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The Revival of the Imperial Dream: Princely Patronage and the Art of the Shahnameh

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The Revival of the Imperial Dream: Princely Patronage and the Art of the Shahnameh The Shahnameh presents a vast choice of subjects for illustration – the individual frames of an epic film, as it were. Owing to the enormous popularity of its stories and characters, and their depiction in a wide range of media, the Shahnameh offers a panoramic view of Persian painting for well over 1000 years. The earliest surviving illustrations inspired by legends to be found in the Shahnameh predate Ferdowsi’s poem. Wall paintings from Pendjikent (in present-day Tadjikistan) dating to the early eighth century have been interpreted as showing the adventures of Rostam.

Although the Shahnameh did not disappear entirely from the literary stage after its completion in 1010, for the next two hundred years we have only fleeting signs of its existence in isolated references to Ferdowsi or brief quotations from his work. The earliest sound evidence of Ferdowsi’s text comes from copies made 200 years after his death, long enough for many changes to have been introduced through scribal errors or deliberate ‘improvement’. Only three manuscripts are known to have survived from before the end of the thirteenth century, an incomplete copy of 1217, a full text of 1276 and a third, undated copy from this period. None of these is illustrated.

The two centuries following the completion of the Shahnameh saw dramatic changes in Persian history and a rapid succession of dynasties. By the mid-eleventh century political hegemony in Iran was in the hands of the Seljuq Turks (1040-1194). In 1055 they took Baghdad, where their leader, Toghril Beg (1040-1063), had the Caliph confirm his title of Sultan. Among the most important innovations of the period were ceramic fritwares. Composed largely of quartz, stronger than clay, but remarkably malleable, fritware, or stone-paste, produced a variety of shapes. It also offered a strongly contrasting white background for the colourful over-glazes of the two most celebrated Seljuq ceramic wares – mina’i and luster – which also included tilework used for the interior walls of important buildings and often incorporating lines from the Shahnameh [No. 13] . By the thirteenth century, artists across Iran had mastered both techniques and were embellishing mina’i and lustre bowls with ornamental motifs and scenes from the Shahnameh [No. 14 No. 15 No. 16] . The minute figures and dynamic compositions on the mina’i bowls are the equivalent of – and may have been modeled on – the paintings in illuminated manuscripts. Some of the most famous Shahnameh stories, those of Faridun and Zahhak or Bahram Gur and Azadeh, furnished the subject-matter of the other category of decorative arts promoted by the Seljuqs, which remained a powerful medium of expression for generations of Iranian artists, namely the brass or bronze vessels inlaid with small pieces of precious metal, copper, silver and gold [No. 29] .

Among the greatest upheavals in Iran’s history were the Mongol conquests. The first took place in the lifetime of Genghis (Chinghiz) Khan (1162-1227), between 1219 and 1221, and brought destruction to the great cities of Transoxiana and eastern Iran: Samarqand, Bokhara, Balkh, Herat, Merv and Nishapur. The second culminated in the sack of Baghdad in 1258 and the fall of the 500 year-old dynasty of the ‘Abbasid Caliphs, titular heads of the Muslim world. The Mongols were not Muslim and their conquests put an end to the old order, in which rulers enjoyed legitimacy by virtue of the delegated authority of the Caliph. The status of the new rulers, the Il-Khans (meaning ‘subordinates to the Great Khan’), was based on their descent from Genghis Khan and on their conquests. They brought Iran into the fold of the Mongol Empire, which stretched from China to southern Russia and Eastern Europe. Iran regained something of its ancient position as a power united under a strong ruler within a territory comparable to its pre-Islamic borders.

Until the end of the thirteenth century the Il-Khans practised different religions, including Buddhism, Shamanism and Nestorian Christianity, and tolerated cultural pluralism. Their court in Tabriz attracted leading Iranian intellectuals some of whom became their most trusted ministers and steered successive rulers towards adopting the role of traditional Persian monarchs. Foremost among these advisors were the Joveynis, the chief minister Shams al-Din (d. 1284) and his brother ‘Ala al-Din (d. 1283), governor of Baghdad and author of a history of the Mongol conquests. Completed in 1260, Joveyni’s history was peppered with quotations from the Shahnameh. They were selected to recount Iran’s ancient struggles against Turan (the Turkic nomads) on the one hand, and, on the other, to offer the Il-Khanids models of good rule and the attendant association with the glory of imperial Persia. The conquering Mongols might have been perceived by Joveyni’s long-suffering compatriots as the ancient enemy. But they were also encouraged to identify with the interests of their new Persian subjects and to assume the historic role of Iranian shahs. The Joveynis were great patrons of historians and poets, and it is no mere chance that the first complete text of the Shahnameh to survive is a copy dated 1276, when they were at the peak of their influence.

