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Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History Essays

Folios from the Great Mongol Shahnama (Book of Kings)

The most elaborate and luxurious manuscript of the Ilkhanid period is a fourteenth-century copy (now dispersed) of the Shahnama (Book of Kings), known today as the Great Mongol Shahnama. It exists today in the form of 57 illustrations and several text pages scattered among public and private collections. Extensive study of the manuscript has revealed that the original was probably two volumes of about 280 large folios and 190 illustrations.

In the early twentieth century, Paris dealer Georges Demotte took the manuscript apart, splitting some folios with illustrations on both sides and selling the resulting two leaves individually. He commissioned new text pages to paste on the backs of the undamaged split leaves; when these were damaged, the salvaged image was pasted onto a newly commissioned folio. As a result, some paintings are unrelated to the accompanying text, while others have incomplete text.

The frontispiece and the colophon, which might have revealed information about the patron, the calligrapher, and the date and place of production, are lost. Most scholars agree that the manuscript dates to the 1330s and was perhaps commissioned by the vizier Ghiyath al-Din, son of Rashid al-Din of Tabriz.

The Shahnama, the poet Firdausi’s masterpiece in Persian verse written around 1000, tells the stories of ancient heroes and kings of pre-Islamic Iran; it is rich with exploits of love and betrayal, courage, and valor that lend themselves to illustration. This epic work remained one of the most popular in Iran, and the first-known illustrated copies date to the Ilkhanid period. As no illustrated copies of the Shahnama are known from before the early 1300s, the manuscript might not yet have had an established iconography, leaving the Ilkhanid patron and the best artists at court free to experiment with the choice of pictorial events, styles, and themes.

The pages of the Great Mongol Shahnama are large in format and most of the space is often entirely painted. The figures possess a monumental quality, and the use of such devices as the extension of trees and battle standards beyond the picture frame and the truncation of human and animal figures imparts a sense of barely contained energy. The frequent depiction of figures seen from behind pulls the viewer into the picture space, enhancing the drama. The innovative Ilkhanid artists combined the traditional style of Persian painting with elements borrowed from other traditions—costumes, rocks, trees, and clouds from Chinese art; compositions from Western painting—to produce a unique and unparalleled visual expression. The Shahnama, with its rich detailing of the largely lost material culture of the Mongol court, presents a view of the contemporary Ilkhanid world, transforming a popular text into a splendid visual document of the period.