The Origin of the Shahnameh Manuscript Painting

The stories contained in the Shahnameh have inspired various works of decorative art from textiles and stone carvings to glazed ceramics. The manuscript painting or “Persian miniature” however is often regarded as the most iconic and historically significant of these illustrative art forms. The oldest illustrations of stories related to the Shahnameh have been identified in wallpaintings of the hero Rostam, that date back to the early eighth century, and predating the completion of Ferdowsi’s poem by about 400 years (1) (note that this is possible because Ferdowsi’s Shahnameh compiled and refined pre-existing stories). By comparison, the production of Shahnameh manuscript paintings is a far younger tradition with the oldest existing illustrative manuscripts originating in the late thirteenth century after the annexation of Persia into the Mongol Empire (2).

The historical prominence of the Shahnameh manuscript painting among its fellow art forms can be better understood for the role that it played as a circumstantial political tool used by various rulers of different dynasties. Following the 1258 sack of Baghdad in which the Abbasid Caliphate was conquered by Mongol invasion, the subsequent Il-Khanid dynasty gradually sought out ways to legitimize their rule by becoming closer to their Persian subjects (3). Much of this was facilitated by the advice of native Iranian ministers such as the Joveynis who would often guide the Il-Khan rulers towards fulfilling the roles of traditional Persian monarchs. Under their influence, the Il-Khanid dynasty began to produce written manuscripts of the Shahnameh sometime around 1276 as a means of consolidating and celebrating a sense of Persian cultural identity that would bring them closer to their subjects (4). This effort was continuously expanded, particularly under the ruler Ghazan Khan (r. 1295-1304) who after initiating the dynasty’s conversion to Islam, began to produce illustrated Shahnameh manuscripts at the turn of the fourteenth century.

The attention that subsequent rulers displayed in patronizing cultural arts was particularly well received because it replaced much of the cultural content (literature, arts, etc.) that had been destroyed in the Mongol conquest of Persia, where various libraries and palaces . However because of this mass destruction of cultural artifacts, scholars also note that this limits our ability to speak with much certainty about the origins of Shahnameh manuscripts as earlier copies may have once existed (5). Similarly, as many collections of Shahnameh manuscripts have been separated into individual pages over the course of time (as discussed in a different post), this further limits our understanding of these early manuscripts and makes their study immensely more difficult.

While rule by the Il-Khanid dynasty ended around 1335, their practice of patronizing arts celebrating the Shahnameh to legitimize their imperial rule of Persia was adopted by other imperial dynasties such as the Timurids and Safavids whose rules colored the centuries that followed. During these subsequent dynasties, while the production of illustrated manuscripts remained at the forefront of these art forms, the rulers who funded their creation became increasingly concerned with using them as a means to reflect their personal majesty. In essence, these rulers regularly tried to outdo their predecessors by creating the most comprehensive, detailed and magnificent illustrated manuscripts to honor their legacy. However as this trend became more prominent, we can also infer that there was a gradual step away from the original intention of these manuscripts which was to foster a connection with the common people of Iran. Instead the production of illustrated manuscripts became more about conveying the image of a given ruler, and as the artists who created them were often employed solely in the courts of these rulers, it seems that the production of these manuscripts became increasingly less relevant to the way the average Persian would take in the stories of the Shahnameh.

Therefore, while the manuscript painting may be considered the most prominent art form related to the Shahnameh at face value, the reasoning behind this perception seems to be primarily based on the manuscript painting’s ability to function as a beautiful historical relic that was used as a political tool by various imperial powers. These marvelous illustrative book paintings created as symbols of status certainly represent the sense of cultural identity generated by the Shahnameh, but they have little relevance to how the Shahnameh was actually observed in the majority of Persian culture, and this fact must be taken into when comparing the art forms that Ferdowsi’s epic poem inspired.

 

Footnotes:

1. Barbara Brend and Charles P. Melville, and the Fitzwilliam Museum, Epic of the Persian Kings: The Art of Ferdowsi’s Shahnameh (London ; New York: I.B. Tauris, 2010), 31.

2. Ibid, Melville, 13.

3. Ibid, 12.

4. Ibid, 13.

5. Ibid, 14.

Image from Wikimedia Commons. This photo is in the public domain in its country of origin and other countries and areas where the copyright term is the author’s life plus 100 years of less.

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