Illustrations to Shahnama manuscripts in the National Museum of World Cultures, Netherlands

Loose pages and lacquer covers

OBJECT LESSON | by Jaimee K. Comstock-Skipp, 2019 RCMC/FEL Junior Fellow

As part of her Junior Fellowship Cataloguing Persianate Arts of the Book in the Nationaal Museum van Wereldculturen at the Research Center for Material Culture, Jaimee K. Comstock-Skipp investigated  illustrated Persian and Turkish-language copies of a long poem called the Shahnama: the Book of Kings.

How do we classify works of art from the Persianate world (what have been simplistically called “Persian miniatures”) in a museum setting? To the anthropologist Susan Pearce, “The act of classification, which museum workers often call ‘identification’, is not as simple or transparent as it might at first sight appear.”[1]

Like many other collections, the National Museum of World Cultures contains several specimens of illustrations and lacquered book covers, with pages derived from manuscripts mounted on beautiful illuminated papers that belie the violence of their having been torn from original bound books and albums. Looking through the online catalogue, I noticed that these disembodied objects were often given the accompanying provenance in the museum database: “Southwest and Central Asia/ Southwest Asia/ Iran, about 16th—17th centuries.” This two-century margin covers such geographical and chronological breadth that it is essentially useless to the informed specialist and member of the general public alike. What is more, in the act of classification or object identification there is a very big difference in approaching loose pages as opposed to intact manuscripts. What links the disassembled to the bound is a careful analysis of the illustrations and the subtleties of the styles used to render them. The art historian George Kubler declares, “Style pertains to the consideration of static groups of entities. It vanishes once these entities are restored to the flow of time.”[2] So too can static pages be restored to their original flow when one visualizes their insertion into complete manuscripts from which they came.

            Classificatory schemes for book arts coming from present-day Azerbaijan, Armenia, Turkey, Iran, India, Pakistan, and Central Asia (implying Uzbekistan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan, and Afghanistan) between the 11th-19th centuries were put in place in the early-twentieth century. They culminated in a chart created by the British scholar B.W. Robinson in 1967 (fig. 1). In it, we see an arrangement based horizontally by time period (half-centuries), and vertically by columns of individual cities (Baghdad, Tabriz, Qazvin, etc), and with broader groupings of dynastic names (Mongol, Timurid, Safawid, etc) to further divide up the periods. Taking the city of Shiraz as an example, with this diagram we can move vertically to see changes in rulership across the centuries and the many dynasties ruling over it (such as Injuid, Muzaffarid, Timurid, Turkman, Safavid, and Zand overlords). We can move horizontally focusing on the period 1500-1550: a rich epoch witnessing the waning of the Turkmans and Timurids early on, the rise of the Safavids, and their rivals in Central Asia based in Samarqand and Bukhara.

fig 1
Fig. 1: Diagram of “Persian Painting” periodization in B.W. Robinson, Persian Miniature Painting from Collections in the British Isles (London, 1967), 32. Courtesy of Crown Copyright operated under the Open Government Licence.

According to the present-day scholar of Islamic Art Robert Hillenbrand, the evolution of scholarship on Persianate art can be traced to the 1890s, “when it was becoming clear that a new field of art history, Islamic art, was gradually coming into clearer focus.”[3] Hillenbrand’s article titled “Western Scholarship on Persian Painting before 1914” traces how the intellectual was paired with the territorial at this time. He acknowledges the political realities of the field’s historiography rooted in the imperialist mindset of the time. Academics in France and Britain parsed different art-forms and artifacts as they emerged from the new regional additions to their empires, and territories for academic research were staked out in much the same way as “the art and architecture of Islam were simply there for the taking.”[4] While their governments and regimes took possession and imposed order, professional scholars as well as amateurs, dealers, and collectors in Europe similarly went about making sense of the art forms, but with some clearly biased in that they were writing about objects in their own possession. (With his typical wit, Hillenbrand writes “architectural history is not best left to estate agents.”[5]) Manuscripts and albums were ripped apart to extract visual material and illustrations that could be sold off separately at fine prices, and which have since found their way into museum collections. Lacquer book covers from 19th-century Iran in the NMvW collection attest to this (figs. 2 and 3).

