This folio depicts seven Christian men, also known as the Seven Sleepers, along with their dog Qitmir, who escaped the Roman emperor Decius (r. A.D. 249–51) by miraculously sleeping in a cave for 309 years. The contrasts between the dark cave and the colorful rocks, the commotion outside, and the peaceful sleepers inside reinforce the narrative. The emperor is shown on a white horse, led by Satan, depicted here with dark skin and a white beard. The exceptional size of this manuscript may have been due to groups of people using the book to make predictions, or to Shah Tahmasp’s weakening eyesight.
Massumeh Farhad, Serpil Bağci, and others have substantially clarified the context and meaning of the manuscript of the Falnama (Book of Omens) from which the large illustrations 50.23.1 and 35.64.3 come. Farhad and Bağci have identified four Falnama manuscripts from Safavid Iran and Ottoman Turkey, produced in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, including the dispersed copy attributed to Iran during the reign of Shah Tahmasp (1524–76). The images from this Falnama, including this folio and 35.64.3, differ from other Safavid manuscript illustrations most obviously in their large size and in the scale of their pictorial elements. Yet, the use of these pictures for bibliomancy (fortune-telling with books) also affected the format of the manuscript and the relationship of images to text. As Farhad and Bağci have noted, each illustration in the dispersed Falnama precedes the text, which contains poetic couplets and prognostications in prose—an indication that the pictures could be interpreted with or without the aid of the text on the facing page. Although each image essentially stands alone and is not linked by a narrative thread to the text and image that precede or follow it, the subject matter of the dispersed Falnama illustrations does fall into definable categories, including "Muhammad and his descendants; tombs and sanctuaries; the Abrahamic prophets; sages, heroes, and villains; and eschatological themes."
The practice of bibliomancy involved first making a wish or asking for guidance, then opening the book at random to a picture and the text facing it, which the seeker would interpret in light of his question. Seventeenth-century travelers describe diviners in public places in Iran and Turkey using images (but not text) to make prognostications for passersby. The arrangement of the Falnama from which these images come would have instead enabled an individual to consult both image and text without the need for an intermediary. According to Farhad and Bağci, Shah Tahmasp, the likely patron of this Falnama, was known to hold divination sessions with the women of the Safavid court. Such a large-scale Falnama would have suited these gatherings, since a group would have no trouble seeing whatever details were being employed to interpret the omen.
Stuart Cary Welch and others have attributed the paintings in the dispersed Falnama to Aqa Mirak and ‘Abdul ‘Aziz, two of Shah Tahmasp’s court painters, but their authorship cannot be confirmed by any text or inscription. Nonetheless, many details of the ruined architecture, complete with storks’ nest and snakes, recall a painting from Shah Tahmasp’s Khamsa of Nizami (1539–43) assigned to Aqa Mirak by Welch. Painted ten to fifteen years after the Khamsa, the Falnama marks a change in style that accompanies its distinct function. Not only are the folios significantly larger than those of earlier royal Safavid manuscripts, but so too are the figures and other pictorial elements, which are also closer to the picture plane than in either Tahmasp’s Shahnama or his Khamsa. Likewise, landscape elements have been simplified, as if to provide a backdrop and not a source of distraction from the main subject.
A similar principle has been applied to "The Seven Sleepers of Ephesus," also known as "The People of the Cave." Here, the Sleepers and their dog form an arc against the black ground of the cave ringed by rocky outcrops. Along the horizon, soldiers look and gesture toward a king on horseback being led by a dark-skinned figure, who can be identified as the devil. As in the previously discussed painting, figures dot the landscape, but here only a few gaze in the direction of the Sleepers. Welch has connected hook-nosed figures such as the soldier to the right of the tree in the foreground with the work of ‘Abdul ‘Aziz, but the attribution of this work to him is not certain.
According to the story, seven youths—either Christians or believers from before the time of Christ, depending on the version—and the dog Qitmir, all of whom were seeking God, were hiding from their persecutors in a cave when God ordered the angel of death to visit them. A pagan king, most likely the equestrian figure at the upper right, blockaded the opening to the cave, but after three hundred years God breathed life into the Sleepers and they awoke. Appearing in both Syriac sources and the Qur’an (Ahl al-Kahf ), this story resonated with Shi‘i Muslims, who believed the twefth Imam (the Mahdi) would return to the world in the same way as the Sleepers. Recitation of all or part of the Surat al-Kahf would protect the faithful against liars and cheats.
Sheila R. Canby in [Ekhtiar, Soucek, Canby, and Haidar 2011]
Demotte, Inc., New York, by 1930–35; cat., 1930, no. 69, sold to MMA]
Museum für Islamische Kunst, Pergamonmuseum, Staatliche Museen zu Berlin. "The Arts of Islam. Masterpieces from the M.M.A.," June 15, 1981–August 8, 1981, no. 78.
New York. The Metropolitan Museum of Art. "Rumi," October 15, 2007–March 5, 2008, no catalogue.
"Masterpieces from The Metropolitan Museum of Art New York." In The Arts of Islam. Berlin, 1981. no. 78, pp. 194-195, ill. p. 195 (color).
Tokatlian, Armen. Falnamah: Livre Royal des Sorts. Paris: Gourcuff Gradenigo, 2007. no. 15, pp. 42, 43, ill. (color).
Farhad, Massumeh, and Serpil Bagci. "Freer Gallery of Art and Arthur M. Sackler Gallery." In Falnama: The Book of Omens. Washington, D.C.: Arthur M. Sackler Gallery, Smithsonian Institution, 2009. no. 42, pp. 160-161, ill. (color).
Ekhtiar, Maryam, Sheila R. Canby, Navina Haidar, and Priscilla P. Soucek, ed. Masterpieces from the Department of Islamic Art in The Metropolitan Museum of Art. 1st ed. ed. New York: The Metropolitan Museum of Art, 2011. no. 139B, pp. 209-211, ill. p. 211 (color).