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.
On the folio following "The Feast of Sada," (no. 1970.301.2) Sultan Muhammad contributed another illustration, "Tahmuras Defeats the Divs" (no. 1970.301.3). Raising the tempo, he depicts Shah Tahmuras, the son of Hushang, as he gallops across a meadow and bashes a black demon (div) with an ox-headed mace. The shah, who taught humans various useful skills such as weaving, was bedeviled by the evil Ahriman and his army of divs. Although he defeated Ahriman, he spared the lives of the divs in exchange for their teaching him the alphabet and all the languages of the known world, from Greek to Chinese. At the lower left, a clutch of captured divs sits panting but neutralized, while one of their number is led away by a horseman as one of his fellow demons pulls his tail. The humor of the divs’ ghastly faces and gestures and the painterly treatment of their spotty skin are typical of the work of Sultan Muhammad. Moreover, the spatial illogic of the horseman and his white mount at the upper right, who are seemingly walking on air, recalls the Turkmen roots of Sultan Muhammad’s style. Under the influence of the Herat artists who joined the royal library at Tabriz, the artist would rein in such charming excesses over the course of the Shahnama project.
Sheila R. Canby in [Ekhtiar, Soucek, Canby, and Haidar 2011]
1. Dickson and Welch 1981, vol. 1, p. 4; Welch 1972, p. 53.
2. Robert Hillenbrand contended that, by the early sixteenth century, illustrated Shahnama manuscripts had gone out of fashion as commemorative volumes for new rulers. However, his suggestion that fifteenth-century rulers commissioned only illustrated books of mystical or love poetry did not take into consideration the major works on the wars of Timur, the Zafarnama, or the religious manuscript, the Mi‘rajnama, produced for the Timurid sultan, Abu Sa‘id. Hillenbrand, R. in Melville 1996, pp. 54–56. Both Shah Tahmasp’s successor, Shah Isma‘il II, and his successor, Shah ‘Abbas, commissioned illustrated Shahnamas at the start of their reigns, which suggests that the choice to embark on such a project was connected to their identity as Safavid rulers, distinct from their Turkmen and Timurid predecessors.
3. Ahmad ibn Mir Munshi al-Husaini. Calligraphers and Painters: A Treatise by Qadi Ahmad, Son of Mir- Munshi (circa A.H. 1015/A.D. 1606). Translated by V[ladimir] Minorsky. Smithsonian Institution Publication 4339. Freer Gallery of Art Occasional Papers, vol. 3, no. 2. Washington, D.C., 1959, pp. 180–81.
4. Welch 1972, pp. 48–54, 60; Dickson and Welch 1981, vol. 1, pp. 34, 45.
5. Canby 1993, pp. 79–80, dates the painting to about 1515–22.
6. Dickson and Welch 1981, vol. 1, p. 5; Welch 1972, pp. 62–63, 84.
Inscription: In Persian in Nasta’liq script verses from the Shāhnma of Ferdowsī , story پادشاهي طهمورث سي سال بود The rule of Tahmuras was thirty years).
(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, 1988, vol.1, p.37).
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)
New York. The Metropolitan Museum of Art. "A King's Book of Kings: Persian Miniatures from Shah Tahmasp's Shahnama of 1528," May 4, 1972–December 31, 1972, no catalog.
Welch, Stuart Cary. A King's Book of Kings: the Shah-nameh of Shah Tahmasp. New York: The Metropolitan Museum of Art, 1972. pp. 96-99, ill. pp. 97-99, folio 23v (color, 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. 10 (b/w).
Canby, Sheila R. "Five Centuries of Painting." In Persian Masters. Bombay: Marg Publications, 1990. p. 56, ill. fig. 1.
Canby, Sheila R. Persian Painting. London: British Museum Press, 1993. pp. 79–80.
Melville, Charles, ed. Safavid Persia : The History and Politics of an Islamic Society. Pembroke Persian papers. London - New York: I.B. Tauris & Company, Ltd., 1996. pp. 54-56.
Grabar, Oleg. Mostly Miniatures: An introduction to Persian painting. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2000. p. 145, ill. fig. 76 (color).
Barry, Mike, and Stuart Cary Welch. "et l'Enigme de Behzad de Herat (1465–1535)." In L'Art Figuratif en Islam Medieval. Paris: Flammarion, 2004. p. 365, ill. p. 365, folio 23v (color detail).
Canby, Sheila R. "The Persian Book of Kings." In The Shahnama of Shah Tahmasp. Madrid, 2011. pp. 15, 30, ill. (color), folio 22v.
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. 135C, pp. 7, 202-208, ill. p. 205 (color).
Haidar, Navina, and Marika Sardar. "The Metropolitan Museum of Art Symposia." In Sultans of the South: Art of India's Deccan Courts. Brugge, Belgium: The Metropolitan Museum of Art, 2011. p. 109, ill. fig. 5.
Ekhtiar, Maryam, and Claire Moore, ed. "A Resource for Educators." In Art of the Islamic World. New York: The Metropolitan Museum of Art, 2012. pp. 146-147, ill. pl. 28 (color).
The Metropolitan Museum of Art. The Metropolitan Museum of Art Guide. New York: The Metropolitan Museum of Art, 2012. pp. 136-137, ill. (color).
Canby, Sheila R. The Shahnama of Shah Tahmasp: The Persian Book of Kings. New York: The Metropolitan Museum of Art, 2014. pp. 72, 332, ill. fig. 105 (color), full-page color ill. p. 72; detail p. 332.