Four Illustrated Pages from a Manuscript of the Shahnama (Book of Kings)

Four Illustrated Pages from a Manuscript of the Shahnama (Book of Kings)
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As is typical of the best Persian miniatures, these paintings portray an idealized world, one that belies the impending violence at the heart of each composition. Here the richly burnished colors of the costumes and arms and armor, the complementary poses of the figures, the carefully contrived landscapes, which include hues not found in nature, combine to create dramatic if unreal settings for combat. These scenes of epic proportions filled with minute detail demonstrate an essential characteristic of Persian miniature painting, in which the figural compositions and landscape elements can be repeated and recombined but with a subtly altered palette, creating anew each time a unique work of art.

Painted in brilliant jewel-like colors, these dazzling pages once illustrated a manuscript of the Persian national epic—the Shahnama, or Book of Kings. Completed in the year 1010 by the poet Firdawsi, it comprises over 50,000 couplets, which tell of the pre-Islamic kings and heroes of Iran. In terms of its epic scope and rhymed narrative, and its sheer impact on the language and life of the nation it immortalizes, the Shahnama can best be likened to Homer’s Iliad. But the Shahnama is considerably longer than the Iliad—covering as it does hundreds of years of Iran’s mythic and historic past, from the creation of the world to the Arab conquest in 650; it is divided into fifty sections, each devoted to the reign of a king—hence the title Book of Kings. From the Mongol period onward, Persian rulers and elites commissioned or acquired illustrated copies of the Shahnama as a means of legitimization or self-promotion by linking themselves to the ancient traditions of kingship in Iran. Although this poetic work is set in an often mythic past, depictions of the Shah and members of his court are always shown clothed in the style of the day, while representations of architecture, furnishings, or other accoutrements likewise reflect contemporary life

The exceptional size of the pages, with their elegant chinoiserie borders, the richness of the palette, including the lavish use of gold, silver, and lapis lazuli, as well as the specific style of painting, suggest these folios come from a manuscript produced around 1560 in Shiraz, a city in southern Iran renowned not only for its poets but as an important center for the book arts. Little is known about for whom such luxurious Shiraz manuscripts were made; they were likely produced on spec, to be sold to wealthy and discriminating clients not only in Iran but in Ottoman Turkey. Like so many great Persian manuscripts, this one likely was broken up for the sake of its paintings in modern times. Other pages from this manuscript are in the British Museum and Harvard University Art Museums.

Learn more about Islamic art and history during the Early Medieval Period.

(Linda Komaroff, Curator of Islamic Art, 2009)