Likewise, it is hardly a coincidence that the first known illustrated copies of the Shahnameh date from c.1300, shortly after the Mongols’ conversion to Islam under Ghazan Khan (1295–1304). Ghazan and his successors, down to the collapse of the dynasty in 1335, took to art patronage as a reflection of their majesty. The text that received the most attention from patrons and artists alike was Ferdowsi’s Shahnameh. Given the devastation caused by the Mongol invasions and the destruction of rich libraries, it is possible that earlier copies, including illustrated ones, had been lost. On the other hand, the emergence of Persian manuscript painting at the same time as the regeneration of Iran’s political power under the Mongols is a logical development. The Shahnameh served as a source of pride for Iran, which was recovering its territorial, political and cultural history. The time was ripe for artistic skills to flourish alongside the revival of Persian identity.

Among the earliest illustrated copies of Ferdowsi’s poem are the so-called ‘Small’ Shahnamehs, four manuscripts produced c.1300, most probably in Baghdad, that have come down to us in dispersed fragments [No. 18] . Their illustrations, predominantly horizontal in format, are very small indeed. Landscapes display some debt to the Arab school, but they are peopled by figures wearing eastern armour or silks with lotus designs and moving with supple grace, features that reveal the impact of Chinese painting.

The art of Persian manuscript illustration experienced its first flowering in the Il-Khanid capital, Tabriz, during the early fourteenth century. The key agent was Rashid al-Din, the historian, physician and vizier of the Il-Khanids, who in 1309 founded a charitable complex in Tabriz, the Rab‘-e Rashidiyyeh, and equipped it with a guest house, a mosque, a hospital and a scriptorium. Rashid al-Din was the favourite of successive Il-Khanid rulers and it was at their request that he wrote a history of the Mongols, Jami‘ al-Tawarikh [No. 23 No. 24 No. 25 No. 26] . Acknowledging the Shahnameh as a historical source, his work was a major intellectual and political project that aimed to situate the Mongols amongst other peoples of the known world, and copies were sent to the Persian and Arab lands of the Mongol empire. Rashid al-Din fell victim to court intrigues and was executed in 1318, but his scriptorium established Tabriz as a major centre of manuscript production, enriched by the skills and traditions that artists brought from the Eastern borders of the Christian world, from the Mongol heartlands and from China. The resulting manuscripts are of impressive size. Their illustrations reflect Chinese pen drawing, using limited colour, and contain numerous details of Chinese costume and furniture.

The most celebrated work of Il-Khanid painting is the ‘Great Mongol’ Shahnameh, also known as the Demotte Shahnameh after the French dealer Georges Demotte, who dismembered it around 1910. Only fifty-seven miniatures are known to survive today, divided among public and private collections around the world [No. 27] . The manuscript was probably made in Tabriz for the last Il-Khanid ruler, Abu Sa‘id (1316–1335), and may have been associated with his vizier, Ghiyath al-Din, Rashid al-Din’s son. The cycle of illustrations, thought to reflect the patron’s life and times, is a work of majesty and solemnity surpassing all manuscript painting created in the Islamic world up to that point.

Following the death of Abu Sa‘id and for the rest of the fourteenth century, Iran was ruled by several local dynasties whose capitals developed highly distinctive provincial styles of painting: the Jalayerids (1340–1411) in Baghdad, the Chupanids (1337–1357) in Esfahan, and the Inju’ids (1325–1353), followed by the Muzaffarids (1314–1393), in Shiraz.

Conditions comparable with those that brought about the first flowering of Persian Shahnameh illustration c.1300 prevailed in the fifteenth century. Iran’s new imperial rulers were the descendants of Timur (Tamerlane, 1336–1405) whose empire stretched from India to Anatolia and whose capital, Samarqand, dazzled Asian rivals and European ambassadors with its riches and splendour. While it is not certain that any paintings survive from Timur’s Samarqand, the manuscripts produced for his successors in Shiraz and Herat inaugurated the greatest period of Persian manuscript illustration. The Timurids (1405–1507) were Muslims of Turko-Mongol origin and saw their sponsorship of the ‘national epic’ as a way of establishing their Iranian credentials while celebrating their own warlike achievements. Although various other texts were increasingly illustrated in the second half of the century, the Shahnameh remained particularly popular with patrons and artists.

