Leaf of Shahnama of Shah Tahmasp

Leaf of Shahnama of Shah Tahmasp by Aqa Mirak

Leaf of Shahnama of Shah Tahmasp by Aqa Mirak
Origin: Tabriz, Safavid, Persia, circa 1530-40

Measurements: miniature 27.6 by 25.7cm., leaf 47 by 31.8cm., text 28 by 18.5cm.

Description: Pink, gouache and gold on paper, text above and below in four columns of fine nasta`liq script in black ink on gold-sprinkled cream paper, double intercolumnar rules in gold; reverse with text in four columns of fine nasta`liq script with double intercolumnar rules in gold, one large illuminated panel with heading in white thuluth script, eight smaller triangular illuminated panels; wide margins of gold-flecked cream paper.

Provenance: Commissioned for the Safavid Emperor Shah Tahmasp, circa 1525-40.
Presented in 1568 by Shah Tahmasp to the Ottoman Sultan Selim II (reigned 1566-74).
In the collection of Baron Edmund de Rothschild, 1903-1934
By Descent to Baron Maurice de Rothschild, 1934-1957
Taken as war loot by the Nazis from Paris, circa 1940
Returned to Baron de Rothschild, 1946-48
Arthur A Houghton Jr. 1958-1977

Notes: The Shahnama manuscript made for Shah Tahmasp of Persia (1514-76, reigned 1524-76) is universally acknowledged as one of the supreme illustrated manuscripts of any period or culture and among the greatest works of art in the world. Probably no other Persian work of art, save architecture, has ever involved such enormous expense or taken so much artists' time. No expense was spared, and the burnished paper, gold leaf, calligraphy, gilded leather binding and 258 large-scale illustrations occupied all the artists and artisans of the royal atelier for of twenty years, a period when Persian painting and calligraphy was at its absolute zenith.

The Shahnama, or "Book of Kings", is the Persian national epic, telling the history and mythology of Persia from prehistoric times until the seventh century. The author, Firdausi, presented his epic poem of 30,000 couplets, the result of thirty-five years work, to Sultan Mahmud of Ghazna in 1010 AD. It quickly became a revered and popular text associated intricately with kings and princes, and a symbol of royal sovereignty.

The Shah Tahmasp Shahnama is thought to have been started by Tahmasp's father, the first Safavid emperor Shah Isma`il (r.1502-24). By 1522, the probable date of the commissioning of this copy of the text, Shah Isma`il had completed his conquests and established his empire, and was devoting more time and energy to art and culture. Shah Isma`il died in 1524 and his son, Tahmasp, continued his father's artistic projects, including this copy of the great Persian epic. The manuscript does not have a colophon, but the dedication states definitely that it was made for the library of Shah Tahmasp. One of the miniatures is dated 934 A.H./1527-8 A.D.

Leaf of Shahnama of Shah Tahmasp by Aqa Mirak
The provenance of this copy of the Shahnama is one of the most glittering of any manuscript. It was commissioned by one emperor, Shah Isma`il, completed by another Shah Tahmasp, gifted to a third, Sultan Selim II of the Ottoman Empire, and was later owned by one of the great bibliophilic families of the modern era, the Barons de Rothschild, whose Western manuscripts included such masterpieces as the Belles Heures of the Duc de Berry and the Hours of Catherine of Cleves. Its history is not without drama. During the Second World War the manuscript was taken from Paris by the Nazis as war loot and was later returned to Baron Maurice de Rothschild as a result of the restitution efforts of the Allied Command following the end of the war. The manuscript was acquired in 1957 by Arthur A Houghton Jr., the noted American bibliophile. The manuscript was disbound in order to exhibit the illustrated folios, but in 1971 seventy-six folios were transferred to the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York. Thereafter further folios were separated and offered on the market. In 1994 the text block, illumination, binding and remaining 118 miniatures were returned to Iran in a deft exchange for a Willem de Kooning painting.

In addition to those returned to Iran and the 78 in the Metropolitan Museum, there are illustrated folios from this manuscript in the Museum fur Islamische Kunst, Berlin, the David Collection, Copenhagen, the Freer Gallery of Art, Smithsonian Institution, Washington D.C., the Museum of Fine Arts, Richmond, Virginia, and the Los Angeles County Museum of Art.