Safavid: Tabriz, c.1525–1530
Patron: Shah Tahmasp
Artists: Sultan Muhammad and Mir Sayyid ‘Ali
Opaque watercolour, ink and gold on paper
Private Collection, fol. 102v
King Afrasiyab of Turan and his general Barman invaded Iran. Nowzar of Iran took refuge in Dahistan together with his army commander, Qaran, whose brother had been killed by Barman. Qaran and other paladins (champions) launched a night attack behind Turanian lines and encountered Afrasiyab’s force led by Barman at the White Castle.
Here, we see the armies ready to engage. The Iranians are on the left, identified by the Safavid taj, the red caps that project from the turbans of their musicians, while the Turanians, on the right, wear the black-brimmed, white felt cap of Central Asia. In the foreground, Qaran pursues Barman, pierces his cummerbund and unhorses him. The warriors’ accoutrements are rendered in minute detail. Night is evoked by the deep blue, starry sky, with a crescent moon that breaks through the clouds.
In its radiant palette, exquisite detail and sophisticated compositions, the manuscript to which this leaf belonged surpasses all earlier Persian painting. It was commissioned by Shah Tahmasp (1524–1576). With its 759 leaves sprinkled with gold and 258 illustrations of unrivalled subtlety, the manuscript involved the work of numerous artists. Combining the elegant refinement of Timurid painting of Herat, where Tahmasp had been brought up, with the Turkman exuberance of Tabriz and Shiraz, it represents a synthesis of the diverse traditions that were absorbed into early Safavid painting.
This ‘portable art gallery’ of Safavid painting was sent as a diplomatic gift to the Ottoman court, probably from Shah Tahmasp to the Ottoman Sultan Selim II following his succession in 1566.
It remained in the library of the Tokapi Palace in Istanbul until c.1900. In the 1970s it was dispersed by Arthur A. Houghton, Jr. and its sumptuous paintings now grace numerous public and private collections.