Art/ Collection/ Art Object

"The Assassination of Khusrau Parviz", Folio 742v from the Shahnama (Book of Kings) of Shah Tahmasp

Abu'l Qasim Firdausi (935–1020)
Painting attributed to 'Abd al-Samad (Iranian, Shiraz ca. 1505/15–ca. 1600)
Object Name:
Folio from an illustrated manuscript
ca. 1535
Made in Iran, Tabriz
Opaque watercolor, ink, silver, and gold on paper
Painting: Ht. 11 3/16 in. (28.4 cm) W. 10 3/4 in. (27.3 cm) Page: Ht. 18 1/2 in. (47 cm) W.12 1/2 in. (31.8 cm) Mat: Ht. 22 in. (55.9 cm) W. 16 in. (40.6 cm) Frame: Ht. 23 in. (58.4 cm) W. 17 in. (43.2 cm)
Credit Line:
Gift of Arthur A. Houghton Jr., 1970
Accession Number:
Not on view
After many years of honest rule, Khusrau Parviz became unjust and his chiefs plotted to overthrow him. The conspirators placed his eldest son, Shuriya, on the throne and imprisoned Khusrau with his beloved Shirin. However, the power of the deposed shah was still feared and Shuriya’s advisors pressed him to order his father’s assassination. A foulsmelling killer was found and soon he entered Khusrau’s chamber and stabbed him through the heart. This work is one of the few by the young artist 'Abd al-Samad, who left for India in the 1540s and was instrumental in founding the Mughal school of painting.
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.[1] 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.[2] 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.[3] 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.[4] However, such a supposition relies not only on dating the earlier, unfinished manuscript to about 1520, rather than five years earlier,[5] 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.[6]
The penultimate painting in Shah Tahmasp’s Shahnama, this folio, "The Assassination of Khusrau Parviz" is the only work in the manuscript that can be assigned to ‘Abd al-Samad, one of the artists who left Iran for India and helped found the Mughal school of painting. The formerly just king, Khusrau Parviz, had grown corrupt, and eventually rebels overthrew him and placed his son Shiruya on the throne. Khusrau was permitted to live for a time under house arrest, but his enemies eventually prevailed upon Shiruya to order his father’s murder. The result is shown here—a hired assassin stabbing the king in the heart, while courtiers and ladies slumber or converse.
Many elements of this composition look ahead to the 1539–43 Khamsa of Nizami, which Shah Tahmasp commissioned after the completion of the Shahnama, and this work may have been added at the end of the 1530s, after the manuscript was virtually complete. The architecture, while imposing and decorative, stands like a house of cards, with little substantiality or recession in space. Unlike similar, earlier paintings of interiors in the Shahnama, this illustration places the figures close to the picture plane; their scale has also increased. Nonetheless, the careful brushwork and range of nonreactions to the shah’s plight, from unconsciousness to unawareness, add interest to the scene. When ‘Abd al-Samad reached the court of Humayun in 1549, he built his reputation on his ability to paint in minuscule detail, and abandoned the style he had developed while in Iran, which was more consistent with that of his peers, Mirza ‘Ali, Mir Sayyid ‘Ali, and Aqa Mirak.
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.
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.

Cambridge, MA. Fogg Museum, Harvard Art Museums. "Wonders of the Age: Masterpieces of Early Safavid Painting," March 29, 1980–May 18, 1980, no. 39.

Musée du Louvre. "La Dynastie Safavide," October 1, 2007–January 7, 2008, no. 27.

Mohl, Jules, ed. Le Livre des Rois. Vol. I. Paris, 1876. pp. 318-321.

Welch, Stuart Cary. A King's Book of Kings: the Shah-nameh of Shah Tahmasp. New York: The Metropolitan Museum of Art, 1972. pp. 184-187, ill. pp. 185-187, 742v (color, b/w).

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. no. 39, pp. 116-117, ill. p. 117 (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. 260 (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.

Seyller, John, Thackston M. Wheeler, Ebba Koch, Antoinette Owen, and Rainald Franz. The Adventures of Hamza. Washington, D.C.; London: Azimuth Editions, 2002. no. 2, pp. 54, 55, ill. (color).

Melikian-Chirvani, Assadullah. "L'Art de l'Iran Safavide 1501–1736." In Le Chant du Monde. Paris: Musée du Louvre, 2007. no. 27, pp. 198-199, ill. p. 199 (color).

Canby, Sheila R. "The Persian Book of Kings." In The Shahnama of Shah Tahmasp. Madrid, 2011. p. 280, (color).

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. 138G, pp. 7, 202-208, ill. p. 207 (color).

Canby, Sheila R. The Shahnama of Shah Tahmasp: The Persian Book of Kings. New York: The Metropolitan Museum of Art, 2014. pp. 322, 330, ill. fol. 742v, full-page color ill. p. 322; detail p. 330.

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