The first member of the Timurid dynasty to commission Shahnameh illustrations was probably Timur’s grandson Pir Mohammad b. ‘Omar Sheykh, governor of Shiraz (1394–1409). He was succeeded by his brother Eskandar upon whose downfall in 1414 control over Shiraz passed into the hands of another of Timur’s grandsons, Ebrahim Soltan (1415–1435), one of three brothers who commissioned Shahnamehs. Their father, Shah Rokh b. Timur, ruled the empire from Herat, the capital of Khorasan. Ebrahim Soltan shared an avid interest in poetry, calligraphy and deluxe manuscripts with his younger brother Baysonghor, based in Herat, which became the foremost centre of culture in the Timurid Empire. The compositions in Ebrahim Soltan’s Shahnameh of the late 1420s or early 1430s are representative of a Shiraz style, somewhat stark, spare and formulaic, reflecting the fact that many talented painters had moved to Heart [No. 33 No. 34 No. 35 No. 36 No. 38 No. 39]. However, its rich cycle of illustrations, showing bold, vigorous and dramatic interaction between the protagonists, is the work of an accomplished illuminator, Nasr al-Soltani (active c.1417–1432). Baysonghor surpassed his bibliophile brother. He revised the preface to Ferdowsi’s epic and commissioned at least two copies of the Shahnameh. An illustrated volume completed for him in 1430 displayed the refined style of Herat and the classical palette of Persian painting with its emphasis on turquoise, amethyst and lapis lazuli. The Shahnameh made for the third brother, Mohammad Juki b. Shah Rokh (1402–1445), and left unfinished at his untimely death, was probably also produced in Herat [No. 45 No. 46 No. 47 No. 48 No. 49 No. 50 No. 53 No. 54 No. 55]. Its poised compositions and limpid palette combine drama with touches of humour. Its elegant nasta‘liq script was probably the work of the scribe Mahmud, who copied a Khamseh of Nezami for Shah Rokh in 1431.

Throughout the fifteenth century western Iran was dominated by two Turkman dynasties, first the Qara Quyunlu (‘Black Sheep’) and then, in the second half of the century, the Aq Quyunlu (‘White Sheep’), who established their centre of power in Tabriz, but controlled Shiraz and Baghdad as well. Nevertheless, Timurid styles continued to be influential in Shiraz. In the second quarter of the fifteenth century an exaggerated version of the style of Ebrahim’s atelier flourished there [No. 7] ; from mid-century it was replaced by a style characterized by rounded figures and calmer scenery that had developed under Baysonghor [No. 56 No. 57 No. 58 No. 59] . Probably introduced by artists who have migrated from Herat, the latter style, known as Commercial Turkman, enjoyed stable and widespread popularity, and may have been associated with religious confraternities who saw manuscript production as a source of income. The fifteenth century also witnessed the creation of Shahnameh manuscripts that reflected the taste and ambition of individuals in other regions, such as the ‘Dunimarle’ Shahnameh made in 1446 in Mazandaran for a patron who recorded his ancestry through eighteen generations [No. 4] , or the extraordinary ‘Big Head’ Shahnameh made in Lahijan in 1493-1494 [No. 61 No. 64] . The ‘Big Head’ Shahnameh suggests the ferment of ideas that must have surrounded the young Esma‘il Safavi, who was brought up in safety in Lahijan before emerging to take the throne.

Esma‘il Safavi brought the hegemony of the Turkman clans to an end. The descendent of a Sufi leader, he combined religious authority and political ambition to create a powerful Shi‘i theocracy. Esma‘il entered Tabriz in 1501, proclaimed himself Shah (1501–1524 AD) and inaugurated the rule of the Safavids (1501–1722 AD), Iran’s longest-lived and most successful dynasty since the pre-Islamic period. Their court was as much Turkish- as Persian-speaking. Their main rivals were the Ottoman Turks, who by the beginning of the sixteenth century were consolidating their rule in eastern Anatolia, Egypt and the Levant, and contesting the supremacy of Baghdad. As often before, the Shahnameh became a vehicle for expressing Persian political and cultural superiority, this time vis-à-vis the Sunni Turks. The introductory passage of the Shahnameh, with its focus on Mohammad’s cousin and son-in-law ‘Ali [No. 2] , offered the opportunity to emphasize the Shi‘i character of the Safavid state.

