Arts of the Book: Illustrated Texts, Miniatures
Folio From The Shahnama Of Shah Tahmasp: The Court Of Gayumars
Safavid, circa 1522-25 CE
Materials and technique
Opaque watercolor, gold, and ink on paper
47 x 31.8 cm
This is the first painting to appear after the prefatory matter introducing Firdawsi’s Shahnama. It depicts the first king, Gayumars, enthroned before his community - its members clad in leopard furs and skins - his son Siyamak seated to his left, and grandson Hushang standing to his right. Though the composition implies the just succession between father and son, signified by the spatial position between them (where left is favored), we know that this will never take place, emphasizing the inherent tragedy of the tale. The angel Surush informed Gayumars that the Black Div, son of the demon Ahriman, would murder Siyamak. Even at the beginning of human time, forces of good contend with forces of evil, inaugurating a struggle without end. This sense of loss is heightened by an idyllic landscape, where human beings gather alongside animals of various species; even the rocky landscape is constructed to suggest the harmony between human and natural order. Though the painting lacks a signature, it is one of very few mentioned by a contemporary. In his treatise on art history, written in 1544-45 CE, Dust Muhammad praises Sultan Muhammad for his creations, calling him “the rarity of the age,” and singles out “The court of Gayumars” as a painting that humbles all artists who see it. It is easy to understand why. His painting combines an ingenious composition with a broad palette dominated by cool colors, each element minutely and precisely rendered in a technique that defies comprehension. Though the painting is large and even spills out into the gold-flecked margins, Sultan Muhammad populates the scene with countless figures, animals, and details of landscape, but in such a way that does not compromise legibility. The level of detail is so intense that the viewer is scarcely able to absorb everything, no matter how closely he looks.
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