Although it is at once both more and rather less than an exact facsimile of a supremely rich and richly illustrated sixteenth-century Persian manuscript, this publication of the Houghton Shahnameh puts one uniquely into the position of its first recipient, the Turkish Sultan Selim II. On the big scale of the original itself, it has impressive weight both physically and aesthetically, and enough blazing color to have warmed the winter’s day in 1568 when it reached the Ottoman court. Brought from Tabriz to the sultan’s island palace at Edirne, it was in fact only one of the array of “rare and propitious gifts” the chroniclers describe as chosen and sent by the Shah Tahmasb of Persia and carried by thirty-four camels to celebrate the accession of the new sultan, son of the great ruler Süleyman the Magnificent.

It came along with twenty carpets, a painted tent, a couple of good quality pearls, and a remarkably large ruby. Today you receive it on its own, though in two hefty volumes, and as it were wrapped in a fine, lengthy tissue of scholarly commentary—over two hundred pages of two-column introductory text, not to mention full notes and appendixes. Apart from anything else, it is an impressive piece of printing, elegant as well as luxurious, an ornament to any library or home, though almost too heavy to handle unaided and certainly something of a problem for an average domestic bookcase.

And perhaps it raises greater problems. Before getting down to closer consideration of this combined major monument of Persian art and modern scholarship, one may wonder whether many people outside the small circle of experts are going to be interested. It is of course true that compared with the relative neglect and under-appreciation of Ottoman art, Persian art has for long been held in high esteem in the West, been studied by several outstanding Western scholars, and manages to suggest, even to those who barely know it, a refinement and exquisiteness verging on cliché. “Persian” is an adjective likely to be used by Western art historians praising the line and color of early Sienese painters or Pisanello. Indeed, Lord Clark once moved from analogy to influence and suggested a direct connection between Persian illumination and a paradise garden scene by the Veronese painter Stefano da Zevio.

Yet it would probably be a mistake to suppose that Persian art—or any other of the arts of Islam—has any serious hold on the wider public in Anglo-Saxon countries, despite the treasure of such work in our museums. To be told, as we are told in the work under review, that the original book itself represents the “philosophy of the entire culture” only points to the nub of the difficulty. Neither the philosophy nor the culture is likely to make any direct general appeal. And that is scarcely surprising. There are numerous obstacles at all times, regardless of particular political circumstances, and a prime one where Islam is concerned is inevitably religion. To that must be added history, geographical remoteness, a different chronology, different and difficult languages, where transliterated names tend to sound confusing and occasionally rather ludicrous. In the Shahnameh we meet a hero called Sam. The poet-author of the text himself is referred to variously by scholars as Firdowsi, Firdausi, or Firdawsi. Among the painters who worked on the Houghton Shahnameh was one called Dust Muhammad, while Sultan Muhammad turns out to be no ruler but another painter.

Since this is not the culture most of us have been brought up in, and is in some ways patently opposed to anything in our “philosophy,” a sense of bewilderment, if not frank uninterest, is understandable. Even when pioneering enthusiasts took up the cultural cause of Persia, there possibly lingered a faint, unconscious patronage in their attitude. Of William Morris, Burne-Jones testified that he loved everything Persian, “including the wild confusion of their chronology.” When Sainte-Beuve wished to characterize Firdawsi and his epic (in the causerie that contributed to Arnold’s Sohrab and Rustum), he misleadingly, if inevitably, dubbed him “l’Homère de son pays.”

It is true that the visual arts of other cultures are by their nature more easily accessible to us. There we do not encounter the barriers raised by language or by strange modes of music. It certainly is not hard to look with pleasure at the illustrations of a typical fifteenth-or sixteenth-century Persian manuscript and appreciate the quality of what we see. Despite the artistic conventions governing such painting (and very much despite the still widely diffused though erroneous notion that Islamic art generally failed, or was forbidden, to reproduce the human figure), what we see is depiction in the keenest outline and brilliant hue of a complete, natural world: a world, that is, more often than not of the open air, with spring-like trees and grass, lively, graceful animals, and above all—central to the theme illustrated—populated by human beings. We are not asked to decipher some abstract pattern. The images tell a story—about the people depicted. To “read” these scenes is actually less difficult than gazing at a Jackson Pollock, and definitely more reassuring for the non-sophisticated spectator than confronting the work of, say, Joseph Beuys or Julian Schnabel.


Yet idle looking and liking remain lazy, almost rootless activities—a sort of mental licking of so many flavors of ice cream—unless we follow up with something a little sterner in the way of work. We need to labor to grasp the setting in which Persian miniatures, for instance, were created. Since what is depicted matters, some knowledge of the subject shown is bound to increase understanding. Chronology can help, as can comparisons across styles of Western art more familiar to us.