The first Safavid copy of the Shahnameh, of which only four illustrations are known, was probably begun for Shah Esma‘il himself and abandoned after his defeat by the Ottomans in 1514. Esma‘il’s son and successor, Shah Tahmasp (1524–1576), commissioned his own Shahnameh, the most sumptuous manuscript in the history of Persian painting [No. 64] . Tahmasp had been brought up in Herat, where intellectual life continued to flourish during his father’s rule. He was educated in the Persian literary tradition and was taught calligraphy and painting by the most celebrated Herat artist, Kamal al-Din Behzad. Tahmasp brought him to Tabriz when he returned there in 1522. In his new capital, the Turkman exuberance of Tabriz and Shiraz, exemplified by the artist Soltan Mohammad, was combined with the elegant refinement of Timurid painting in Herat. Behzad became the head of the royal library and Soltan Mohammad was entrusted with the illustration of Tahmasp’s Shahnameh. Their collaborator on this magnificent project, Mir Mosavver, included the date 934 AH (1527-1528 AD) in one of his illustrations. Work on the manuscript probably continued into the 1530s. The original volume contained 759 leaves sprinkled with gold and 258 illustrations of unrivalled subtlety and complexity, executed in a radiant palette and offering a synthesis of the diverse traditions that were absorbed into early Safavid painting. Two features that assert the importance of the picture in relation to the text would prove influential during the following two centuries, namely the continuation of the scene between the columns of text and the considerable extension of pictorial elements into the margins, as if the ruling frame had been swept away to release the picture from its confines. This ‘portable art gallery’ of Safavid painting was sent as a diplomatic gift from Shah Tahmasp to the Ottoman Sultan Selim II shortly after his succession in 1566. It remained intact in the library of the Tokapi Palace in Istanbul until about 1900. In 1959 it was acquired by Arthur A. Houghton, Jr, who split it up. Its sumptuous paintings now grace public and private collections all over the world.

Whether from growing religious scruples or failing eyesight, Shah Tahmasp turned away from painting by the 1560s. The withdrawal of his patronage was a factor in the emerging fashion for single pictures, which were collected in albums and offered former court painters the support of a wider clientele. Focusing on famous stories and characters, these came to include scenes and motifs from the Shahnameh [No. 71] . Shah Tahmasp’s temporary disillusionment with the arts also led to the move of painters out of Tabriz to Shiraz, Mashhad, the Mughal courts of northern India and Istanbul. The Ottomans made their own translations and imitations of the Shahnameh. They joined the clientele for manuscripts produced in Shiraz, where artists catered to the merchant classes’ increasing demand for luxury manuscripts well into the sixteenth century and beyond [No. 77] .

Another centre that developed its own style in the second half of the sixteenth century was Qazvin. It became the new Safavid capital in 1548 when Shah Tahmasp, under continuous Ottoman pressure, left Tabriz. Royal patronage returned with the Shahnameh datable to the brief reign of Esma‘il II (1576–1577) [No. 73] . Probably made in Qazvin, it seems to turn away from Shah Tahmasp’s celebrated manuscript, eschewing complexity and detail. It presents elegantly pared-down scenes, in which the landscape is reduced to washes of colour and extensions into the margin are lent an ironic emphasis by an additional outer set of rulings.

Qazvin did not remain the capital for long. In 1598 Shah ‘Abbas (1587–1629), Shah Tahmasp’s grandson and the greatest ruler of the Safavid dynasty, established his new capital in Esfahan. He expanded Iran’s territory, made peace with the Ottomans in the west and the Uzbeks in the east, reformed the administrative and military systems, and initiated building campaigns on an unprecedented scale, drawing craftsmen from Asia and Europe to Esfahan. Local traditions brought by court artists from Iran’s old cultural centres mingled with styles from distant lands. In this international milieu, single-figure studies of fashionable persons commanded the attention of leading artists, such as Shah ‘Abbas’ famous court painter Riza (fl. 1580s–1630s) and his most talented pupil, Mo‘in Mosavver (fl. 1630s–1680s), the leader of a prolific workshop. Although a fragmentary copy of the Shahnameh may have been commissioned by Shah ‘Abbas himself, few illuminated manuscripts of princely patronage survive from the seventeenth century. However, numerous copies were produced for less distinguished clients and yet again the Shahnameh was the most frequently and extensively illustrated text. Several copies produced in the second and third quarters of the century contain illustrations by Mo‘in Mosavver [No. 84] . Carrying his peculiar signature, written in spidery black letters, they demonstrate the influence of the single-figure studies and the master’s distinctive palette of pink, violet, orange and acid yellow. The focus is on individual figures standing in the fashionable curved posture within landscapes treated as ornamental backdrops.

