Cultural Influences and Shahnameh Illustrations (or How We Shape Our Stories)

When I started researching the artwork of the Shahnameh, I had one core question that I wanted to answer: why have people recreated this poem so many times over the years? It quickly became clear to me that the answer lay mostly in what most of them wanted to accomplish with their versions of the Shahnameh. From the early dynasties, the Ilkhanids, they wished to establish their legitimacy as rulers of Iran. As they discovered the popularity of the Shahnameh they connected to kings like Iskandar who was a foreign ruler accepted by the people, as well as enthronement scenes, as justification for their legitimacy (1). Their connection to the text came from its history as an example of Iranian and Persian culture that they could use. This trend was continued by the later rulers, as the versions of the Shahnameh became more and more elaborate.

But even if this was the intention of the people who commissioned artists to make copies of the Shahnameh, their influence does not stop there. The truth of our world is that no media can be created in a vacuum without the context of its creation affecting it, and there are ample examples of this happening with the Shahnameh. As I stated before, the Ilkhanids connected to Iskandar and so in their version of the Shahnameh has more illustrations for that section of the story than any other section and the artwork of that version shows eastern influences because the Ilkhanids brought those ideas over with their empire (2). Later, during the Timurid dynasty, a prince commissioned a copy and instead of plentiful scenes of a hero like Rostam, there were multiple illustrations of princes and their actions (3).

iskandar_28alexander_the_great29_at_the_talking_tree

Each dynasty imbued their versions with their own style, like the Timurid’s intricate architecture, copied from real life onto the page to serve as settings for the characters (4). As I talked about in this post, even when Tahmineh has sex with Rostam without marrying him in the original poem, it is sometimes edited to have her hastily get married beforehand, and the artwork reflects this change in attitudes (5). Later, in the 1500s, a group of shortened Shahnameh’s were created, usually focusing on a specific set of stories like, again, Iskandar’s journey. This shows specific interest in different elements of Ferdowsi’s poem that were connected to culture (6).

People were affected by the Shahnameh regardless of their social standing, as shown by its popularity before the Ilkhanids and ceramic illustrations that appear from that period, and the reaction once it became more publicly available. When lithographed versions of the Shahnameh began to be printed in the early 19th century, they were incredibly popular. This begs the question however, why? These people weren’t rulers trying to gain legitimacy or prove they could make a prettier book, so why did they want these copies? Precisely because the people I talked about above wanted it (7). The expectation that the Shahnameh should be richly illustrated to keep with its royal past has carried on up to today, with new copies being made even now.

To go back to the original question, the reason that so many different people recreated this one poem is because it exemplifies one culture: the culture of Iran. The fact that it preserves the history and mythology of the Persian kings is what first drew the Ilkhanids to it, and their legacy was continued down through time and social class to affect everyone who reads it even today. This poem doesn’t exist in isolation, and the cultural context around it is part of what has allowed it to persist on until today.

  1. Blair, Sheila S. “The development of the Illustrated Book in Iran.” Muqarnas 10 (1993): 266-274.
  2. Ibid., pg. 270
  3. Ibid., pg. 272
  4. Ghasemzadeh, Behnam. “Framework–architecture in iranian miniatures.” ERAS: European Review of Artistic Studies 5, no. 1 (2014): 34-48.
  5. Brend, Barbara, Melville, C. P., and Fitzwilliam Museum. Epic of the Persian Kings : The Art of Ferdowsi’s Shahnameh. London ; New York: I.B. Tauris, 2010.
  6. Rührdanz, Karin. “About a group of truncated Shāhnāmas: A Case Study in the Commercial Production of Illustrated Manuscripts in the Second Part of the Sixteenth Century.” Muqarnas (1997): 118-134.
  7. Marzolph, Ulrich. “The Shahnameh in Print: The Lithographed Editions of the Persian National Epic.”

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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Women in the Art of the Shahnameh

It probably does not come as a surprise to anyone reading this that women throughout time have frequently been left out of the historical records. The idea that women do not impact history has been widespread among the subjects of history, as well as the people who study it. However, this is one place where the Shahnameh is unique. Women appear quite often in its stories, in all sorts of roles, including one woman who was a queen (1). But the history of the Shahnameh is not limited to what Ferdowsi wrote and the artwork of the Shahnameh shows a different perspective on women.

