The Shahnameh manuscript made for Shah Tahmasp of Persia (1514-76, r.1524-76) is universally acknowledged as one of the supreme illustrated manuscripts of any period or culture and among the greatest works of art in the world.

The key to its brilliance lies in the 258 illustrations and illumination, all executed between about 1520 and 1540 at a time when the art of Persian painting had reached absolute zenith. Probably no other Persian work of art, save architecture, has ever involved such enormous expense or taken so much artists’ time.

The Shahnameh or 'Book of Kings' is the Persian national epic, telling the history and legends of Persia from prehistoric times down to the end of the Sassanian dynasty in the seventh century AD. The author, Firdausi (circa 933-1020), assumed the task of writing the history of the Persian kings in verse in 976 after Dakiki, a poet friend who had started the work, was murdered, Firdausi devoted the remainder of his working life to composing the 30,000 couplets of the Shahnameh. The finished text was presented to Sultan Mahmud of Ghazna in 1010. The text was henceforth to become a touchstone of Iranian royalty, the text which, above all others, was to be revered by kings as confirmation of their sovereignty and as a symbol of their dynastic legitimacy. From the fourteenth century onwards no cultured prince could ignore the obligation to commission his own illustrated version of the national epic.

Shah Tahmasp’s Shahnameh was commissioned by his father Shah Isma'il I (r.1502-24), the first Safavid Shah of Iran. Shah Isma'il was a dynamic, charismatic and powerful character who conquered the ruling Aq-Qoyunlu Turkman and Uzbek tribes, creating an empire which encompassed a vast area from the Caucasus in the north-west to the Oxus river in the east and the shores of the Arabian Sea in the south. The new empire took in the most important cultural cities of the region - Herat, Shiraz, Qazwin and Tabriz, making the latter the new Safavid capital. By 1522, the probable date of commissioning of the manuscript, Shah Isma'il had completed his conquests and was becoming interested in the arts. Shah Tahmasp, as a boy only eight years of age, had just returned to his father's capital from Herat where he had been child governor. Shah Isma'il died in 1524, respected and revered by the entire court, and Shah Tahmasp continued his father's passion for the arts of the book and specifically the production of this monumental copy of the Shahnameh, devoting the royal atelier to its preparation and production for a period of nearly two decades. Probably no other Persian work of art, save architecture, has involved such enormous expense or taken so much artists' time.

The Shahnameh has no colophon, and the only date is inscribed on one of the miniatures – 934 AH/1527-28 AD, but the illuminated dedication on folio 16 states definitely that the manuscript was made for the library of Shah Tahmasp. A second manuscript prepared for Shah Tahmasp is the Khamsa of Nizami, now in the British Library, London (Or.2265). The Khamsa is of similar dimensions to the Shahnameh and is usually regarded as its sister manuscript. In its present condition it contains fourteen contemporary illustrations, painted within a shorter period circa 1539-43, thus representing the Tabriz style in its full maturity. With their contemporary inscriptions and attributions, the miniatures of the Khamsa provide a basis for comparison and attribution of the Shahnameh miniatures.

This folio depicts a battle from the Iran-Turan conflict. The Turanian commander Piran was enraged by the news of the death of his brother Human at the hands of the youthful Iranian Bizhan. To seek revenge Piran instructs their brother Nastihan to lead a nocturnal raid on the Iranian army at Mount Raybad. Unfortunately, before the Turanians reach the Iranian camp they are discovered by the Iranian commander Gudarz who alerts Bizhan and his troops. A battle ensues and Bizhan shoots Nastihan’s horse and then brings Nastihan down with a fatal blow of his mace.

“The cloud-band scroll markings on the horses’ bodies and hooves are echoed in the feathered plumes of the principal figures. The artist demonstrates his mastery at using colour and pattern to balance the composition.”

This gruesome battle is portrayed in full gory detail with flying arrows, spears and swords severing heads and bodies, the thundering hooves of the frenzied horses trampling them underfoot. The lively composition is made up of a series of vignettes centred on the battling figures of Bizhan and Nastihan. The strong diagonals of the soldiers’ spears add momentum to the scene. The backdrop of the glistening starry night sky and the cool palette of the blue-grey ground, contrasts beautifully with the vibrant hues of the soldiers and their steeds. Their costumes, horse trappings, shields and quivers painted in colours of orange, vermillion, yellow and blue are all intricately decorated with a gold interlace of arabesque ornament. The cloud-band scroll markings on the horses’ bodies and hooves are echoed in the feathered plumes of the principal figures. The artist demonstrates his mastery at using colour and pattern to balance the composition.

Shah Isma'il's conquests of different regions and cultural centres had enabled him to gather artists of different training and experience. It was this composite nature of the atelier that led to a new and glorious hybrid style of Persian miniature painting, now known as the Tabriz style. In his extensive research into this manuscript and early Safavid painting, Stuart Cary Welch identified two main source styles: the Timurid tradition of Herat and the Turkman tradition of Shiraz and other centres. At Shah Tahmasp's atelier older masters worked side by side with younger artists, encouraging the development of individual artists' skills and enhancing the performance of the atelier as a whole. The manuscript displays the remarkable range of Persian miniature painting of the period, all of an extraordinarily high standard.

