Arts of the Book: Illustrated Texts, Miniatures
Folio From A Shahnama: Bahram Gur Goes Hunting
Il-Khanid, circa 1300 CE
Materials and technique
Ink, opaque watercolour and gold on paper
30.4 x 21.7 cm
Through the Sasanians, the last pre-Islamic dynasty in Iran, the legacy of the ancient kings lived on through oral tradition and the versification of the Shahnama (Book of Kings) by the poet Firdawsi in circa 1010 CE. During the Mongol period (1256-1353 CE), this Iranian national epic may have served as a legitimising tool for the foreign rulers in their newly conquered territory. It is possible that the Il-khanids literally “wrote” themselves into Iranian history and legend by commissioning lavishly illustrated historical, panegyric or poetic manuscripts and highlighting memorable kings or heroes that could be compared to them in the present. This folio belongs to a dispersed manuscript belonging to a group of small-format Shahnamas probably produced at the turn of the fourteenth century in Baghdad (Simpson 1979), all of which exhibit illustrations set within a six-columned page framed by doubled red lines and text in Persian naskh script. One of the most prominently featured figures in Persian manuscripts is the Sasanian King Bahram V (r. 421-38 CE), named Bahram Gur for his great skill in hunting the gur, or onager. According to the Shahnama, Bahram Gur earned his name after coming across a lion that had just sunk his claws into an onager. Bahram Gur killed both lion and onager with one shot of an arrow. After this incident, he was referred to as “the one with lion strength”, or Bahram Gur, “Bahram of the Onagers”. No doubt it was this formidable strength that allowed him to reclaim the Iranian throne for the Sasanians. This painting depicts an episode in which Bahram Gur sets out with his attendants to hunt for onagers. As nightfall approaches, the king and his entourage set up camp. Bahram Gur orders everyone to drink well and get a good night’s sleep, for tomorrow they will have to hunt and kill the lions first in order to have the onagers all to themselves. The scene illustrates the following day, when the king confronts a lion and uses his sword to kill him rather than shooting an arrow in order to show his prowess and bravery. The female lion peers out from the rocks, fearing for her life, shown just a moment before she runs away. When Bahram Gur kills a second lion, one of the attendants implores his king to have mercy as he is already king and the world belongs to him. Chinese-inspired cloud bands float against a blank sky and stretch slightly out of the picture frame, along with one lion’s tail. While the colour of Bahram Gur’s robe is no longer visible, a small patch on his left shoulder suggests a design common to Il-khanid illustrations of royal or important figures: a deep blue background covered with gold peonies or lotus blossoms. Such depictions must have represented the luxurious nasij textiles possessed by the Mongols, woven from silk threads wrapped in gold.
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