"The Funeral of Isfandiyar", Folio from a Shahnama (Book of Kings), Abu'l Qasim Firdausi (935–1020), Ink, opaque watercolor, and gold on paper

"The Funeral of Isfandiyar", Folio from a Shahnama (Book of Kings)

Abu'l Qasim Firdausi (935–1020)
Object Name:
Folio from an illustrated manuscript
Attributed to Iran, Tabriz
Ink, opaque watercolor, and gold on paper
Page: H. 22 13/16 in. (58 cm)
W. 15 3/4 in. (40 cm)
Mat: H. 24 in. (61 cm)
W. 19 1/2 in. (49.5 cm)
Credit Line:
Purchase, Joseph Pulitzer Bequest, 1933
Accession Number:
Not on view
From a dispersed copy of the Ilkhanid manuscript referred to as the Great Mongol Shahnama, this folio depicts the funeral procession of the Persian hero Isfandiyar. The bier is accompanied by a group of mourners, some wailing and pulling at their hair, which is worn loose as a sign of mourning. The painting technique, with its strong linear quality and thin washes of color, recalls contemporary Chinese brush painting.
#6702. Overview: Earliest Persian Illustrated Manuscripts, Part 1
#6702. Overview: Earliest Persian Illustrated Manuscripts
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Blending Iranian myth, Mongol traditions, and Chinese motifs, this folio bears witness to the rich artistic and cultural exchanges that occurred in Iran under the Ilkhanid dynasty. It comes from a dispersed copy of the Shahnama (Book of Kings) known as the Great Mongol Shahnama, and illustrates the funeral procession of Isfandiyar, one of the central characters of the epic. King Gushtasp ordered Isfandiyar to bring the hero Rustam to his court in chains (with the promise of making him king). Reluctant to do this because of Rustam’s longstanding loyalty to the crown of Iran, Isfandiyar attempted to convince him to return to Iran. Rustam’s refusal to comply with the royal order led to a fight that ended in the death of Isfandiyar.
As in other paintings in this manuscript, the illustration closely follows the narrative, but it is also infused with details taken from contemporary Mongol mourning customs.[1] Mongol historical sources have noted that funerary processions were opened by the horse of the deceased with the saddle placed in reverse. Fittingly, the image shows Isfandiyar’s black horse in front of the cortege, with his tail cut and the saddle upturned to signal mourning. The coffin, said to have been wrapped in Chinese silk and carried by mules, is accordingly depicted, escorted by a large group of mourners whose animated gestures and unbalanced postures effectively communicate the profound grief caused by the prince’s death. The monochromatic palette of the scene further draws the viewer’s attention to the individual expressions of the participants, enhancing the dramatic quality of the representation.
The Great Mongol Shahnama was commissioned by the Ilkhanid ruler Abu Sa‘id (r. 1317–35) toward the end of his reign. The codex was never completed, but in its final version it would have been in two volumes and contained some 280 folios and between 180 and 200 illustrations,[2] making it one of the most richly illustrated codices in the history of the Persianate arts of the book.[3] Some of the paintings in the manuscript and their association with contemporary Mongol practices have led scholars to identify it with the Abu Sa‘idnama, a saga about the reign of the Ilkhanid ruler that is mentioned in later sources but is now lost.[4] Although intriguing, this interpretation is not universally accepted.[5]
It has been suggested that the Ilkhanids’ interest in the Persian epic tradition was a way for them to assimilate local culture into their own and to reinforce their claim as the legitimate rulers of Iran. Only a few decades after the Ilkhanids’ accession, scenes and verses from the Shahnama were being used on luster tiles to decorate the Ilkhanid summer residence at Takht-i Sulaiman, in northwestern Iran. At the same time, through the adoption of the local epic tradition, the Ilkhanids embraced a practice that is attested in earlier times and that linked power to myth.[6] The recurrence of the Shahnama in their cultural production ultimately demonstrates how the epic offered a formula for idealized kingship that articulated the aspirations of many generations of rulers.
Francesca Leoni in [Ekhtiar, Soucek, Canby, and Haidar 2011]
1. As first noted by Grabar and Blair 1980, p. 100.
2. Blair, Sheila S. "On the Track of the ‘Demotte’ Shahnama Manuscript." In Les manuscrits du Moyen-Orient: Essais de codicologie et de paléographie; Actes du Colloque d’Istanbul (Istanbul, 26–29 mai 1986), edited by Francois Déroche, pp. 125–31. Varia Turcica VIII. Istanbul and Paris, 1989.
3. Another profusely illustrated version of the Shahnama was produced for Shah Tahmasp (r. 1524–76) starting in the 1520s. Seventy-seven folios of this manuscript are currently in the Metropolitan Museum (acc. nos. 1970.301.01–77). 4. In the preface for the album assembled for the Safavid prince Bahram Mirza in 1544, the Abu Sa‘idnama is mentioned by Dust Muhammad in relation to the painter Ahmad Musa; see Thackston, W[heeler] M. Album Prefaces and Other Documents on the History of Calligraphers and Painters. Studies and Sources in Islamic Art and Architecture, 10. Leiden and Boston, 2001, p. 12. The interpretation of the Great Mongol Shahnama as Abu Sa‘idnama was proposed in Soudavar, Abolala. "The Saga of Abu Sa‘id Bahador Khan: The Abu- Sa‘idname." In The Court of the Il-khans, 1290 – 1340, edited by Julian Raby and Teresa Fitzherbert, pp. 95 – 218. Oxford Studies in Islamic Art, 12. Oxford, 1996.
5. Among the various critiques of this interpretation, see Sheila S. Blair in Hillenbrand 2004, esp. pp. 46–47.
6. According to the thirteenth-century historian Ibn Bibi, ‘Ala’ al-Din Kai Qubad I had quotations from the Shahnama on the walls of his palaces in Konya and Sivas (Carboni and Komaroff 2002, p. 102).

