Isfandiyar's Third Course: He Slays a Dragon: Folio from the Shahnama (Book of Kings) of Shah Tahmasp, Safavid period (1501–1722), ca. 1530
Attributed to Qasim ibn 'Ali (active ca. 1525–60)
Opaque watercolor, ink, silver, and gold on paper; page: H. 18 5/8 in. (47.3 cm), W. 12 1/2 in. (31.8 cm)
Gift of Arthur A. Houghton Jr., 1970 (1970.301.51)
Before meeting the hero Rustam in one of the most memorable battles of the entire epic poem, Isfandiyar, the son of the heir to the Iranian throne Gushtasp, was involved in a number of trials reminiscent of Rustam's challenges in Mazandaran. This painting shows his fight against a ferocious dragon, which he found on his way to the fortress of brass, where his sisters had been trapped by the Turanians. Although strong and valiant, Isfandiyar did not have the elephantine strength of Rustam and had to rely on a war-chariot armed with sharp blades. When he approached the dragon, the monstrous serpent opened his cavernous, flaming jaws and swallowed chariot and horses. The blades wounded and weakened the monster, allowing Isfandiyar to kill him with his sword and continue his journey.
The dragon is among the many iconographic motifs that reached the Islamic world from China. For many centuries, the trade routes of Asia, such as the Silk Road, facilitated the diffusion of merchandise and artistic idioms. The Mongol invasions inaugurated a phase of intense cultural exchange across the continent from the thirteenth to fifteenth centuries. Light portable objects, such as textiles and porcelains, were the principal vehicles of this transmission, a factor that stimulated the wide adoption of these motifs in various media also in Western Asia.