Art/ Collection/ Art Object

Textile depicting a scene from Nizama's Khamsa

Object Name:
16th–17th century
Attributed to Iran
Silk, metal wrapped thread; double-weave
Textile: L. 25 3/4 in. (65.4 cm) W. 14 3/8 in. (36.5 cm) Mount: H. 29 1/2 in. (74.9 cm) W. 18 in. (45.7 cm) D. 2 1/4 in. (5.7 cm) Wt. 8 lbs. (3.6 kg)
Credit Line:
Fletcher Fund, 1946
Accession Number:
Not on view
The imagery seen on this exquisitely woven cloth suggests the theme of love. The romance of King Khusrau and Princess Shirin, immortalized by the poet Nizami, is illustrated here, with the princess shown on horseback and the sculptor Farhad, hopelessly in love with Shirin, hacking a cleft in the mountain with his axe to bring his beloved a refreshing drink. Interspersed vertically and horizontally with these and other pictorial elements are cartouches filled with verses of unidentified authorship:
The splendor of your figure comes from beauty
It has given life to this outer cloak
There has never been a garment of such beauty
One might say it has been woven from the threads of your soul.
Through its graceful poetic inscriptions, the creators of this textile speak to us across the centuries, proclaiming "there has never been a garment of such beauty." Indeed, with its shimmering silver-wrapped threads and delicate weave of soft red and white silk, this intricately drawn textile is a testament to the weavers’ art, deftly combining poetry, calligraphy, and figural imagery into a complex yet cohesive design. While the anonymous poetic inscriptions speak primarily to the qualities of the cloth, comparing it to the physical beauty of the beloved, these verses alternate with figural scenes illustrating a well-known story from the Khamsa (Quintet) of Nizami.[3]
One of these five tales tells the love story of King Khusrau and Princess Shirin. While this narrative centers on its two title characters, the princess has yet another devoted admirer, the talented sculptor Farhad. Shirin asks Farhad to cut a channel to her palace from a distant pastureland, so that she and her servants might enjoy milk from the goats that graze there. Farhad complies by making not only the channel but also a pool near the palace for the milk to collect.
One section of the textile shows Shirin riding out to visit Farhad upon learning that the channel has been completed. The sculptor appears above, ax in hand, as if still hard at work.[4] Nizami’s text describes Farhad filling the channel with fish upon completing his task, and close examination reveals a red fish swimming in the white, milk-filled channel. In another portion of the textile, a lofty, mosaic-covered tower—most likely Shirin’s palace—is shown. At the foot of this structure, a small basin with swimming ducks perhaps represents the milk-filled pool. The two elegant figures flanking a cypress tree may be Shirin’s servants ( parastaran), carrying containers of milk from the pool to the palace. Finally, the small spotted, gazellelike creatures flanking these scenes may symbolize the gusfandan (sheep or goats) that produce the sweet milk for Shirin.
While revealing the weaver-designer’s intimate knowledge of Nizami’s text, these minute details also demonstrate the intricate interaction of poetry, calligraphy, drawing, and weaving required to create this sophisticated Safavid textile.
Denise-Marie Teece in [Ekhtiar, Soucek, Canby, and Haidar 2011]
3. Examples of the same textile are in the Museo Civico, Turin (no. 544; see Palazzo Ducale Venice 1993, no. 276); Yale University Art Museum, New Haven (no. 1937.4625; see A Sense of Pattern: Textile Masterworks from the Yale University Art Gallery. Exhibition, Yale University Art Gallery, New Haven. Catalogue by Loretta N. Staples. New Haven, 1981, p. 24 n. 17); the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston (see Weibel 1952, no. 127); and the Textile Museum, Washington, D.C. (no. 3.280; Welch 1979, pp. 136–37, no. 54). See also Bier 1987, pp. 184–85, no. 25. The present piece has been published recently in Phipps 2010, p. 42, fig. 72 (detail).
4. Welch 1979, p. 136, identifies the figures of Shirin and Farhad, but does not link the other images to Nizami’s text.
Inscription: In cartouches in Persian in nasta‘liq script:

جلوۀ قد تو ز زیبایي کرده جان را بدین عباني
The splendor of your figure [comes] from beauty.
It has given life to this outer cloak.[1]

گوئي از رشتۀ جان بافته اند نبود جامه بدین زیبایی
There has never been a garment of such beauty.
One might say it has been woven from the threads of your soul.[2]

1. Since the inscription is unclear in this portion of the textile, ours is only one possible reading. Another might be, “It makes of the soul a cloak for the body.” My thanks to Abdullah Ghouchani, Maryam Ekhtiar, and Sina Goudarzi for their assistance with the interpretation
of this inscription and its translation.
2. Translation by Denise-Marie Teece and Maryam Ekhtiar, based upon one by the late Jerome W. Clinton published in Bier 1987, p. 184, no. 25. The precise ordering of the lines is unclear from their placement on the textile, but they appear to form a ruba‘i; their order has been further adapted in the English translation for a better reading

Marking: See link panel.
[ Giorgio Sangiorgi, Rome, until 1946; to Loewi]; [ Adolph Loewi, Los Angeles, 1946; sold to MMA]
New York. The Metropolitan Museum of Art. "Persian Silks of the Safavid Period," December 9, 2003–March 14, 2004, no catalogue.

Weibel, Adele Coulin. "The Figured Textiles of Europe and the Near East." In Two Thousand Years of Textiles. New York: Pantheon Books, 1952. no. 127, (related).

Welch, Anthony. Calligraphy in the Arts of the Muslim World. Austin, TX: University of Texas Press, 1979. no. 54, pp. 136–37, ill., (related).

Bier, Carol, ed. "Textile Arts of Safavid and Qajar Iran 16th–19th Centuries." In Woven from the Soul, Spun from the Heart. Washington, D.C.: Textile Museum, 1987. no. 25, pp. 184-185, ill. p. 185 (color), (related).

"Arte Islamica in Italia." In Eredita dell Islam. Silvana, 1993. no. 276, (related).

Phipps, Elena. "Cochineal Red: The Art History of a Color." Metropolitan Museum of Art Bulletin (Winter 2010). p. 42, ill. fig. 72 (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. 172, pp. 248-249, ill. p. 248 (color).

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