Arts of the Book: Illustrated Texts, Miniatures
Folio From The Shahnama Of Shah Tahmasp: Gushtasp Slays A Dragon On Mount Saqila
Safavid, circa 1530-35 CE
Materials and technique
Watercolour, gold and ink on paper
Page 47 x 31.8 cm
This illustration is from Shah Tahmasp’s Shahnama, one of the most remarkable Persian manuscripts which was started when Shah Tahmasp returned to Tabriz from Herat in 1522 CE. Over a dozen painters, at least two calligraphers, two or more miniaturists, bookbinders, persons responsible for polishing, gold stippling and margin creation, with a whole team of assistants, pooled their talents to design the most sumptuous manuscript ever produced in Iran for a century. In the twentieth century, the manuscript lost its colophon and a large part of the research work done by art historians focused then on the identification of the workshop chiefs and painters. Before it was dismantled in the 1970s, the complete manuscript consisted of 380 folios, including 258 miniatures. The manuscript bears two signatures - of both Mir Musavvir and Dust Muhammad - and a date: 934 H/1527–28 CE. It is thought that two paintings done on thicker paper were added later, between 1535 CE and 1540 CE, when the manuscript had already been completed (Welch 1979b, pp. 39 et 90). The paintings of this manuscript not only reflect the work of several major painters of the sixteenth century, but also plunge us into the daily Safavid court life. Indeed, although the Shahnama depicts the legendary and pre-Islamic history of Iran, the artists represented the characters in clothing from the period of Shah Tahmasp within their context. In some cases, architecturally decorated objects or elements represented in these miniatures have lasted to this day. The style of the miniatures was the subject of a major study (Dickson and Welch 1981), but the aspects of Safavid court life that these paintings reveal are also worthy of interest. Around 1568 CE, Shah Tahmasp gave the manuscript to the Ottoman sultan Selim II and it remained in the Ottoman royal library until the nineteenth century. It is possible that it returned to Iran in the nineteenth century, but, in 1903 CE, it was sold to Baron Edmond de Rothschild and, in 1959 CE, was bought by the American Arthur A. Houghton, Jr. Today, the two largest parts of the manuscript belong to the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York and to the Islamic Republic of Iran. Isolated illustrations can be found in many private and public collections in Europe and North America. This illustration shows Gushtasp, the son of Shah Luhrasp who travelled to the court of the Qaysar (Caesar) from Rum to Constantinople, killing a dragon. The eldest daughter of the Qaysar immediately fell in love with him and refused to marry any other man, to the great consternation of her father. To avoid the same misfortune befalling his two younger daughters, the Qaysar decreed that only suitors capable of accomplishing heroic feats would be accepted as suitable matches for his young daughters. Fearing failure, the aspirants of the young girls asked Gushtasp to join forces with them and be their secret champion. His second test, as illustrated here, was to kill the dragon of Mount Saqila. Armed with a special dagger, its tip coated with poison, Gushtasp first shot a volley of arrows at the dragon and whilst the latter tried to suck him into his mouth, Gushtasp lunged at him and planted his dagger in the back of his throat. He then decapitated the dying monster and returned to Constantinople, where the Qaysar, recognising his heroism, restored to him and his fiancée the favours of the court of Rum. The painting is attributable to Mirza 'Ali, son of Sultan Muhammad, who was one of the artists of the younger generation who worked on the Shahnama of Shah Tahmasp. The great skill exercised by Mirza 'Ali in describing nature is evident here in the interplay between the pale blue sky and golden hillside, which convincingly portrays a luminous and ethereal atmosphere.
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