The story of Layla and Qays’s unrequited love is an allegory for the mystic’s desire for union with God. The star-crossed sweethearts meet as youths, but being from rival clans they are forbidden from marrying. As a result of their forced separation, Qays goes crazy, retreats into the desert, and becomes known as Majnun (“mad one”). This painting shows the emaciated, unkempt Majnun seated under a large tree. Sympathetic animals gather in pairs around him, while a crowd of concerned visitors approaches from the left. Majnun, meanwhile, appears otherwise preoccupied, no doubt with thoughts of his beloved.
The Persian poet Nizami (d. 1209) expanded upon and popularized this pre-Islamic Arabian tale when he incorporated it into his celebrated Khamsa (Quintet). Illustrations of the romance typically accompany manuscript copies of this and related texts, but the Mead painting seems to have been made as a stand-alone work, perhaps for inclusion in an album.
- Yael Rice, 2015