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. .
The dramatic image of this folio, "Isfandiyar Slays a Dragon" illustrates the third of seven courses, or tests, that the prince underwent on the route to Turan, where he had been sent by Shah Gushtasp to free his sisters. As virtuous, brave, and loyal as Isfandiyar was, his father set increasingly difficult challenges for him to meet before he would agree to abdicate and raise him to the throne. Accompanied by the Turanian general Gurgsar as his prisoner and guide, Isfandiyar learned that he would encounter a dragon upon the direct but difficult route to Turan that he had chosen. The prince ordered a two-horse chariot to be built with a box in which he and protruding swords could fit. As the chariot approached the dragon’s lair, the beast advanced toward it, sucking the terrified horses and the chariot into its maw. With the swords now stuck in the dragon’s throat, Isfandiyar climbed out of the box and delivered the coup de grace by plunging his sword into its brain.
The artist to whom Dickson and Welch attribute this painting, Qasim ibn ‘Ali, has chosen to illustrate the moment of confrontation between the horses and the dragon. Flames issuing from the beast’s open mouth cause the dappled horse to pull away in fear. Aside from the pikes pointed at the dragon, the swords described as protruding from the chariot are absent from this image. The dragon itself, a picture of compressed energy, is tightly wedged into the rocky mountain. The S-curved bare shrubs and large-headed, small-bodied figures conform to the Turkmen style and characterize the work of Qasim ibn ‘Ali, also called Painter B by Welch. Although the artist is not mentioned by Qadi Ahmad or Dust Muhammad, his name appears in the treatise on poets by Sam Mirza, Shah Tahmasp’s brother, which notes that he came from Shiraz and accords him the same rank as Qadimi (see 1970.301.36). Many similarities in figural types exist between his works in the Tahmasp Shahnama and a signed illustration to the Ahsan al-Kibar (The Best of the Greats: On the Knowledge of the Immaculate Imam), dated September 1526. In "Isfandiyar Slays a Dragon," the composition relies on that of Aqa Mirak’s "Faridun in the Guise of a Dragon Tests His Three Sons." However, the dramatic tension generated by the range of reactions in Aga Mirak’s image is invested only in the dragon in Qasim ibn ‘Ali’s picture, since the protagonist is mostly hidden in the chariot box and the other figures are bystanders. A competent, careful painter, Qasim ibn ‘Ali lacked the flair of the masters whom he assisted on 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.
16. Mentioned in Welch 1979, p. 76.
17. Thompson and Canby 1979, p. 108.
Welch, Stuart Cary. A King's Book of Kings: the Shah-nameh of Shah Tahmasp. New York: The Metropolitan Museum of Art, 1972. p. 195.
Swietochowski, Marie, and Richard Ettinghausen. "Islamic Painting." Metropolitan Museum of Art Bulletin, n.s., vol. 36, no. 2 (Autumn 1978). Back cover (color).
Welch, Stuart Cary, Sheila R. Canby, and Norah M. Titley. "Masterpieces of Early Safavid Painting, 1501–1576." In Wonders of the Age. Cambridge, MA: Fogg Museum, Harvard Art Museums, 1979. p. 76.
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. 201 (b/w).
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.
Thompson, Jon, and Sheila R. Canby, ed. "Court Arts of Safavid Iran 1501–1576." In Hunt for Paradise. Milan; New York: Skira , 2003. p. 108.
Canby, Sheila R. "The Persian Book of Kings." In The Shahnama of Shah Tahmasp. Madrid, 2011. pp. 13, 221, ill. (color), folio 434v.
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. 138E, pp. 7, 202-208, ill. p. 206 (color).
Canby, Sheila R. The Shahnama of Shah Tahmasp: The Persian Book of Kings. New York: The Metropolitan Museum of Art, 2014. p. 263, ill. fol. 434v.
Flood, Finbarr Barry, and Gulru Necipoglu. "From the Mongols to Modernism." In A Companion to Islamic Art and Architecture. vol. 2. Hoboken, NJ: John Wiley & Sons, Inc., 2017. pp. 877–78, ill. fig. 34.1 (b/w).