In the introduction to the Shahnama, God launched seventy ships, bearing adherents to the religions of mankind, into a stormy sea. Clearly depicted on the central ship are the Prophet and his son‑in‑law and successor 'Ali sitting beneath the red canopy, while 'Ali’s sons, Hasan and Husain, stand nearby. Details such as the inlaid stars and figures with very small elliptical pupils are characteristic of works attributed to Mirza 'Ali, the son of the master painter Sultan Muhammad.
Although not the largest royal manuscript produced for Shah Tahmasp of Iran, the Shahnama (Book of Kings) ranks as the most important. Its 258 paintings by fifteen artists, working from the early or mid-1520s until the mid-1530s, form a compendium of Safavid painting from the first third of the sixteenth century. A veritable classroom for the great and lesser masters of Iran, the Shahnama project brought together artists from East and West who subsumed their regional styles into a Safavid idiom defined by perfect brushwork, complex, multifigure compositions, brilliant color, and lively characterization.
Martin Dickson and Stuart Cary Welch have described a scenario for the circumstances surrounding the commission of the manuscript, proposing that Shah Isma‘il I ordered a deluxe Shahnama for his first-born son, Tahmasp, in 1522, when the prince returned to Tabriz after six years in the former Timurid capital at Herat. Alternatively, Shah Tahmasp may have ordered the manuscript in 1524 to commemorate his accession to the throne in that year, for the commissioning of opulent illustrated manuscripts to mark the coronation of a new ruler was a long-established practice in Iran. Qadi Ahmad, writing at the end of the sixteenth century, states that as a prince, Tahmasp studied painting with the preeminent Tabriz artist, Sultan Muhammad. Assuming this student-teacher relationship developed from 1522 on, Shah Tahmasp himself may have arrived at the idea of commissioning an imperial Shahnama at the suggestion of Sultan Muhammad. Since by 1522 Isma‘il I had succumbed to the alcoholism that killed him, his motivation for ordering such a manuscript is more difficult to divine. Welch claimed that an earlier royal Shahnama, on which Sultan Muhammad had begun production at the behest of Shah Isma‘il as a gift for Tahmasp, was never finished because its style was too foreign to the young Tahmasp, who had been reared in Herat and was familiar with the painting of the great Bihzad and other late Timurid artists. However, such a supposition relies not only on dating the earlier, unfinished manuscript to about 1520, rather than five years earlier, on the basis of style but also on accepting the notion that Tahmasp at the age of eight could tell the difference between the Herat and Tabriz schools of painting and prevail upon the artists at the Safavid court to abandon their project.
Dickson and Welch have posited three phases of production for the manuscript. During the first, Sultan Muhammad would have been director of the project, followed in 1527 by Mir Musavvir, who was in turn succeeded in the early 1530s by Aqa Mirak, a contemporary and close friend of Shah Tahmasp. While the sequence of paintings generally follows this chronology—the earliest works appearing at the beginning of the manuscript—some were added later near the beginning or replaced earlier versions of the same scene. Thus, this folio, "Firdausi’s Parable of the Ship of Shiism", (cat. 138A) which appears near the start of the poem, can be attributed to Mirza ‘Ali, one of the second generation of painters working on the manuscript, and most likely dates to the first half of the 1530s.
Taken from Firdausi’s introduction to the poem, the story concerns the seventy ships that God launched into a stormy sea and the "single broad ship in the shape of a bride, embellished like the eye of a rooster. The Prophet is in it with ‘Ali / and also the ahl-i bait-i nabi and vasi." The two sons of ‘Ali, Hasan and Husain, stand to either side of the roofed forecastle pavilion in which Muhammad and ‘Ali are seated. Although the ship carrying the Prophet and the first three Shi‘i imams is not exactly "in the shape of a bride," it is lavishly adorned with inlaid wooden panels bearing intricate geometric patterns and has a strikingly decorated prow in the shape of a duck’s head and neck. The passengers include a crowned figure, depicted seated, his back to the viewer, and two men wearing the Safavid turban with its characteristic taj, the red vertical extension of the turban cap. Between these two stands a white-bearded elderly figure in a red coat with a fur collar. Dickson and Welch have suggested that this is Firdausi himself. The clever man realized that even if all the ships were doomed to sink and their passengers drown, the best place to be would be beside the Prophet and ‘Ali.