The artists who were commissioned to illustrate the Shahnameh were often told to do so by royalty who were inspired by epic heroes like Rostam and Eskandar. They wanted to see the scenes filled with action and those were the scenes chosen to be illustrated and the ones that most often survived to today. Most of the women in the Shahnameh were not involved in combat scenes and so were not depicted often, with a few notable exceptions like Gordafraid, a warrior who fought Rostam’s son (2). Even then, there are very few versions of Gordafraid’s fight that still exist and Gordafraid is not often depicted particularly well in them.

sohrab_fights_gordafarid1

One woman who appears much more often is Azedeh, a slave who went hunting with the prince Bahram Gur and dared him to shoot a deer in the ear. When he did and she protested that the deer died, Bahram Gur pushed her off the saddle and trampled her beneath his camel (3). Azedeh can be seen on plates and bowls often at the beginning of the era when the Shahnameh first started being illustrated.  Her story serves as a reminder of how people of different social standings should interact with each other, with the consequences crystal clear. This lesson, in addition to its moment of graphic action, make it a tempting scene to illustrate.

The other woman who appears frequently in illustrations of the Shahnameh is Tahmineh, Rostam’s lover and daughter of the king of Samangan. Tahmineh is a very active figure during her time in the Shahnameh. When Rostam arrives in her father’s castle she visits his room in the night and asks him to have sex with her in order to bear him an heir (4). Illustrations of this scene are common and Tahmineh is given prominence in them: she is often taking up the entire vertical frame, even when her slave isn’t, and is always the active party (5). The different versions have different interpretations of Rostam’s reaction, from surprised to eager. Even though Tahmineh is always the one acting, around the 1400s, during the Timurid dynasty, she began to be painted with her head down and shoulder up in a more timid and uncertain way (6). Many depictions of this scene retain the same composition from version to version, a kind of visual consensus on what happened, and similarly, the timid version of Tahmineh became a popular depiction of her, with a very similar image being found in the fifteenth or sixteenth century during the Safavid empire (7). But this interpretation contradicts the text, where Tahmineh is shown to be confident in what she wants, even saying that she has wanted Rostam since she first heard stories of him. The shift in Tahmineh’s demeanor is another product of the cultures each Shahnameh was made in. A similar change can be seen in the artwork, simple action focused illustrations in the Mongol empire changed to complex architectural paintings in Timurid dynasty (8). Other evidence of this is the change of Tahmineh’s attendant. In the Shahnameh she is a slave and the early images reflect that. As time goes on however, the attendant changes to a male black eunuch and remains male for the rest of the time (9). These are all reflections of the dynasties they were created under.

The actual writing of the Shahnameh might be fairly equal concerning men and women, but the text has been interpreted and filtered through the cultural framework of each society who read it.These cultures all have different interpretations of women’s roles and the scenes depicted, behavior of characters, and even the gender of side characters change to reflect those ideas. It’s vitally important for us to recognize the difference between what the text says and what the illustrations show. The Shahnameh impacted these societies enough that they wished to recreate it and we need to be aware of why.

 

  1. Davis, Dick. “Women in the Shahnameh: Exotics and Natives, Rebellious Legends, and Dutiful Histories.” In Women and Medieval Epic, pp. 67-90. Palgrave Macmillan US, 2007.
  2. Ferdowsi, Abolqasem. “Shahnameh: The Persian Book of Kings.” Translated by Dick Davis. New York: Vikings, 2006. p. 192-193
  3. Ibid. p. 713
  4. Ibid. p. 189
  5. Brend, Barbara, Melville, C. P., and Fitzwilliam Museum. Epic of the Persian Kings : The Art of Ferdowsi’s Shahnameh. London ; New York: I.B. Tauris, 2010.
  6. Ibid. p. 138
  7. Ibid. p. 183
  8. Gurgīn, Īraj., Grabar, Oleg, Films for the Humanities, and Rādyū Tilivīzyūn-i Millī-i Īrān. The Art of the Book : Persian Miniatures from the Shahnameh = Mīni̇yātūr’ha-yi Shāhnāmah. Princeton, NJ: Films for the Humanities, 1980.
  9. Brend, Barbara, Melville, C. P., and Fitzwilliam Museum. Epic of the Persian Kings : The Art of Ferdowsi’s Shahnameh. London ; New York: I.B. Tauris, 2010.

