Arts of the Book: Illustrated Texts, Miniatures
Folio From A Shahnama: The Arrival Of Zahhak And The End Of Jamshid’s Rule
Safavid, circa 1576 CE
Materials and technique
Ink, opaque watercolour and gold on paper
45.9 x 30.5 cm
Introduced early in the Shahnama as one of the first kings of Iran, Jamshid succeeded Tahmuras to rule peacefully for three hundred years. His reign was a fruitful one in which he encouraged his subjects to improve their natural talents and learn new skills, teaching them the arts of metalworking to produce arms and armour and jewellery-making with precious stones. Men, women, and divs (demons) lived in peace, lions lived in harmony with the lambs, and all followed the orders of their benevolent king with great respect and compliance. Jamshid, however, eventually became too proud of his successes and consequently lost his throne to the evil Zahhak, king of the Arabs. While the illuminated chapter heading on this page marks the beginning of the story of Jamshid’s ruin, the illustration on the page refers to the text preceding the illumination, which recounts the moment after Zahhak unwittingly allows Ahriman, the devil, to kiss his shoulders. Two serpents spring out of each shoulder and Zahhak has their heads severed, but new ones grow in their place. Zahhak, here sitting on a golden throne with a cobalt blue back decorated with a gold vegetal scroll design, with two dark (probably once silver) serpents attached to his shoulders, summons a group of specialists to determine what to do about his plight. No one is able to suggest an explanation until Ahriman reappears in the form of a physician and informs Zahhak that he can only appease the serpents by feeding them human brains. Without the serpents to identify the Arab king, one might assume that the painting represents Jamshid surrounded by his peaceful subjects within a serene, outdoor landscape. Yet both the serpents and the Persian text, written in an elegant nasta‛liq script typical of the Safavid period, inform us otherwise. The episode foreshadows the doom to befall the world, signaling the end of Jamshid’s reign and the seizure of the Iranian throne by Zahhak. The backdrop to it, however, acts as a reminder of how the world must have appeared under Jamshid’s peaceful reign. The painting on this folio, spilling out of the text’s ruled borders and allowing the image to overpower the text, is ascribed to the Safavid artist Naqdi, known for the elongated torsos and angular, bearded jaws of his figures (Canby 1998, pp. 57-58).
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