"Kai Kavus Attempts to Fly to Heaven", Folio from a Shahnama (Book of Kings), Abu'l Qasim Firdausi (935–1020), Image: Ink, opaque watercolor, and gold on paper
Margins: Ink and gold on dyed paper

"Kai Kavus Attempts to Fly to Heaven", Folio from a Shahnama (Book of Kings)

Abu'l Qasim Firdausi (935–1020)
Object Name:
Folio from an illustrated manuscript
mid-15th century
Attributed to India
Image: Ink, opaque watercolor, and gold on paper
Margins: Ink and gold on dyed paper
6.5 in. high 7.50 in. wide (16.5 cm high 19.1 cm wide)
Credit Line:
The Grinnell Collection, Bequest of William Milne Grinnell, 1920
Accession Number:
On view at The Met Fifth Avenue in Gallery 463
This painting comes from a copy of a highly Persianate Shahnama that was probably made in northern India. The paintings from this book were later placed in an album with brightly colored borders. In the episode illustrated here, the prince Kai Kavus attempts to fly to heaven by fastening young eagles to his throne. The painting shows Kai Kavus, in a gold-domed throne, holding a piece of meat to entice the eagles.
Two folios from a Shahnama (nos. 20.120.239 and .241)
These two folios belong to a set of twelve paintings that were detached from a Shahnama (Book of Kings) manuscript and remounted in an almost square format on heavy paper with no text on either side. The size and quality of the two paintings suggest that the original manuscript was large and impressive. In the first (no. 20.120.239), the skyward flight of Kai Kavus is depicted as he is lifted on the wing strength of four hungry eagles that have been enticed by chunks of meat suspended out of their reach. Identified by a title, the painting shows the confident Kai Kavus seated on a gold-domed throne at the center and holding a hunk of meat attached to a rope. Four large birds, resembling parrots rather than eagles, are arranged below the throne in energetic poses. A human-faced sun appears near the upper-left corner, and the swirling cloud forms that fill the picture give the painting its movement and dynamism.
The second painting (no. 20.120.241) illustrates a later episode in the epic: the escape from Turan of Farangis, widow of Siyavush, and her son Kai Khusrau, the future king of Iran, under the protection of the hero Giv. They are shown crossing the river Oxus in flight from the Turanian army. Identified by his princely robes, Kai Khusrau leads the group; Farangis rides behind him, and Giv, with his warrior’s armor, brings up the rear. The composition is divided into two nearly equal zones so that the river, in now-oxidized silver, occupies the lower half. The upper half is marked by a horizon with undulating hills dominated by a prominent tree, with branches that terminate in large, stylized flowers. In departures from the textual description, Kai Khusrau’s horse, formerly Siyavush’s black steed, is shown here as white, and Farangis, said to be dressed in armor so as to escape notice, is depicted veiled.
The attribution of these paintings has long been the subject of scholarly debate. Based on stylistic comparisons with fifteenth-century Timurid manuscripts, opinions have varied from Mazandaran,[1] Herat, or Shiraz,[2] to India.[3] Historical evidence suggests that India during the fifteenth century had several flourishing centers of learning,[4] even if securely attributable illustrated manuscripts from the pre-Mughal period are relatively scarce. Yet, important cosmopolitan centers in India, including Bidar in the Deccan, that had strong cultural, social, and political connections with Iran, could be possible places of production for a manuscript such as this decontextualized Shahnama.[5]
Qamar Adamjee in [Ekhtiar, Soucek, Canby, and Haidar 2011]
1. Basil Robinson compared them with the Dunimarle Shahnama (Robinson, B[asil] W[illiam]. "The Dunimarle Shahnama: A Timurid Manuscript from Mazandaran." In Studies in Persian Art, by B[asil] W[illiam] Robinson, vol. 2, pp. 193–204. 2 vols. London, 1993).
2. Maurice Dimand changed his opinion from Herat to Shiraz (curatorial records, Department of Islamic Art, dated April 1956).
3. Fraad, Irma L., and Richard Ettinghausen. "Sultanate Painting in Persian Style, Primarily from the First Half of the Fifteenth Century: A Preliminary Study." In Chhavi, Golden Jubilee Volume, edited by Anand Krishna, pp. 48–66, figs. 133–67. Banaras, 1971; Swietochowski 1978; Welch, Stuart Cary, et al. The Islamic World. The Metropolitan Museum of Art Series, 11. New York, 1987, p. 130. See also Brac de la Perriere, Eloise. L’art du livre dans l’Inde des sultanats. Paris, 2008, p. 367.
4. Eaton, Richard M. A Social History of the Deccan, 1300–1761: Eight Indian Lives. The New Cambridge History of India, 1, 8. Cambridge and New York, 2005, pp. 33–77; Welch, Anthony. "A Medieval Center of Learning in India: The Hauz Khas Madrasa in Delhi." Muqarnas 13 (1996), pp. 165–90; Melikian-Chirvani, A[ssadullah] S[ouren]. "L’école de Shiraz et les origins de la miniature Moghole." In Paintings from Islamic Lands, pp. 124–41. Oxford, 1969; Titley, Norah M. Persian Miniature Painting and Its Influence on the Art of Turkey and India: The British Library Collections. London, 1983; Brend, Barbara. "The British Library’s Shahnama of 1438 as a Sultanate Manuscript." In Facets of Indian Art: A Symposium Held at the Victoria and Albert Museum on 26, 27, 28 April and 1 May 1982, edited by Robert Skelton et al., pp. 87–93. London, 1986; Robinson, B[asil] W[illiam]. Fifteenth Century Persian Painting: Problems and Issues. Hagop Kevorkian Series on Near Eastern Art and Civilization. New York, 1991, pp. 61–75.
5. Brend 1986,(see note 4 above) p. 91; Eaton 2005,(see note 4 above) pp. 33–77.
Inscription: Inscription at the top in Persian in thuluth script :
گفتار اندر فریفتن ابلیس کاوس شاه را و رفتن بآسمان
Story regarding cheated Kāvūs shāh by devil and going to heaven