Image from Wikimedia Commons. Image of Gordafraid being defeated by Sohrab. 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.

The History of Shahnameh Illustrations Through the Journey of the Great Mongol Shahnameh

There are many different versions of the Shahnameh, from the very original unillustrated version that Ferdowsi himself wrote and presented to the king, to the modern versions that are being created today. Many of these versions were created for specific people as many rulers took it upon themselves to commision illustrated copies, but one of the oldest and most renowned versions was only recently correctly reconstructed, and it’s tale is a fascinating window into the history of the art of the Shahnameh.

demotte_shahname_002

The Great Mongol Shahnameh, also called the Demotte Shahnameh, was created in the Il-Khanid period, when non-Muslim, non-Persian rulers controlled Persia (1). In an effort to appear more Persian to their subjects, they created a copy of the Shahnameh, the famous epic often thought of as the epitome Persian culture (2). The Great Mongol Shahnameh is well known for having particularly stunning illustrations, with rich colors and fierce heroes (3). The text stayed in Tabriz, where it was made, until the 1800s when the Qajar dynasty came into power in the area, liked the mythic story, and began to restore parts of the book (4). They restored its damaged pages with paper from Russia, reigniting interest in the Shahnameh leading to the creation of various works inspired by the Shahnameh (5). In the 1900s, Georges Demotte found took apart the Great Mongol Shahnameh with a German page splitting technique in order to separate the stunning images from the text. He then sold the illustrated pages without the rest of the book, resulting in its current form, missing many pages and scattered throughout many different museums (6).

What is interesting about this process is how long it took to uncover and how each step in it’s history gives insight into how the Shahnameh was received. The Ilkhanids used the text to legitimize their rule because of the historical and cultural significance it had with the people of their empire. It was recreated not only for its artistic merit, but also to be used as a political tool. When the Qajar dynasty rediscovered it, they restored the text and subsequently created art inspired by it, showing how much the poem about heroes of legend affected them. However, this treatment stands in stark contrast to what Georges Demotte did. As stated before, the Demotte Shahnameh is scattered throughout the world, and even when brought together, the pages have been altered. When Demotte sold the illustrations, he split pages in half, took the images, and attached them to different pages with unrelated text (7). This treatment along with the alterations made by the Qajars means that the original form of the Demotte Shahnameh is incredibly hard to see now. Leading to the part of the text’s story happening now. Recreating this version required looking beyond the images of the Shahnameh to the physical text, which was often not done by museums (8). By examining the actual paper the illustrations were printed on (9) as well as the structure of those pages (10) researchers were able to decipher the history of the book and then were able to visualize it in its original form.

The Great Mongol Shahnameh has had a long journey to get where it is right now, and each step along the way shows the various types of interest that the poem has sparked in the people who have come across it, whether that is its use as political object, a study in the history of an area, or simply a piece of beautiful artwork to sell.

  1. Hillenbrand, Robert. Shahnama: The Visual Language of the Persian Book of Kings. Vol. 2. Gower Publishing, Ltd., 2004.
  2. Brend, Barbara, and Charles Melville. Epic of the Persian kings: the art of Ferdowsi’s Shahnameh. IB Tauris, 2010.
  3. Ibid., p. 33
  4. Hillenbrand, Robert. Shahnama: The Visual Language of the Persian Book of Kings. Vol. 2. Gower Publishing, Ltd., 2004.
  5. Ibid., p. 31
  6. Ibid., p. 48
  7. Ibid., p. 48
  8. Ibid., p. 35
  9. Ibid., p. 27-30
  10. Ibid., p. 48

Image from Wikimedia Commons, originally from Harvard University Art Museum.