Ink, opaque watercolour and gold on paper, text written in four columns of fine nasta'liq script, double intercolumnar rules in gold, wide gold-sprinkled margins, catchword at lower left corner; recto with a full page of nasta'liq text written in four columns and two headings written in white thuluth script within panels of fine illumination
Commissioned by the Safavid Emperor Shah Isma`il, circa 1522
Completed under the patronage of his son Shah Tahmasp at the royal atelier, Tabriz, circa 1525-1540
Presented in 1568 by Shah Tahmasp to the Ottoman Sultan Selim II
In the collection of Baron Edmund de Rothschild, Paris, 1903-1934
By Descent to Baron Maurice de Rothschild, Paris, 1934-1957
His estate 1957-1959
Arthur A. Houghton Jr., USA, 1959-1977
Agnews, London, 1977
Exposition d'art Islamique, Musée des arts décoratifs, Paris, 1903
A King's Book of Kings, The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, 1972
Wonders of the Age, The British Library, London; The National Gallery of Art, Washington D.C.; and The Fogg Art Museum, Harvard University, 1979-80
The Shahnameh manuscript made for Shah Tahmasp of Persia (1514-1576, reigned 1524-76) is a monumental achievement of artistic skill and patronage, and a work of breathtaking quality and exquisite beauty. Containing the greatest epic of Persian literature, profusely and magnificently illustrated by the greatest artists and illuminators of the royal atelier over a period of two decades, it 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. It is rightly regarded as the apogee of Persia art. The complete manuscript contained 258 ravishing illustrations, countless panels of exquisite illumination and some 30,000 couplets of poetry written in crisp, rhythmic nasta'liq calligraphy on 759 folios of burnished and gold-sprinkled paper. It was executed between about 1520 and 1540, at a time when the Persian arts of the book had reached their absolute zenith. The provenance of this copy of the Shahnameh is one of the most glittering of any manuscript. It was commissioned by one emperor, Shah Isma`il, completed by another Shah Tahmasp, gifted to a third, Sultan Selim II of the Ottoman Empire, and was later owned by one of the great bibliophilic families of the modern era, the Barons de Rothschild, whose Western manuscripts included such masterpieces as the Belles Heures of the Duc de Berry and the Hours of Catherine of Cleves.
the history of the manuscript
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 AD, 1001 years ago this year. 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 14th century onwards no cultured prince could ignore the obligation to commission his own illustrated version of the national epic.
Shah Tahmasp's Shahnameh was probably commissioned by his father, Shah Isma'il (reigned 1502-1524), the first Safavid Shah of Iran. Shah Ismail 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, where he made 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.
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 researches on this manuscript and early Safavid painting, 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 shows the remarkable range of Persian miniature painting of the period, all of an extraordinarily high standard.
It is difficult to conceive of the artistic magnitude of the Shahnameh of Shah Tahmasp from our position in a different age and a different cultural tradition. There is no European equivalent of Shah Tahmasp's gathering of all the greatest artists of the era, along with the greatest scribes, illuminators, gilders, paper-makers, bookbinders and pigment-makers. But let us try to imagine a scenario in which the greatest patron of Renaissance Italy, perhaps Pope Julius II, gathered into one atelier the elite artists of the late 15th and early 16th century, both mature and young, along with their pupils, followers and workshops, and committed them to a single monumental project for a period of twenty years, during which time they worked on almost nothing else. The artistic goal of the Persian painter was book illustration. Western media such as fresco, panel or canvas did not feature in the Persian artistic tradition at this time. Therefore an Italian project of equivalent magnitude and significance would have to have been a national epic such as the Divine Comedy of Dante and to have included in one single, monumental and profusely illustrated volume the masterpieces of a host of Renaissance artists such as Leonardo, Bellini, Perugino, Michelangelo, Raphael, Giorgione, Titian, Corregio and more, and their pupils. Imagine such a manuscript, with 258 illustrations by artists of this calibre. It is an indigestible, almost surreal concept, and yet it is the inherent nature of this most glamorous of Persian manuscripts. Little surprise, therefore that Shah Tahmasp's Shahnameh enjoys such an illustrious reputation.
The manuscript has no colophon, and the only date is inscribed on one of the miniatures – AH 934 (AD 1527-8), 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 Khamseh of Nizami, now in the British Library, London, (Or.2265; Welch 1979, 134-183, and published in most of the same reference works as the Shahnameh). The Khamseh 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 1539-1543, thus representing the Tabriz style in its full maturity. With their contemporary inscriptions and attributions, the miniatures of the Khamseh provide a basis for comparison and attribution of the Shahnameh miniatures.