(Abu’l-Qasim Feardowsi,The Shāhnāmeh (The book of kings), ed, Djalal Khalqi- Moṭlagh, Mazda publishers in association with Bibliotheca Persica, Costa Mesa, California and New York, 1990, vol..2, p.95. The title in this edition of The Shāhnāmeh appears as:
گفتار اندر رفتن شاه کیکاوس بر آسمان (Story regarding going Kaykāvūs shāh to heaven).)
William Milne Grinnell, New York (until d. 1920; bequeathed to MMA)
London. Burlington House. "International Exhibition of Persian Art," January 7, 1931–February 28, 1931, no. 468a.

Venice. Fondazione Giorgio Cini. "Miniature Islamiche dal XIII al XIX Secolo," 1962, no. 36.

Portland, ME. Portland Museum of Art. "Beauty and Belief: Crossing Bridges with the Arts of Islamic Culture," June 15, 2013–September 8, 2013, p. 100.

Joseph Breck. "The William Milne Grinell Bequest." Metropolitan Museum of Art Bulletin, o.s., vol. XV (1920). pp. 273-275.

Wilson, Arnold T. "7th January to 28th February, 1931." In Catalogue of the International Exhibition of Persian Art. 3rd. ed. London: Royal Academy of Arts, 1931. no. 468a, pp. 63, 240.

Binyon, Laurence, Basil Gray, and James Vere Stewart Wilkinson. "Including a Descriptive Catalogue of the Miniatures Exhibited at Burlington House." In Persian Miniature Painting. London, 1933.

Dimand, Maurice S. "New York, October 9 through January 7, 1933–1934." In A Guide to an Exhibition of Islamic Miniature Painting and Book Illumination. New York: The Metropolitan Museum of Art, 1933. p. 28.

Dimand, Maurice S. Persian Miniatures. A Picture Book. Metropolitan Museum of Art Picture Books. New York, 1940. ill. fig. 7 (b/w).

Dimand, Maurice S. A Handbook of Muhammadan Art. 2nd rev. and enl. ed. New York: The Metropolitan Museum of Art, 1944. pp. 38-39.

Grube, Ernst J. "from Collections in the United States and Canada." In Muslim Miniature Paintings from the XIII to XIX Century. Venice: N. Pozza, 1962. no. 36, p. 49, ill. pl. 36 (b/w).

Swietochowski, Marie, and Richard Ettinghausen. "Islamic Painting." Metropolitan Museum of Art Bulletin, n.s., vol. 36, no. 2 (Autumn 1978). pp. 36-37, ill. pp. 36-37 (b/w).

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. 239A, pp. 4, 343, ill. p. 343 (color).

Al Khemir Sabiha Dr. "Crossing Bridges with the Arts of Islamic Culture." In Beauty and Belief. Provo, UT: Brigham Young University, 2012. pp. 100, 217, ill. (color).