Learn/ Educators/ Curriculum Resources/ Art of the Islamic World/ Unit Five: Courtly Splendor in the Islamic World/ Chapter Three: The Making of A Persian Manuscript—The Shahnama (Book of Kings) of Shah Tahmasp/ Making a Royal Manuscript

Making a Royal Manuscript

In the royal Safavid workshop, the making of a manuscript—especially one as ambitious as this—drew upon the resources of the state to employ artists and supply materials such as paper, ink, gold leaf, pigments, and leather bindings. Production took place in the Safavid court's "house of books" (kitabkhana), which was at once a library and a workshop. The process began with papermaking. Sheets made of the pulp of linen and hemp rags were custom-sized and coated with a starchy solution to prepare them for ink and paint. Multiple factors informed design and layout: the entire text had to fit in the allotted lines, the relationship between text and image had to be meaningful and balanced, and the illustrated scenes had to provide a compelling visual narrative. Once the layout was established, scribes wrote the text in the spaces designated by the director, who inspected every line for accuracy before passing the pages on to the painters.

The painters sketched out the entire composition with a light brush before focusing on specific areas. They often showed off their talent by incorporating minuscule details and playful visual elements. They prepared their pigments from natural minerals, including semiprecious stones such as lapis lazuli (blue) and malachite (green), as well as gold, silver, sulfur, and dyes from various plants and insects. Thanks to surviving contemporary accounts and stylistic analyses of the paintings, scholars have been able to distinguish the hands of many artists involved in producing the illustrations—some by name, though others remain anonymous.

When the paintings were finished, illuminators contributed to the overall sumptuousness of the manuscript by adorning the borders, chapter headings, and text frames with gold. Most importantly, they created the complex geometric designs on the opening page of the manuscript, called the frontispiece. Then the finished gilded pages were burnished with a smooth, hard stone such as agate or rock crystal to give them a polished effect.

Once all the pages had gone through this elaborate process, they were brought to a binding specialist who sewed and bound the leaves and attached a decorated leather or lacquer cover to the spine. Finally, the completed book was placed in a jeweled container and presented to the patron.

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