The first leading artist of the Shahnameh, and the one to whom much of the initial stylistic innovation is credited, was Sultan Muhammad. It appears that for a middle period the leadership was taken over by Mir Musavvir, and that towards the end it was Aqa Mirak, the artist of the present folio, who dominated the project. The atelier must have occupied at least fifteen painters, identified as separate hands by Welch. Usually an illustrated page involved the work of more than one artist, perhaps a result of the way in which the studio was organised for manuscript making. Certain pictures are attributed to the hand of one artist working alone, and among these are some of the finest miniatures of the manuscript (including the present example). For our knowledge of the artists of Shah Tahmasp's atelier we are fortunate that near-contemporary Persian commentators wrote about them and the nature of their work. Dust Muhammad, himself an artist who worked on the Shahnameh to a limited extent, was commissioned by Prince Bahram Mirza, brother of Shah Tahmasp, to assemble an album of fine and representative paintings and calligraphy. In his preface to the album he gives an informative account of the works of past and present painters. Those of Shah Tahmasp's atelier were of course contemporaries of his whom he would have worked with and known personally. The album, with Dust Muhammad's nineteen-page text, is in the Topkapi Saray Library, Istanbul (H.1721). For a translation of much of this text see Binyon, Wilkinson and Gray 1933, pp. 183-188. A later, more extensive treatise, is that written by Qadi Ahmad circa A.D.1606, of which several manuscript copies are extant (Minorsky 1959).
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. 1566-1574). 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 Collection, the Museum of Islamic Art, Doha, and the Museum of Contemporary Art, Tehran.
After the manuscript reached America Stuart Cary Welch embarked on a long and very thorough investigation and study of the manuscript, culminating in his great two-volume publication with Martin Bernard Dickson in 1981, The Houghton Shahnameh. It can safely be said that nobody has devoted as much time to the manuscript since circa 1540, while it goes without saying that the bulk of the information given here is derived from the published fruits of that study. The following works in the bibliography contain information on, or are devoted to Shah Tahmasp's Shahnameh: Welch 1972; Welch 1976; Welch 1979; Dickson and Welch 1981; Welch 1985; Soudavar 1992, Melikian-Chirvani 2007, Brend and Melville 2010.
the episode illustrated on folio 42V
The scene depicted on the present folio occurs during the reign of the legendary king Faridun. The following descriptions and translations are taken from Welch 1972, p.120, and Dickson and Welch 1981, vol.2, no.29.
"Upon the death of Zahhak, Faridun reigned supreme, dispensing justice by binding evil hands with kindness. Mankind turned once again to God, and the world became a paradise. After fifty years Faridun had three sons, tall as cypresses, swift and powerful as elephants, and with cheeks like spring. In his love for them Faridun refused to tempt fate by assigning them names. When they came of marriageable age, he sought them suitable wives. Through the services of an emissary, he discovered three pearl-like princesses, daughters of King Sarv of Yemen. The nameless sons journeyed to Yemen, married the girls, and brought them home. They were met by a dragon: Faridun in disguise"
"News came of their return: without delay
King Feraydun set out to block their way.
He longed to know their hearts, and by a test
Lay all his mind's anxieties to rest.
He took a dragon's form, one so immense
you'd say a lion would have no defence
Against its strength; and from its jaws there came
A roaring river of incessant flame.
He saw his sons; dust rose into the sky,
The world re-echoed with his grisly cry.
First he attacked the eldest prince, who said,
"No wise man fights with dragon foes", and fled.
Seeing his second son, he wheeled around.
The youth bent back his bow and stood his ground,
Shouting, "If combat's needed I can fight
A roaring lion or an armoured knight."
Lastly the youngest son approached and cried,
"Out of our path, fell monster, step aside.
If you have heard of Feraydun, then know
That we're his valiant, lion-like sons, now go,
Or I'll give you a crown that you'll regret!"
He saw how each son took the test he's set
And disappeared. He left them there, but then
Came out to greet his princes once again-
Their king now, and the father whom they knew,
Surrounded by his royal retinue."
Aqa Mirak was one of the leading royal artists of Shah Tahmasp's reign and is thought to have been the director of the atelier during the later years of the production of this manuscript. Many of the illustrations in his crisp, clear style, with a vibrant palette and relatively large figures, are to be found in the later pages of the Shahnameh.
