"Elias and Khizr at the Fountain of Life', Folio from a Shahnama (Book of Kings) of Firdausi
Abu'l Qasim Firdausi (935–1020)
Folio from an illustrated manuscript
late 15th century
Attributed to Iran
Ink, opaque watercolor, and gold on paper
9 x 3 9/16in. (22.9 x 9cm)
Dimensions of painting: 6 1/8 x 5 7/8in. (15.5 x 14.9cm)
Cora Timken Burnett Collection of Persian Miniatures and Other Persian Art Objects, Bequest of Cora Timken Burnett, 1956
Not on view
Alexander the Great figures prominently in Persian literature and histories, including in both the Shahnama and the Khamsa of Nizami. This scene, which occurs in both texts, depicts Alexander and the Prophet Khizr’s search for the Fountain of Life. Although they begin the journey together, they are separated and only Khizr is successful. Here, he appears with the Prophet Elias at the Fountain, while Alexander continues his search in the background.
Drawings of Dragon in Foliage (no. 57.51.26) and Leaves with Dragon (no. 2000.424).
By the middle of the sixteenth century, in the reign of Sultan Suleyman the Magnificent (r. 1520–66), the Ottoman nakkaşhane, or court design atelier in Istanbul, was flourishing under the leadership of Shah Qulu, an emigre artist from Iran. Shah Qulu is thought to have been largely responsible for the development of the new saz or hatayi style, inspired at once by the art of China and of Iran, which by midcentury had become the new emblem of imperial Ottoman artistry. His drawings in black ink on paper, sometimes with small touches of color, were sought after by Ottoman patrons and incorporated into a number of royal albums created at the court.
The Metropolitan’s drawing of a dragon in foliage (no. 57.51.26) bears an inscription stating that it is the work of Shah Qulu "as an exercise"; while this is more likely an attribution added later rather than an artist’s signature, Shah Qulu’s authorship is entirely credible. The inscription "as an exercise" illuminates the relative simplicity of this drawing as compared with another, probably later, dragon drawing of enormous complexity, also by Shah Qulu, in the Cleveland Museum of Art. Here the entire composition is generated from a thick black line, like a steel spring, that forms the back of the dragon, which is shown moving energetically to the left while treading on a furiously churning bed of feathery leaves. Like the dragon, the leaves are defined by the broad tapering lines of their spines; the textured veining and serrated edges of the leaves, as with the dappled skin of the dragon, are depicted with incredible delicacy.
On the vertical album page (no. 2000.424), the roles of dragon and leaves are in a sense reversed. Here the main actors are two large leaves, one of which, in a dramatic gesture, pierces the other. The tail of a tiny dragon is visible at the top of the composition, while the head of another is seen at bottom right. This drawing, which bears the partially legible impression of a seal of a former owner (another, less legible impression is found on the album border), is in fact an artistic combination of two other works in the saz style. One is a drawing in a royal Ottoman album now in Istanbul’s Topkapı Palace Museum; the leaves in the Metropolitan’s drawing are an exact mirror image of those in the Istanbul drawing. The other source exists in two versions, one in the Los Angeles County Museum of Art,  the second a recent addition to the Islamic collections of the Musée du Louvre, Paris. In both of these drawings two small dragons are clearly shown, head and tail, twined around a single large leaf with a swordlike spine.
Drawings such as these are virtuoso exercises—imagine them as Chopin études for the reed pen—that allowed artists to demonstrate their skill and imagination outside the more restricted arena of the illustrated book. In the aftermath of the death of Shah Qulu, sometime after the middle of the century, his followers continued his style, which influenced tile making, ceramic tablewares, arts of the book, textiles, and carpets.
Walter B. Denny in [Ekhtiar, Soucek, Canby, and Haidar 2011]
1. Denny 1983, pl. 1.
2. Topkapı Palace Museum, Istanbul (no. H 2147, fol. 33A). Ibid., pl. 11.
3. The Los Angeles drawing was formerly in the collection of Edwin Binney 3rd; see Portland and other cities 1979, pp. 18–21.