Figs. 2 (vertical) and 3 (horizontal): Lacquer book covers from Iran while ruled by the Qajar dynasty, ca. 1830s-40s. The left binding (RV-1378-36) features the character Khusrau discovering Shirin bathing. The right binding (RV-1378-34) portrays Solomon and Bilqis (Sheba) seated before a retinue of beasts and figures, including the Shahnama’s Rustam on the far right wearing yellow boots.

Given this reality, classification structures have at their origin been skewed by privileging loose pages which were only made visible to the public due to the influence of the art market and the power of private collectors to present their objects in exhibitions. In the decades since, where there are intact manuscripts to analyze, the totality of the object’s production—its scribing, illustrating, illuminating, binding, among other steps—is often reduced to a single date and dynasty based on information in the colophon: the final page of a manuscript that can name the patron for whom it was made, the date when the text was finished, the location where it was produced, and the name of the scribe. Issues confounding classification, such as the date of the original illustrating and overpainting or rebinding during the centuries after its original assemblage, are frequently unaccounted.

            Books are difficult objects to classify as artworks; they can be revisited, reread, reworked, restored, added onto, painted over, and illustrated much later than when the textual component was penned. These interventions can cross many centuries and outlive the lifespans of their owners. Thus one date and one dynasty does not always fit the examined material. Keeping all this in mind, my project at the Volkenkunde museum has been twofold: the first has been historiographical in calling attention to the ways ripped out pages and sought-after miniatures have helped produce the clear-“cut” divisions scholars have used to analyze complete manuscripts and ascertain provenances for illustrations when the folios’ original situation in a larger whole no longer exists. Second, it has been my mission at the museum to restore some context to the decontextualized. I have attempted to provide information regarding the original section of the text from which loose pages were taken as well as focus on the illustrations to ascertain the location and time period of their production. This is in line with past practices that bestowed descriptions of scenes (if present), along with the time period and associated dynastic group carrying out the production (if possible to deduce).

            The subject of my PhD at Leiden is on illustrated Persian and Turkish-language copies of a long poem called the Shahnama: the Book of Kings. The text of this epic’s stories was originally composed by the poet Firdausi who completed it in 1010 CE when he lived in Khurasan, in the northeastern zone of present-day Iran. Although its tales come from oral traditions that predate him, Firdausi put the stories into verse written in Persian. It is an exciting, lengthy poem chronicling the pre-Islamic history of the Middle East and Central Asia that has spurred a legacy of illuminated manuscripts. Tales from the Shahnama are comparable to Greek legends, medieval lore, and Shakespeare in terms of their cultural significance and their heroic and romantic escapades, and are even more known to the public in their region of influence than Odysseus, Arthur, and King Lear are to their own cultural milieus. The work has been popular for centuries and its appeal in the Persianate sphere continues today. Its subject matter is along the lines of Game of Thrones: there is incest, violence, a father kills his son, love affairs cross enemy lines, cruel tortures lead to future vengeance, rulers vie for power and territorial control (and there are dragons, too).

Fig. 4-left: NMvW no. TM-4133-283.  Fig. 5-right: “Prince Siyavush enters the gate of his city” from a Shahnama attributed to Baghdad, circa early 14th century during the Ilkhanid dynasty. Image credit: Freer Gallery of Art, Smithsonian Institution, Washington, D.C.: Purchase — Charles Lang Freer Endowment, F1929.39.

