The Arzhang or Ardahang, also known as the Manichaean Picture Book (sometimes referred to as “Mani’s Picture”), is a collection of artwork which depicts the various tenets of Manichaeism, adapted for various cultures. It is believed to have been lost centuries ago. It was Manichaean tradition to produce pictorial works for the purpose of teaching. As the books were passed on to missionaries in other lands, they were adapted for the needs of the local culture.
According to Dr. Zsuzsanna Gulácsi with the Northern Arizona University, the “paintings were created first in mid-third century Mesopotamia with direct involvement from Mani… and were later preserved by being copied and adapted to a wide variety of artistic and cultural norms, as the religion spread across the Asian continent.”
In his book, Mediaeval Manichaean Book Art: A Codicological Study of Iranian and Turkic Illuminated Book Fragments, Dr. Gulácsi says, “Numerous Manichaean and polemic tetual sources confirm that Mani himself created pictorial representations of his teachings, collected probably in a book format… the Picture-Book… became one of the basic resources employed for didactic purposes in most communities. It was taken along on one of the first missions to Central Asia headed by Mar Ammo at the end of the third century, celebrated in North Africa in Manichaean hymns during the fourth century, reported about in a Manichaean document to the Chinese government during the early eighth century, and held as an admired object in a Muslim treasury at Ghaznin during the eleventh century. This doctrinal painted work was a rich visual resource of subjects and iconography and it influenced the formation of other Manichaean media.” (page 114)
Style and Possible Content
Concerning Manichaean artwork with what is called the Bunkakan hanging-scroll, the book In Search of Truth: Augustine, Manichaeism and Other Gnosticism by J. van (Johannes) Oort and Jacob Albert van den Berg says: “While the style and the iconography of the Chinese Manichaean depiction of the judgment in the Yamato Bunkakan hanging-scroll is analogous to roughly contemporaneous Chinese Buddhist images, the theme of judgment itself cannot be considered a Chinese Buddhist influence on Chinese Manichaeism. The topic of judgment pronounced after death to set the path of reincarnation for the auditors [Hearers] forms an integral component of Manichaean eschatology and is documented from the earliest era of Manichaean history. The ninety-second chapter of the Coptic Manichaean Kaphalaia (a collection fo Mani’s teachings from 4th-century Egypt) records the depiction of the theme of judgment in Mani’s Picture… This mid-3rd-century pictorial roll was a set of images about Mani’s teachings for those who could not read. This collection of paintings, frequently referred to in scholarly studies is Mani’s Picture-Book, existed in later copies throughout the Manichaean world.”
“The passage in the Kahphalaia about the depiction of a Judgment Scene in Mani’s Picture-Book documents that a group of paintings in Mani’s Picture-Book were devoted to this pictorial subject and showed death, judgment, and the ultimate fate of the righteous in heaven, as well as that of the sinner in hell. Since the Judgment Scene was part of Mani’s Picture-Book, a Manichaean iconography for its depiction most certainly had developed already during late ancient times in southern Mesopotamia, utilizing a West Asian visual language that followed local artistic norms in terms of media, style, and compositional rules, besides iconography.”
“Elements from a traditional Manichaean iconography… of the Judgment Scene are preserved on two fragments of illuminated manuscripts from ca. 10th-centry Kocho, housed in the Museum fur Asiatische Kunst, Staatliche Museen zu Berlin. The larger fragment is found on a relatively small section of a full-page book painting.” (pages 333-334)