Sometimes you find gems in the most unexpected places – and a book that should be required background reading for anybody attempting to study the religious chromolithographs that were produced and consumed during parts of the 20th century by Muslims in the Levant, North Africa and West Africa in the library of the Natural History Museum.I am indebted for this find to a hint from Mirjam Shatanawi of the Tropenmuseum in Amsterdam I received via the H-Net list for Islamic Art. The book she recommended is Bestiaire et Culture Populaire Musulmane et Juive au Maroc by Andre Goldberg, a sort of dictionary of the significances of different animals in Moroccan popular culture. And, yes, at first it doesn’t sound like anything relevant to the study of religious chromolithographs. But bear with us.
The chromolithograph depicting Sheikh Ahmad Tijani al-Hasani shows him accompanied by a gazelle while a falcon (eagle?) is cruising the sky above him. A lion rests next to Ali in the print that shows him surrounded by his sons Hassan and Husayn as well as to the feet of Sheikh Abd al-Qadir al-Hasani. Animals populate the Ark of Nuh/Noah. And, iconographically related prints in other collections include a snake and, more curiously, a peacock into the depiction of the primordial couple, animals in the court of the Solomon, a lion in the image showing the imprisoned Moroccan Sheikh Rahal al-Boudali (top row, to the right of Ibrahim/Abraham’s sacrifice) and the lions, snakes and scorpions in the illustrations of the tomb of Sheikh Ahmad al-Rifa’i.
So, clearly, anybody interested in the iconography of these religious images needs to consider the significances of these animals in the popular cultures that produced and consumed them. And that is where Goldberg’s book comes in. That, and the fact that it illustrates and discusses a selection of religious chromolithographs collected in Morocco some of which were produced in Casablanca and others imported from Cairo.
I have only started reading the book – being written in French it takes me double the time that an English or German language volume would – and I am happy finding illustrations of a number of chromolithographs. Another useful piece in the puzzle. I am also captivated by the multiple significances that these animals connote(d) in popular Moroccan culture. Of course, while some of these meanings may have been shared across the region in which the religious chromolithographs were produced, others will have been interpreted differently in the various local contexts including in Nigeria. Nevertheless, as I already said, it is another piece in the puzzle – and a push in another, hopefully fruitful direction of inquiry.
P.S. Did I mention that Goldberg also illustrates vehicle arts in Morocco, thus (on a comparative level) contributing to another strand of research I’d like to explore further …