conversion is believed to be
Christ in Glory.  

The four Persian inscriptions beneath the portrait read: 
Master of Love
Lord of Truth
Savior of All
Christ the Lord. 


In fine handwriting at the lower left-hand corner is the signature: 
Behzad, Servant of Christ

It is believed that it was this painting that brought requests to Behzad to do other religious pictures.
Hossein Behzad, in the tradition of all Persian painters, enjoyed painting beautiful women.  Consequently, he chose the women of Christ's life as subjects for many of his Biblical works.

Mary and Jesus in Arms 
sketch by Behzad
His portrayal of Mary, the mother of Jesus, was especially vivid and recurrent.  This painting, and the previous sketch, are both entitled, Mary and Jesus in Arms.
This detail from The Maji, Mary and Jesus, is one of the many nativity scenes that Behzad often painted for his friends.
Behzad chose Martha for this tapestry, Christ and Martha.  It is a depiction of Christ coming to Bethany to raise Lazarus from the dead, and Martha coming to meet Him, kneeling at His feet.

Christ is saying, "I am the Resurrection and the Life.  Thy brother shall rise again."

As in the other tapestry, above the head of Christ is the sign of the cross.   Martha is gazing up at Him, the light of faith shining in her face.
Behzad also painted Mary Magdalene in this portrayal of
The
Risen Christ and Mary Magdalene at the Tomb.

Christ seems to be clinging to the Tree of Life as he extends a hand.
Behzad's painting of the women around Christ also included two treatments of the story of the woman taken in adultery.

This detail shows the compassionate look on the face of Christ and the remorseful countenance of the woman.

In the final detail, Christ has drawn a cross on the ground before the woman.

Christ and the Woman Taken in Adultery, Go and Sin No More - Behzad
Here note the charming and interesting faces of the men in the crowd who have just been shamed by Christ.

Christ and the Woman Taken in Adultery
Go and Sin No More - Behzad
Christ and the Woman at the Well.

Christ is placed again near the Tree of Life as He tells the woman that her ways are not wise.

In the detail, we see the extraordinary beauty which Behzad gave to his portraits of women.
One of Behzad's most charming paintings of women is this work,
The Wise and Foolish Virgins,
which shows his warmth and humanity as well as his prowess.
Behzad also painted Christ and the Children in which he portrays the tenderness of Christ. 
In Risen Christ and His Followers, Behzad expresses the majesty which he saw in his Lord. 

Behzad lived a long and fruitful life after he became a Christian.   He was a tireless worker; always attempting to incorporate his best Christian understanding into his life and work.
His theories of Persian painting, such as his dislike of rigid discipline and his preference for dull hues rather than sharp colors, won him a place as an innovative landmark artist.

Detail from Risen Christ and His Followers - Behzad
Here we see how Behzad chose colors of the same family to create unified space.

Detail from Risen Christ and His Followers - Behzad
Many of Behzad's Biblical themes took on an autobiographical significance.  In this picture,
Christ the True Vine, Behzad acknowledges the strength he gained from Christ, a fortitude that enabled him to triumph as an attentive disciple.
Yet, we also see how Behzad saw himself as just one of the boys.  His friends describe him as having been an ordinary everyday man, with no pretensions and a striking humility.  Behzad's devotion culminated in an honorary doctorate awarded by the School of Fine Arts in Teheran.

Detail from Christ the True Vine - Behzad
At Behzad's death in 1968, Iran mourned an artist who was once described by Jean Cocteau, the French author, as
" . . . a magical prophet, a storyteller of the Orient; he was the only twentieth century master in the art of miniature painting." 

Hossein Behzad also stands as a Christian whose contributions have enriched the gallery of Christian art around the world.
Slides and excerpts from the filmstrip, Christ in the Art of Hossein Behzad of Iran.

Credits:
William M. Miller, Originals of Behzad Art/Consultant

The National Council of Churches, USA, Christmas Card Art

Script:  John C Batchelor
Research:  Sherman B. Fung

Originally distributed by Presbyterian Distribution Service, 225 Varick Street, New York, NY 10014 ~1970
Special thanks to Tat Stewart for making these precious slides and narratives available.

Our hope is that, as you read about Hossein Behzad and other Iranian Christians, you will appreciate the incredible Iranian Christian heritage that is yours. 

From the beginning of documented history, woven throughout the Bible and up into modern terms, Persian Christians have played a pivotal role in God's Plan for mankind. 

Jesus desires to impact your life, to give you a peace and hope that only comes through a personal relationship with Him.   If you have questions, please feel free to contact us at pwo@worldmail.org