Arts of the Book: Illustrated Texts, Miniatures
Folio From The 'Small Shahnama': Shah Shapur Besieges The Fortress Of The Arabian Chieftain Ta'Ir In Yemen
Il-Khanid, circa 1300 CE
Materials and technique
Opaque water colour, gold and ink on paper
26.5 x 18.9 cm
Boldly leading his troops, the youthful Shah Shapur of Iran rides out at dawn in black armour on a white horse, before the crenellated fortress in Yemen, where the Ghassanid Arab chieftain Ta’ir is besieged in retreat. Ta’ir and three courtiers watch with concern from the ramparts above. Ta’ir’s beautiful daughter Malika and her nurse also look out from a fortress window: Malika is descended from Sasanian royalty, her mother having been abducted by Taʾir from Ctesiphon years before. Here, the painter has indicated this Iranian bloodline by depicting Malika wearing a Sasanian-style crown. On seeing her cousin Shapur for the first time, the princess falls in love with him, and soon betrays her father. The ‘Small Shahnama’ manuscripts are a group of four densely-illustrated copies of the Shahnama (Book of Kings) of Firdausi. Without surviving colophons, none of them is dated, but three may be attributed to early 14th century Iran or Iraq, and the cultural orbit of the Mongol Ilkhanid dynasty. Although they are not necessarily royal commissions, they may indicate the Mongols’ intended affiliations with Persian culture. However fragmentary, these three are therefore the earliest known illustrated copies of Firdausi’s great epic poem. The detached folios of the so-called ‘First’ and ‘Second’ Small Shahnamas are dispersed in art collections around the world: this folio belongs to the latter manuscript. The codex and binding of the third is in the Freer Gallery, with many further folios also dispersed. The group has been closely analysed and studied by M.S. Simpson, where the original pagination and programme of illustration are carefully reconstructed for all three manuscripts. According to Simpson, each manuscript follows an individual series of paintings, and are not duplicates of one another, in spite of their obvious similarities of format and style. The Small Shahnama group is not the earliest known illustrated works of narrative literature in the Islamic Middle East - other texts such as Ayyuqi’s Warqa wa-Gulshah, Hariri’s Maqamat, and Ibn al-Muqaffa’s Kalila wa-Dimna have survived in lively illustrated manuscripts from before 1300 CE, as have other works of history and science, written in Arabic or Persian. The narrative complexity of Firdausi’s epic offered painters and patrons an unprecedented wealth of subject-matter, to which they responded with detailed illustrations of great panache. Stylistically, the ‘Small Shahnama’ paintings show an enduring pictorial tradition also related to late 12th and 13th century paintings on ceramic, as well as the lively compositions and close horizontal formats of contemporary inlaid metalwork . Many features of the paintings are however definitely products of the new cultural environment of the Il-khanids, such as the distinctive armour and helmets worn by Shapur and his forces. Other folios from this dispersed manuscript are in the following museum collections: British Museum (London), Brooklyn Museum of Art (New York), David Collection (Copenhagen), Freer Gallery (Washington DC), Cincinnati Art Museum, Museum of Fine Art (Montreal), McGill University Library (Montreal).
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