Arts of the Book: Illustrated Texts, Miniatures
The Na'Im Al-Din Shahnama
circa 1492 CE
Materials and technique
Opaque watercolour, gold and ink on paper
29.2 x 19 x 18.3 cm
The Shahnama (Book of Kings) is the Persian national epic, composed by the poet Firdausi around the year 1000 CE. It recounts the story of ancient Iran (Persia) up to the Arab-Islamic invasion of the seventh century. Partly legend, partly historical, it is also a manual on kingship, a compendium of heroic tales, and a dissertation on wisdom, love, passion, warfare and magic. It was customary for every king to have a personal illustrated copy of the Shahnama, done by the most prestigious artists of the time. Fol. 218v, shown here, is one of the most famous episodes in the Book of Kings. The adventure begins when Bizhan, a young and brave noble at the Iranian court of Kay Khosraw, rides out to rid the kingdom of a marauding herd of wild boar, which have crossed into Iranian territory from neighbouring Turan. Wandering across the border, Bizhan meets Princess Manizha, the daughter of Afrasiyab, Iran’s sworn enemy. The couple fall in love, but are discovered: vengeful Afrasiyab has Bizhan enchained and imprisoned alive in a deep pit, and his wretched daughter is cast out of the palace for her family disloyalty. Meanwhile, Kay Khosraw learns what has happened in Turan, and decides to send for Rustam, Iran’s greatest hero. Rustam duly undertakes the rescue mission, and leads a group of warriors disguised as merchants into the enemy’s territory, where they meet the destitute Manizha. At nightfall, she leads Iran’s warriors to Bizhan’s rescue. Only Rustam is strong enough to shift the great rock covering over the pit, and Bizhan is finally freed. This is the moment of triumph illustrated here: Rustam lowers a rope to the starving and shackled Bizhan, while weary Manizha hides her face with emotion and relief. This manuscript of the Shahnama is dated 898 H/1492-93 CE and was copied by Na'im al-Din Shirazi ibn Sadr al-Din Mudhahhib for Sultan Abu’l-Nasr Qasim Khan, whose name is written in gold in the colophon statement at the end of the manuscript. The lacquer binding dates from the Qajar period. The quality of this manuscript’s 43 paintings is typical of Turkman Shiraz style, an idiom refreshingly distinct from contemporary illustration in late Timurid Herat, at the court of Husayn Bayqara. Both Turkman and Timurid styles were to have a fundamental influence on Safavid painting of the sixteenth century. The calligrapher, Na'im al-Din Shirazi ibn Sadr al-Din Mudhahhib, is known to have copied several other extant manuscripts, dating from the 1480s to 1500s, so this Shahnama comes midway through a long career.
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