The Esfahan style of traditional Safavid painting, exemplified by Mo‘in Mosavver’s focus on elegant figures and indifference to their surroundings, finds its exact opposite in seventeenth-century works tentatively associated with Astarabad, which show more energetic figures within turbulent landscapes [No. 78 No. 79] . A further indication of vigour in the painting of eastern Iran is to be seen in the passionately charged landscapes of a Shahnameh produced in 1648 for Qarajaghay Khan, governor of Mashhad in the 1630s and 1640s, and presented to Queen Victoria in 1839 [No. 86] .

The decline of the Safavids in the early eighteenth century led to a long period of instability in Iran. At least five clans claimed the right to rule until the Qajars established their power in the 1790s and laid the foundations of the dynasty that ruled Iran until 1924. The most glamourous period of Qajar domination was the rule of Fath-‘Ali Shah (1798– 1834). It witnessed ambitious building campaigns and the glorification of the shah’s image in an extensive series of portraits commissioned as diplomatic gifts and strongly influenced by European portraiture. But the Qajars, who considered themselves the rightful heirs of the Safavids, also nurtured a revivalist movement in the arts. As often before, the Shahnameh offered a rich repertoire of stories and characters for manuscript illustration as well as other media [No. 89 No. 90] .

By the eighteenth century, the art of the Shahnameh was firmly established in territories well beyond those of greater Iran. Having lost control over Central Asia, the Timurids turned their attention to northern India where one of Timur’s descendants, Babur (1483-1530), founded the Mughal dynasty (1526-1858). Persian culture was dominant at the Mughal court. The rulers were avid bibliophiles and many famous manuscripts were preserved in their libraries, such as the copy made for Timur’s grandson, Mohammad Juki [No. 45 No. 46 No. 47 No. 48 No. 49 No. 50 No. 53 No. 54 No. 55]. Following the loss and reconquest of northern India under Babur’s son Homayun, an astonishing production of illustrated manuscripts was undertaken for the third Mughal ruler, Akbar the Great (1556–1605). The main artistic traditions that blended into the Akbari style were Safavid from Tabriz, Hindu from Vijayanagar and European; the last was particularly pronounced after a Jesuit mission visited Fathpur Sikri in 1580 at Akbar’s request. A richly illustrated copy of the Darab-nameh, a successor epic to the Shahnameh, produced around the time of the Jesuit mission exemplifies the eclecticism of Akbari painting [No.94] . In the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries courtiers continued to be interested in the renovation of old Persian illustrations as well as the commissioning of new manuscripts and single paintings [No. 97 No. 98 No. 101] . Nineteenth-century examples attributable to Lucknow and Lahore demonstrate the final period in the development of the imperial Mughal style [No. 102 No. 103 No. 104] .

The lasting success of the Shahnameh was due not only to its timeless themes and its role as a model for wise and just kingship. Its stories provided splendid opportunities for the portrayal of rulers and courtiers engaged in hunting, fighting, diplomatic meetings, feasts and amorous affairs, often anachronistically clad in and surrounded by the fashions of the day. More intriguingly, the text and images of the Shahnameh could be read as a topical commentary on contemporary events and individuals, extending its relevance to the most recent past and the present. Under the Pahlavi regime in Iran (1924–1979), the Shahnameh was used as a symbol of Iranian identity with an undertone of anti-Arab and even anti-Islamic sentiment. Within a few years of the Islamic Revolution, Ferdowsi and his work were embraced yet again, despite the contradictions inherent in the text, as a national rallying point, with an emphasis on the author’s supposed Shi‘ism. Meanwhile, the poet’s call for a life of wisdom and justice remains as relevant as it was a millennium ago, and the art of the Shahnameh continues to inspire contemporary artists and audiences.

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