The National Museum of World Cultures holds an interesting array of Shahnama materials. Artistically unimpressive and unassuming, the museum’s oldest folio of Shahnama subject matter might actually be from among the oldest copies of illustrated Shahnama manuscripts created during the Ilkhanid dynasty after the Mongols swept through Iran and took control. The text to the museum folio is from the heroic section of the epic that recounts the great battle between Kay Khusrau, ruler of Iran, and Afrasiyab, lord of Turan (Central Asia). The illustrated trio of mounted warriors with swords drawn storming a fortress over which little heads perch above the parapet (fig. 4) is evocative of compositions to Shahnama manuscripts from the Ilkhanid period in the early-14th century, such as the folio in the Freer Gallery of Art and Arthur M. Sackler Gallery (fig. 5). But whereas the visual comparisons suggesting common origins seem a bit far-fetched (indeed, the museum folio’s horses look more suited for a carousel ride than a raid), their textual layout offer the strongest linkage and connect the museum folio with loose Ilkhanid pages from other collections. These 14th-century manuscripts have six columns of similarly-scribed text in naskh with margins and intercolumnar rules done in red ink; Shahnama manuscripts were written this way up to 1398, and later the nastaliq script was almost exclusively used.[6] The Shahnama folios thought to have been produced in Baghdad under the Ilkhanid ruler Ghazan Khan[7] have 31 lines of text to the page whereas the NMvW folio has 34, not factoring in the spaces reserved for illustrations. The earliest known Shahnama copies to have been illustrated are thought to be these Baghdad creations from around 1300; perhaps the NMvW folio can add to our understanding of them.

            Turning our attention to other illustrations, in another Shahnama folio from the museum, we see the phoenix-like simurgh bird with the albino baby Zal (fig. 10), and two versions of the great Iranian warrior Rustam in a long black beard, tiger-skinned tunic, and helmet made of the head of a white snow leopard (figs. 9 and 3). Kayumars, the first king of many to follow, sits atop a tiger pelt and his subjects wear animals skins (fig. 12). Battles rage between the warring Iranian and Turanian (Central Asian) troops (figs. 4 and 6). These are all repeated subjects identifiable by their iconographic components and, when present, the inclusion of textual passages. Determining where the folios were executed is a bit more challenging, however, and requires in-depth looking and comparing.

            In fig. 6, the presence of text allows us to determine the section of the Shahnama that is depicted. It is from a tale within the reign of Nuzar, prior to the killing of the Iranian warrior Qubad by the Turanian Barman. The four rhymed lines of poetry come earlier in the story and present the battle preparations between the Iranian and Turanian armies:

Two armies like the sea of China—

You would say that the earth was shaking!

Qarin rushed to the battle,

From the other side [came] elephant-bodied Garsivaz.

Fig. 6—left: NMvW no. RV-2103-4. Fig. 7—right: Page from a Shahnama attributed to Khurasan, ca. 1580. Image credit: Chester Beatty Library, Dublin. CC BY-NC 4.0, ms. Per 295, f. 322v.

So we know the subject matter, but not where it was illustrated. We can look to other manuscripts and see similar styles in the ways slain warriors and figures on horseback are rendered. A beheaded corpse and triumphant warrior in green with a bronze medallion on his chest and plumed helmet is found in the NMvW illustration as in another from Dublin’s Chester Beatty Library (fig. 7) from late 16th-century Khurasan. The provenance to the NMvW page could thus be from Khurasan, but given the mobility of artists in the late sixteenth century we might also acknowledge a still unidentifiable workshop populated by artists coming from across the region. For example, artists trained in Qazvin are known to have migrated to other centers in search of employment after the Safavid Shah Tahmasp closed his workshops and spurned painted arts.

8-left: Shahnama from the Bibliothèque Nationale, ms. Suppl. Pers. 490, f. 170r attributed to Shiraz, 1604-05. Image credit:
Bibliothèque nationale de France.
Fig. 9-center: NMvW no. RV-2103-1.
Fig. 10-right: NMvW no. RV-2103-2.

