A Selection of folios from the Shahnameh, the Persian "Book of Kings"

The Shahnameh
The Shahnameh, or "Book of Kings" is an epic poem recounting tales of semi-mythical Persian rulers and heroes, from the beginning of the world to the Islamicization of Iran in the 7th century. Finally written down in the 10th century by the poet Firdousi in more than 50,000 lines of verse, versions of the stories have been passed down orally for generations. From palaces to poor villages, public storytellers perform the text's sweeping tales before rapt audiences.
The Shahnameh has been foundational to the shaping of Persian identity in both literature and art, and points to the importance of cultural heritage in the exercising of socio-political control. Hundreds of years after the text was written down, later kings were eager to link their exceptionalism with the unbroken line of rulers recited in the text, however dubious the actual connection, and to be part of this great chain of nobility could fuel a dynasty's claim to rule Greater Persia.
As works of art, there are myriad copies of the Shahnameh. Many are lavish creations which could only have been produced in royal workshops, for the eyes of a privileged few. Our folios-masterfully painted, and touched with gold- would have been part of a manuscript who's access was once restricted to the purchaser, and his or her inner circle. The Shahnameh remains a vibrant part of the cultural heritage of greater Iran.
Rustam: the Epic Hero
The greatest hero of the Shahnameh, Rustam was the epitome of the perfect warrior, known for his astounding bravery, his piety, and his strength. He was born into a legendary family. His father, Zal, was from a long line of great warriors who served their kings as wardens of the East. His mother, Rudaba, was the crown princess of Kabul. From the time he was a young child, Rustam was celebrated for his slaying of dragons, demons and mad beasts, in a series of epic tasks known as the Haft Khan ("seven labors"). The sad end of noble Rustam - treacherously murdered by his half-brother - is one of the most mournful passages of poetry in the entire epic poem. Audiences wept when it was recited.

Here two of the greatest heroes of the Shahnameh met on the battlefield. Rustam knows that Isfandiyar, the Kayanian crown prince, is invincible except for his eyes, which can only be pierced by a special arrow made from the feather of a simurgh (a magical, benevolent female bird).

Rustam is easy to identify in works of art, as he is often depicted wearing his barbr-e bayan (tiger or leopard skin suit). This magical armor protects him from fire, drowning , and most weapons. He is also frequently depicted astride his beloved horse, Rakhsh. This lovely mare - memorably described as "the color of saffron petals" - was the strongest, largest, and wildest horse known, and had been famously untamed before Rustam chose her. Fiercely loyal and intelligent, Rakhsh helped Rustam in many of his famous deeds and magically lived many years, as long as her master.
In contemporary art, Rustam is often seen as an Iranian superhero, battling villains with his strength and wits. He has become reinterpreted for the 21st century as a hero of many films, comic books, and video games.

This is the death of Rustam, lured into a pit lined with poisoned spears by his jealous half-brother Shaghad. As he and his faithful steed Rakhsh are dying, Rustam's last act is of vengeance and justice: he lets fly an arrow to cut down his murderer.

The Princely Cycle
The "princely cycle" is a series of themes based around the real or idealized world of a royal court, which appears more often on artworks of the medieval period (11th-13th century) and later. With its emphasis on bazam-o-razam ("feasting and fighting"), these compositions are enlivened with hunters, wild animals, dancers, musicians, and an enthroned ruler often holding a wine cup. These images show a clear link between the world of literature and the world of visual art. Some can be interpreted as being well-known scenes from the Shahnameh - while the meaning of other scenes have no clear literary origin.
Appearing on luxurious 3D objects such as ivory boxes or inlaid metalwork, and even humbler materials like ceramics, the archetypal figures may have served as visual "memory aids" when poetry or stories were recited, as their artistry closely parallels developments in manuscript paintings. 
Following the Mongol invasions of the 13th century, Central Asia and Iran experienced a surge in extremely fine manuscript production, under the aegis of the Pax Mongolica. This "Mongolian peace" showed mercantile and artistic exchange from China to the Mediterranean. Crucially, it also expanded the shared languages of the religion, particularly Persian and Turkish.
Local rulers kept workshops full of artists and artisans, producing works on demand for the pleasure of the sovereign. This patronage, sometimes forced, resulted in countless works of art glorifying the court. Royal workshops produced art exclusively for the king. Their work was admired and copied by artisans making art for the middle classes, who demanded their own interpretations of the princely cycle in materials they could afford. Some of these artworks- particularly c ceramics- can be seen in other galleries at Shangri La.

The central theme of the enthroned king is a key aspect of the princely cycle; the sovereign is, quite literally, the sun orbited by his court.

Notice his placement on a high wooden takht (throne), with the lapis-painted tile panel behind him framing his head and emphasizing his importance.

The natural setting of a garden landscape varies little from the interior image. The king is still enthroned on his wooden takht and surrounded by courtiers eager to advise, serve or be seen by him.

This composition emphasizes the power held by the sovereign over all he surveys.

The Atelier
Royal workshops attached to a princely court were composed of artists and artisans assembled by the king - often by force, as prisoners of war - for the production of all visual art commissioned by the sovereign. The brutality of this arrangement was constant. Artists worked at the total pleasure of the ruler. If they pleased him, they were rewarded with gifts and status. If they displeased him, they could be beheaded. Occasionally rullers would go to war specifically to steal particularly renowned artists from a rival's courtly workshop.
Within the manuscript atelier, there was a rigid internal hierarchy that determined what tasks were to be performed by which artisan. Certain artisans only ground pigment, while others only burnished paper. This factory-like precision resulted in a finely-tuned workshop in which each artisan performed, and constantly refined, the tasks at which he was best. 
At the top of this hierarchy was the calligrapher. Today we may exclaim over the finely painted images within the manuscript - and such detailed scenes were valued and admired by the audiences who saw them first - but it was calligraphy that was considered the absolute height of achievement, and the calligrapher who was considered to be the true artist of the manuscript atelier. 
Many manuscripts have a colophon (a statement of making and authorship), which lists not only the date and place of production, but also the names of the main calligrapher and painter. These are therefore rare "signed" artworks from cultures in which the individual artist was rarely signed out for acclaim. This signifies the importance of the arts of the book as the highest art form of the medieval Islamic world.

The rich jewel tones were achieved by finely grinding semiprecious stones. The careful alignment of figures, drawing the viewer's eye to the center, and framing the text, would have been sketched out by the master of the atelier well before any artisan actually touched the paper.

Credits: Story

Shangri La is a museum for learning about the global culture of Islamic art and design through exhibitions, digital and educational initiatives, public tours and programs, and community partnerships.

Folios from The Shahnameh will be on view at Shangri La in a series of three exhibitions:

Rustam: the Epic Hero
(October 4, 2017-February 5, 2018)

The Princely Cycle
(February 7, 2018 – June 4, 2018)

The Atelier
(June 6, 2018 – August 31, 2018)

For more information visit us at : http://www.shangrilahawaii.org/

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The story featured may in some cases have been created by an independent third party and may not always represent the views of the institutions, listed below, who have supplied the content.
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