Sultan Muhammad was the first leading artist of the Shahnameh, and the one to whom much of the initial stylistic innovation is credited. It appears that for a middle period the leadership was taken over by Mir Musavvir, and that towards the end it was Aqa Mirak. It is believed that the atelier must have occupied at least fifteen painters, identified as separate hands by Welch.

Welch identified this and 31 other folios from the manuscript as being the work of Painter E, Bashdan Qara. There are two signed portraits by Bashdan Qara in the Bahram Mirza album (Topkapi Museum H.2154, fol.74) that are identical in composition and facial rendering to his work in the Shahnameh. Bashdan Qara apparently favoured outdoor scenes and was particularly skilled at painting battles. He was said to have worked unassisted, designing and finishing his miniatures from beginning to end (Dickson & Welch 1981, p.258). His work was characterised by densely packed compositions and the extensive use of patterning and arabesque ornamentation. Welch suggested Bashdan Qara’s use of ‘finely scaled patterns’ and his ‘high level of arabesque’ were possibly indicative of his training as an illuminator as well as a painter (ibid., p.228). The influence of Sultan Muhammad is clearly seen in this folio with the composition and colouring relating closely to Qaran slays Barman folio 102v. that Sultan Muhammad painted with the assistance of Mir Sayyid Ali a few years earlier.

Interestingly Bashdan Qara’s name doesn’t appear in the standard accounts of artists at the Safavid court. However, he is recorded once in the Safavid annals as belonging to the Qizilbash of the Yuzi Qara (Blackfaced) branch of the Shambu clam and is noted as being the protégé of Husayn Khan, leader of the Shambu, the last dominant regents of the realm (1531-34). Apparently Husayn Khan with the support of the Ottomans and Uzbeks was behind a plot to overthrow Shah Tahmasp and replace him with Prince Sam Mirza, the half-brother of Shah Tahmasp. In September 1534 when Shah Tahmasp was on pilgrimage to Mashhad an attempt was made to kill the Shah. Husayn Khan instructed Bashdan Qara to personally serve Shah Tahmasp with a cup of poisoned wine. However, Shah Tahmasp became suspicious at the agitated nature of Bashdan Qara and didn’t take the fatal sip. Bashdan Qara then fled across the Oxus to the Uzbek side and joined Prince Sam in Herat. In October 1536 when Shah Tahmasp was declared triumphant, Prince Sam sent note of his surrender along with the severed head of the ill-fated Bashdan Qara (Dickson & Welch 1981, p.258).

After about 1540 Shah Tahmasp's interest in the arts waned, he became increasingly religious and was weighed down with political concerns. The threat of invasion by the Turks from the west had been a recurrent problem, settled by treaty in 1555. When Sultan Suleyman the Magnificent died in Hungary in 1566, there were fears in Tabriz that the treaty might not be upheld by his successor Sultan Selim II (r.1566-74). In 1567 a Safavid embassy led by Shah Quli left for Turkey and met with the Sultan at Edirne in February of 1568. The pomp of the occasion was noted by the Hapsburg embassy, then also present at the Ottoman court. There were thirty-four camels bearing the most magnificent gifts from Shah Tahmasp to the new Sultan. Top of the list of gifts and thus rated the most valuable, were two manuscripts, one a copy of the Qur'an said to have been written by the Imam Ali himself, the other a Shahnameh. Records show that this was indeed Shah Tahmasp's great volume. The Shahnameh stayed with the Ottomans for over three centuries, preserved in almost miraculous condition. Unlike the miniatures of so many Persian manuscripts, the compositions of the Shahnameh illustrations were not generally used or echoed in subsequent manuscripts. This could be partly because of their size and complexity, but also because the volume left Persia so soon, later artists had little access to it.

The manuscript left Istanbul about the end of the nineteenth century and reached France. By 1903 it was in the collection of Baron Edmond de Rothschild who lent it for exhibition at the Musée des Arts Décoratifs in Paris, where the catalogue description gave no hint of its magnificence. It was probably MS.17 in the Rothschild Library. It passed to Maurice de Rothschild in 1934 and after his death in 1957 it was one of a number of outstanding Rothschild books offered for sale, principally in America.

It was acquired by the collector and bibliophile Arthur A. Houghton Jr., benefactor of the Houghton Library at Harvard University. The volume was disbound so that separate pages could be exhibited - at the Grolier Club, the Pierpont Morgan Library and elsewhere. In 1971, 76 folios with 78 of the 258 illustrations were transferred to the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York. Further dispersals occurred over the next two decades, and in addition to those in the Metropolitan Museum of Art, there are leaves of Shah Tahmasp's Shahnameh in the Museum für Islamische Kunst, Berlin; The Freer/Sackler Gallery, Smithsonian Institution, Washington D.C.; the Los Angeles County Museum of Art; the David Collection, Copenhagen; the Museum of Fine Arts, Richmond, Virginia; the Aga Khan Museum, Toronto; the Museum of Islamic Art, Doha; the Nasser D. Khalili Collection; Harvard Art Museums/Arthur M. Sackler Museum, Cambridge, Mass., and the Museum of Contemporary Art, Tehran.