There is no text visible in the cropped sections of the illustrated museum folio which portrays Rustam rescuing Bizhan from a pit while the concerned Manizha looks on (fig. 9), or in fig. 10 in which the albino baby Zal is presented to his father Sam after having been raised by the great simurgh bird as one of her own. The two illustrations must be from the same manuscript, or are at least done by the same hands, given that similar dark-eyed, slack-jawed horses and helmeted onlookers populate both pages. The scene with Rustam poised to hoist the shackled prisoner through a black opening like a manhole lid is frequently repeated in Shahnama manuscripts from across the centuries and from many different places so one must compare just how precisely it follows other versions. The closest parallels belong to Shiraz works, visible in a copy from 160405 today held by the Bibliothèque Nationale in Paris (fig. 8). But the skirted warriors standing below Rustam in fig. 9 still have an elusive provenance, although the makers of the two pages in the NMvW collection follow the conventions of the “international Qazvin” style which was popular between 156585 and was practiced in various regions during the late 16th century.  It is more likely to me that the museum pages were produced in the 1580s, earlier than the rendition in the Bibliothèque Nationale by perhaps two or three decades.

Fig. 11-left: Shahnama from the Philadelphia Free Library, ms. Lewis O.54, f. 6v of unknown provenance. Image credit: Free Library of Philadelphia.

Similar to the museum illustrations—figs. 9 and 10—in their absence of text but with identifiable subjects, fig. 12 is an illustration to a story coming early on in the Shahnama. It depicts King Kayumars who lived on a mountain and founded the elements of civilization and created order. The museum folio has individuals who are akin to those produced in the workshops of Shiraz in the mid to late 16th century. Indeed, an exact copy of the illustration down to arranged figures and compositional layout exists in an intact Shahnama volume held by the Philadelphia Free Library (fig. 11). This manuscript is of an ambiguous provenance since its other illustrations are from late-17th century India, which are clearly at odds with the page showing Kayumars holding court with strong elements from Shiraz workshop practices carried out a century earlier. Existing in isolation, the museum’s single page does not allow us the opportunity to examine the other illustrations which would have accompanied it. Still, the two renditions of Kayumars present the following queries: What do repeated versions of the same illustration tell us about manuscript production at this time? Could they be from the same site of production or did an itinerant artist transport pages and ideas from place to place? How was the compositional scheme transferred from page to page? Beyond acknowledging the formal commonalities between them, we cannot answer these questions definitively.

Fig. 13-left: Half of a frontispiece to a Shahnama from the Bibliothèque Nationale, ms. suppl. pers. 490, f. 2v from Shiraz, 1604. Image credit: Bibliothèque nationale de France. Fig. 14-right: NMvW no. WM-75348.

Our final three manuscript illustrations from the museum serve to present two types of challenges: one of them does not have characters from the Shahnama but the painting probably comes from such a manuscript, and the other two pages visually appear to contain Shahnama subject matter but textually do not. The NMvW painting in figure 14 is a cropped illustration showing a ruler enthroned with a retinue of animals and humans; we have seen something similar in the dismantled Qajar lacquer binding mentioned at the start of our discussion (fig. 3). However, fig. 14 does not depict any part of the Shahnama’s text. Instead, it is the right-side of a frontispiece (a two-page opening illustration) of King Solomon seated beside Bilqis/Queen of Sheba (she is not featured in the composition). This subject matter was popular for frontispieces to manuscripts produced in Shiraz between 1580 and a few years after the turn of the 17th century.[8] The Shahnama was among the most popular of the titles that were produced in the workshops there. A version very similar to the museum copy is in a complete manuscript unmistakably from Shiraz and located in the Bibliothèque Nationale of Paris (fig. 13). Fortunately, the Paris manuscript provides a date corresponding to April 1604. The back of the museum folio carries information written in two different calligraphies which points to its creation 14 years after the Bibliothèque Nationale copy was produced. The top portion names Muhammad Muqim ibn Khwaja Muhammad Amin al-Kashani, who is perhaps the scribe of the original manuscript from which this page is taken, and also gives a date when he might have finished the project in July 1618. Below it is a statement suggesting the book later entered the private collection of a Faizi ibn Umar in Baghdad in May 1655. The NMvW painting was made in Shiraz, and later owned in Baghdad; there were surely several other owners by the time it reached its present Dutch home.