He was a man of diverse abilities who, in addition to his work as an illustrator of manuscripts, devoted time to the decoration of mosques and palaces. He had special skills as a colourist and preparer of pigments, skills which can be seen to have contributed to the peculiar lightness and clarity of his miniatures. He was a close companion of Shah Tahmasp himself and contemporary sources indicate how highly he was regarded by his fellow artists. Welch gives a lengthy and perceptive account of Aqa Mirak in volume I of the 1981 publication The Houghton Shahnameh (pp.95-117). Therein we discover that Dust Muhammad, another of the artists of the royal atelier, describes Aqa Mirak thus:
"the surety of the community of Sayyids, the genius of the age, the prodigy of our era.....the Heir to the Khans....among those privileged to approach the Shah....At the House of Painting he but picks up his brush and depicts for us pictures of unparalleled delight. As for likenesses - and where are their like? – as the farseeing view them, they are foremost in sight. God grant him his pictures and paintings! Good Lord! The glory of this painter! What God-given might!"
(Dickson and Welch, Vol.I, p.95)
Sam Mirza, another of his contemporaries, describes him as "a genius of the age, as peerless in designing as in painting.....the guiding spirit of the corps [of artists]." (ibid. p.95).
Finally, Qutb al-Din, writing in 1556-7, describes him as "the peerless paragon for the host of means and the myriad modes employed in this art...".
Welch suggests that such was his reputation amongst his fellow artists and his patron that he was given the honour of painting the first illustration in this copy of the Shahnameh, the scene of Firdausi and the Court Poets of Ghazna, on folio 7, and some of his most dramatic and fully expressed works appear in the first part of the manuscript, including the present painting (folio 42). Welch suggests that although these two folios illustrate early episodes in the Shahnameh, they are works of Aqa Mirak's mature phase, and he compares their style and execution with the artist's work for the royal copy of the Khamseh of Nizami of 1539-43 (British Library, Or. 2265). Aqa Mirak's career continued after the decline of Shah Tahmasp's interest in painting in the 1550s, and he subsequently painted for Prince Ibrahim Mirza.
In his discussion of Aqa Mirak, Welch described the present illustration of Faridun in the Guise of a Dragon Tests His Sons as follows:
"The style of Aqa Mirak's last picture for the Shahnameh, Faridun, in the Guise of a Dragon, Tests His Sons, is identical to that of his work in the Nizami of 1539-43. More subdued in palette than his other pictures for the Houghton manuscript, it suggests dusk, or an overcast day. Having overcome all technical problems as well as his own inhibitions, the artist could tell his story more directly, to greater effect, and with livelier expressiveness. He had learned that he could understate. Although earlier Aqa Mirak could not always hold our interest, even with maximum exertion, now he can captivate with a nuance. In composition, Faridun Tests His Sons is like the finest watch, possessed of the softest tick and the least evident works; we barely sense the sinews and muscles that bind the picture together. Although the master has set himself a forbidding task, we are no longer perturbed by the strain of his thought. The dragon's springing silver, black and gold body is echoed by the delicately sinuous cascade, which broadens into a stream as it falls and ultimately leads us back into the foreground, terminating at the feet of the cringing rabbit. Thus, our eye pursues a continuous circle of delight, from stream to dragon and round again. Spatially, too, Aqa Mirak has achieved mastery. Foreground and background are clearly demarcated, even though the work is free of illusionism. We have met Faridun's three sons elsewhere:.... The painter has infused all three faces with personality – they seem portraits rather than types. The faces in the rocks are psychologically interesting, rivalling or even surpassing Sultan Muhammad, and suggesting that this picture is Aqa Mirak's reply to the great Gayumars."
(Dickson and Welch 1981, vol.I, p.108)
Cary Welch's handwritten notes on the backboard of the frame are as follows:
"First sight of this while showing ms. to A.A.H.JR [Arthur A. Houghton Jr] at Rosenberg and Stiebel's salesroom on 57th St. in NYC. Amazed by its quality."
"Enjoyment of photographing and studying it, as well as writing about it"
": seeing it on the sunlit white wall near the door to the dining room of the Wye Plantation [Houghton's estate in Maryland] – it was one of many (35?) pictures from the Shahnameh so shown, fortunately not for very long."
"Finding out from Agnews that this was one of the folios being offered for sale."
"acquiring it: the costliest acquisition I had ever made. Terrible effort, but successful (a Triumph!) – "
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