In addition to Firdausi’s text, the artist has included a couplet on the canopy of the forecastle that reads, "Muhammad is here to fortify our inner state! Why heed the waves when Noah is piloting our Ship of State?" As Raya Shani has noted, the mention of Noah as the pilot of the ship of state implies a parallel with the Safavid head of state, the shah. In addition, she mentions a hadith, or tradition of the Prophet, in which the Prophet likens the ahl-i bait-i nabi to Noah’s Ark, which will safeguard those who choose to ride in it.
Details such as the inlaid stars on the two smaller boats and the very small elliptical pupils of the figures’ eyes appear in other works attributed to Mirza ‘Ali, including "Khusrau Listening to Barbad Playing the Lute" from the 1539–43 Khamsa of Nizami and "Nushirwan Receives an Embassy from the Ray of Hind" from this manuscript. The son of Sultan Muhammad, Mirza ‘Ali would have been in his twenties at the time he painted this work. His meticulous brushwork, pictorial elements that are slightly larger in scale than his father’s, and groupings of figures are all characteristic of the work of the second-generation artist in Tahmasp’s Shahnama.
Shah Tahmasp, Iran (until 1568; gifted to Selim II); Sultan Selim II, Istanbul (from 1568); Sultan Selim III, Istanbul (by 1800); Baron Edmond de Rothschild, Paris (by 1903–d. 1934); his son, Baron Maurice de Rothschild, Paris and Pregny, near Geneva (by 1955–d. 1957); [ Stiebel Ltd., New York, until 1959; sold to Houghton]; Arthur A. Houghton Jr., New York (1959–70; gifted to MMA)
Cambridge, MA. Fogg Museum, Harvard Art Museums. "Wonders of the Age: Masterpieces of Early Safavid Painting," March 29, 1980–May 18, 1980, no. 7.
Welch, Stuart Cary. A King's Book of Kings: the Shah-nameh of Shah Tahmasp. New York: The Metropolitan Museum of Art, 1972. pp. 84-87, ill. pp. 85-87, folio 18v (color; b/w).
Swietochowski, Marie, and Marilyn Jenkins-Madina. Notable Acquisitions 1965–1975 (1975). p. 133, ill. (b/w).
Welch, Stuart Cary, Sheila R. Canby, and Norah M. Titley. "Masterpieces of Early Safavid Painting, 1501–1576." In Wonders of the Age. Cambridge, MA: Fogg Museum, Harvard Art Museums, 1979. no. 7, pp. 48-49, ill. p. 49 (b/w).
Dickson, Martin, and Stuart Cary Welch. The Houghton Shahnameh. Vol. vols. I & II. Cambridge, Mass. and London, England: Harvard University Press, 1981. vol. II, ill. pl. 6 (b/w).
Bahari, Ebadollah, and Annemarie Schimmel. Bihzad, Master of Persian Painting. London, New York: I.B.Tauris Publishers, 1996. See folios 18v and 29v.
Canby, Sheila R. "The Persian Book of Kings." In The Shahnama of Shah Tahmasp. Madrid, 2011. p. 26, ill. (color), folio 18v.
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. 138A, pp. 7, 202-208, ill. p. 204 (color).
Rüstem, Ünver. "The Afterlife of a Royal Gift: The Ottoman Inserts of the Shahnama-i Shahi." Muqarnas vol. 29 (2012). p. 278, 279, 296, ill. figs. 2, 3, (color).
Canby, Sheila R. The Shahnama of Shah Tahmasp: The Persian Book of Kings. New York: The Metropolitan Museum of Art, 2014. pp. 68, 324, 328, 330, ill. p. 68 (color), full-page ill. p. 68; detail p. 324,328, 330.