This painting relates to the legendary story of King Sulayman (King Solomon) and Queen Bilqis (Biblical Queen of Sheba). According to the Qur’anic text, when King Sulayman heard that Queen Bilqis and her people worshiped the Sun, he sent a hoopoe-bird with a letter inviting her to submit to the worship of Allah. The story ends with Bilqis’ abandonment of sun worship and submission to the King’s faith.
This painting depicts Bilqis on a throne surrounded by court attendants, angels and animals. Bilqis and Sulayman feature repeatedly in Shirazi manuscripts of the second half of the sixteenth century. They would often be depicted on double-page frontispieces to copies of the Shahnameh (Book of Kings), although their story bears no relation to the text itself. The present painting probably once formed part of a double-page composition, the missing half featuring Sulayman enthroned. Several pictorial elements serve to guide the viewer through the scene and mentally reconstruct the legendary story of Sulayman and Bilqis. For example, in the Qur’anic tradition Sulayman is regarded as a Prophet of God and powerful king of animals, birds and jinns. Accordingly, the painting’s lower half is populated by all sorts of animals while five angels hover above the enthroned Bilqis, probably in relation to Sulayman’s prophethood. Three jinns are also shown holding Bilqis up on her throne. This may allude to Sulayman’s all-encompassing power but also to the episode in the story when the jinns seize Bilqis’ throne under Sulayman’s command (Sura 27). Additionally, in the painting the Queen is flanked by court attendants who appear to carry blue and white wares and other precious items, possibly referring to the diplomatic embassy bearing gifts that Bilqis sent to Sulayman upon receiving his missive. The red batons worn by the court attendants indicate that the painting dates to the Safavid period.
The story of Sulayman carries a significant symbolic charge in the Perso-Islamic tradition as he is regarded as the ideal ruler, which could explain why he and Bilqis feature so often in copies of the Shahnameh. An example of a double-page composition from a 16th century Shahnameh with Bilqis and Sulayman enthroned is now in the Arthur M. Sackler Museum, Harvard University (inv. No. 2002.50.37 – illustrated in Mary McWilliams, With Quite Different Eyes, Apollo, Nº. 489, 2002, pp.12-16). Another example is now in the Royal Library, Windsor Castle (Ms Holmes 151). These depictions can also be found in copies of poetic texts such as of Nizami’s Khamsa (Quintet); a Shirazi example dating to c. 1580 is now in the Topkapi Palace Library (inv. no. 3559, 1b-2a). Paintings of Bilqis enthroned similar to the one at present have also been sold at auction in the past, see Sotheby’s, London, 1st April 2009, lot 27.