Fig. 15—left: Folio from a copy of the Timur-nama by Hatifi in the Bibliothèque Nationale, ms. suppl. pers. 641, f. 119v from Shiraz, ca. 1560. Image credit: Bibliothèque nationale de France.
Fig. 16—center: NMvW no. WM-30922. 
Fig. 17—right: NMvW no. RV-3417-2.

Lastly, two folios in the museum collection that are in unidentifiable styles come from separate works. They render battles as their subject matter which, at first glance, could be from Shahnama storylines but their accompanying texts direct us elsewhere. Fig. 17 presents a raging war scene with rampaging horses and a trampling elephant and might date to the second half of the eighteenth century based on tonsorial (namely mustache) details. It depicts the army of Iskandar (Alexander the Great) who is also a character in Firdausi’s work, but this page is actually from a manuscript by Amir Khusrau Dihlavi (1253–1325) entitled Aina-yi Sikandari. Although it appears fantastical, the smaller-scale fight between warriors and div monsters (looking like Mickey Mouse) in fig. 16 is taken from a biographical text chronicling the life of Timur (Tamerlane): the Timur-nama of Hatifi (1454–1521). Its simple painting is in contrast to the same scene from a copy in the Bibliothèque Nationale of Paris, which features a lavish and intricate composition from the book makers of Shiraz, circa 1560 (fig. 15). Manuscript paintings executed in a simpler, coarser style are elusive in determining their provenance. As of yet I still cannot locate where the museum illustration might have been produced, but it is worth pointing out that several copies of Hatifi’s biography of the great warrior were made in eastern Iran and Central Asia across the sixteenth century. The museum page could be associated with this group.

            One’s experience with a mounted page hung on a wall in a museum is very different from flipping through the brittle pages of the completed book from which it came. Through comparisons to illustrations from complete manuscripts in other library and museum collections that have more secure provenances, I can connect the Shahnama folios in the National Museum of World Cultures to bound works that were produced in similar settings and time periods as the loose pages. The general public does not have the privilege to interact with the materials in the way that the scholar has, just as the scholar rarely has the ability to encounter a manuscript surviving untouched from the days of its original owner. But it is for this reason that museums like the NMvW exist, to preserve disjointed and detached materials and objects and encourage those in the present to restore them to the flow of time and safeguard them for the future.


[1] To the anthropologist Susan Pearce, “The act of classification, which museum workers often call ‘identification’, is not as simple or transparent as it might at first sight appear.” In Museums, objects and collections: A cultural study (Leicester, 1992), 123.
[2] George Kubler, The Shape of Time: Remarks on the History of Things (New Haven, 1962), 130.
[3] Robert Hillenbrand gives a useful overview of these early interpretations in “Western Scholarship on Persian Painting before 1914: Collectors, Exhibitions and Franco-German Rivalry,” After One Hundred Years: the 1910 Exhibition Meisterwerke muhammedanischer KunstReconsidered, eds. A. Lermer and A. Shalem (Leiden and Boston, 2010), 203.
[4] Ibid., 205.
[5] Ibid., 208.
[6] Hamidreza Ghelichkhani, Kātibān-i Shāhnāma (The scribes of Shahnama), Tehran: Kitāb Ārāyī-yi Īrānī, 1396 [2017], introduction (unpaginated).
[7] Marianna S. Simpson, “The Illustration of an Epic: the Earliest Shahnama Manuscripts.” Ph.D diss., Harvard University, 1978.
[8] Lâle Uluç’s dissertation on lavish—yet commercial— manuscript productions from Shiraz continues to be the authority on the subject: “Arts of the Book in Sixteenth-century Shiraz” (PhD diss., New York University, 2000), 285.


Author | Jaimee Comstock-Skipp

Jaimee Comstock-Skipp is a PhD candidate at Leiden University preferring to reside in Istanbul and Tashkent to finish up fieldwork and dissertation chapters. Her interests are in Persian-language manuscript arts produced outside of Iran, in Central Asia and the Ottoman realm.