With his dying breath, Isfandiyar entrusted Rustam with the guidance of his son, after declaring that his death was caused not by Rustam but by fate and his father 's ambitions. Rustam made arrangements to send Isfandiyar's body back to Iran. He ordered a fine iron coffin smeared with pitch on the inside, draped with rich Chinese brocades, and sprinkled with musk and ambergris. He shrouded the body in brocade and placed on it Isfandiyar's turquoise crown.

The details of the painting follow the text faithfully.[1] Members of the procession, with distinctly Mongol feautures, are shown wailing and tearing their hair in grief. As a sign of mourning, Isfandyar's horse has its mane and tail shorn, and the saddle, with Isfandyar's mace, quiver, and helmet hanging from it, is reversed. This illustration of a royal Mongol funeral procession is rendered with smooth calligraphic lines that derive from Chinese painting. The Chinese clouds above, with the three geese that in Buddhist belief were to bear the soul to heaven, also speak of the strong Chinese influences in the Ilkhanid period.

[Komaroff and Carboni 2002]


1. Grabar, Oleg and Sheila Blair. Epic Images and Contemporary History: The Illustrations of the Great Mongol Shahnama. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1980, pp. 100–101, no. 22; The Islamic World. Introduction by Stuart Cary Wech. New York: The Metropolitan Museum of Art, 1987, pp. 72–73, pl. 53.
Inscription: In Persian in nasta’liq script verses from the Shāhnāma of Ferdowsī , heading above گفتار اندر اندرز کردن اسفندیار رستم را از بهر بهمن (story of the advice of Isfandīyār to Rustam regarding Bahman) and heading below گفتار اندر آگاهي یافتن گشتاسب از کشته شدن اسفندیار (story of Gushtasp's hearing about Isfandiyar's death) The title of the story on the page itself is آوردن تابوت اسفندیار (The bringining of …᾽Isfandīyār's cenotaph).

(Abu’l-Qasim Feardowsi,The Shāhnāmeh (The book of kings), ed, Djalal Khalqi- Muṭlagh, Mazda publishers in association with Bibliotheca Persica, Costa Mesa, California and New York, 1997, vol. 5, pp. 424-27)

[ Demotte, Inc., New York, by 1926–33; sold to MMA]
London. Burlington House. "International Exhibition of Persian Art," January 7, 1931–February 28, 1931, no. 440.

New York. The Metropolitan Museum of Art. "Riding Across Central Asia: Images of the Mongolian Horse in Islamic Art," April 26, 2000–November 12, 2000, no catalogue.

New York. The Metropolitan Museum of Art. "The Legacy of Genghis Khan: Courtly Art and Culture in Western Asia 1256-1353," October 28, 2002–February 16, 2003, no. 42.

Los Angeles County Museum of Art. "The Legacy of Genghis Khan: Courtly Art and Culture in Western Asia 1256-1353," April 13, 2003–July 27, 2003, no. 42.

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. 440, p. 210.

Dimand, Maurice S. A Handbook of Muhammadan Art. 2nd rev. and enl. ed. New York: The Metropolitan Museum of Art, 1944. p. 32, ill. fig. 16 (b/w).

Dimand, Maurice S. A Handbook of Muhammadan Art. Publications, 36.. Lahore: The Panjabi Adabi Academy, 1964. p. 32, ill. fig. 16 (b/w).

Grube, Ernst J. "The Early School of Herat and its Impact on Islamic Painting of the Later 15th, the 16th and 17th Centuries." In The Classical Style in Islamic Painting. Venice: Edizioni Oriens, 1968. ill. pl. 2 (b/w).

The Metropolitan Museum of Art. Masterpieces of Fifty Centuries: the Metropolitan Museum of Art. New York: E. P. Dutton & Co., 1970. no. 156, p. 179, ill. (b/w).

Ettinghausen, Richard. "Islamic Art." Metropolitan Museum of Art Bulletin vol. 33, no. 1 (Spring 1975). ill. p. 23 (b/w).

Grabar, Oleg, and Sheila Blair. "the Illustrations of the Great Mongol Shahnama." In Epic Images and Contemporary History. Chicago, 1980.

Welch, Stuart Cary. The Islamic World. vol. 11. New York: The Metropolitan Museum of Art, 1987. pp. 72-73, ill. fig. 53 (color).

Swietochowski, Marie, Stefano Carboni, Tomoko Masuya, and Alexander H. Morton. Illustrated Poetry and Epic Images:Persian Painting of the 1330s and 1340s. New York: The Metropolitan Museum of Art, 1994. p. 12, ill. fig. 4 (b/w).

Alexander, David. Furusiyya: Catalogue. vol. 2. Riyadh,Saudi Arabia: King Abdulaziz Public Library, 1996. no. 204, p. 242-245, ill. p. 244 (color).

Rossabi, Morris, Charles Melville, James C.Y. Watt, Tomoko Masuya, Sheila Blair, Robert Hillenbrand, Linda Komaroff, Stefano Carboni, Sarah Bertelan, and John Hirx. The Legacy of Genghis Khan: Courtly Art and Culture in Western Asia, 1256–1353, edited by Stefano Carboni, and Linda Komaroff. New Haven: Yale University Press, 2002. no. 42, pp. 107, 255, ill. fig. 123 (color).

Hillenbrand, Robert, ed. "The Visual Language of the Persian Book of Kings." In Shahnama. VARIE occasonal papers; 2. Burlington, VT: Ashgate, 2004.

Encyclopaedia Iranica vol. XII (2004). p. 662, ill. pl. VI (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. 57, pp. 89, 96-97, ill. p. 96 (color).