It seems a pity that even exemplary surveys of world are tend to relegate Islamic and Far Eastern art to narrow cultural ghettos of a few pages. It is rather disconcerting to find, as in Sir Ernst Gombrich’s Story of Art, that the mid-fifteenth-century flowering of the Persian miniature has to be encountered before we have even entered the Dark Ages in Europe. And how nice it would be if, when Gozzoli’s mid-fifteenth-century fresco of the Adoration of the Magi appears, we were reminded of its “Persian” air and how that can be paralleled in Persian art of the same date. In Professor Janson’s admirably balanced History of Art, where the author has much greater space at his disposal (and uses it, incidentally, to rebut the common misapprehension about Islamic art being nonfigurative), there is a succinct but far-ranging and fairly rapid chapter covering Islam and India, running—almost literally—from the Great Mosque at Damascus via Persia, Egypt, and Turkey to close with the Taj Mahal, finished in 1648. Yet again all this art has to be dispatched before returning to the Europe of the Lindisfarne Gospels, that is, around AD 700.

It also happens that one of the captions to an illustration of Persian painting in Janson’s book emphasizes the need to know exactly what we are looking at. “Two warriors fighting” we read under a reproduction of a lyrical and lucid late-fourteenth-century miniature, apparently executed in Baghdad, and showing indeed a warrior bending in conquering pose over another whose helmet is partly lifted to reveal long, flowing hair. In fact this illustration is from a manuscript of the story of Prince Humay and depicts the moment he discovers that his opponent is no other than his beloved, the Chinese Princess Humayun. The encounter is a piquantly romantic one; to Western minds it may recall such an episode as that of Tancred and Clorinda in Tasso.

To respond to the high, courtly enchantment of this painting requires at first only the gift of eyesight. Yet it must mean more when we recognize what it illustrates. “A man and a woman on a balcony” will be less useful to Eastern eyes than “Romeo and Juliet.” And for all parties it may be helpful to think that the patron in Baghdad in the late fourteenth century had at least one great Western fellow bibliophile in the Duc de Berry, with his almost Oriental fondness for sumptuous, jewel-like books, as well as jewels.

Just turning the pages of the Shahnameh, admiring the color, the design, the wonderful fantasy world of a book which, in the enthusiastic opening words of Professor Stuart Cary Welch, “releases a flight of dragons, demons, heroes, and young lovers,” is not enough. And as a guide possessed of scholarship animated by verve and imagination and style we could not ask for anyone better than he. So vivid and persuasive is his approach, though always underpinned by erudition, that hypotheses take shape like so many alluring houris, making expanses of paradise garden bloom where might otherwise be arid deserts of scanty facts.

In its present form, the Shahnameh appears in a strictly limited edition. Still, it is worth recalling that ten years ago Professor Welch produced a “popular” first sketch of the present publication, more modest in format but more accessible financially and otherwise. Parts of that attractive book need revision in the light of the fresh information incorporated in the full-scale publication, but it remains an admirable introduction for the non-expert reader, and the author has wisely retained many colorful and allusive passages in the new text. There shines through all the labor a love which is infectious. This book is for him, one feels, the most wonderful book in the world.

The non-expert may move more slowly, gradually piecing together the whole context in which such books were created, in addition to the exact circumstances of its commissioning. To begin with, what is the Shahnameh? It is a poem of some 50,000 or so verses, largely a work of Firdawsi, born in the tenth century; and it took him about thirty-five years to complete. It is, literally, a book of kings (shahs), the national epic of Iran and familiar to generations in a way not easily paralleled by any single poem in the West. It tells not one but a hundred different tales, from legendary times onward. Its cosmos is invested spiritually by powers of good and evil (Urmuzd and Ahriman) and peopled by heroic human beings, often oppressed or corrupted by wicked demons. It opens with a nostalgic golden-age vision of Gayumars, a beneficent monarch living on a mountaintop, under whom “the art of life began.” His son is killed by a demon, but a good angel promises him vengeance in battle before he dies. This comes to pass, and he is succeeded by his grandson whose very name means sense and wisdom. Not all the subsequent shahs are like that—which might make for monotony—and the pattern is very much one of fathers and sons, battles and slaughter (described in detail): a male world interspersed with episodes of heroes meeting heroines and both falling desperately in love.


The poem includes quite a few scattered pictorial or pictorial-sounding references (including mention of portraiture), offering opportunities for illustration and themselves conceivably prompted partly by some form of painting. The Shahnameh must soon have inspired illustrations, and some of the finest scenes painted for the Houghton manuscript (like King Gayumars on his mountain throne) can be found depicted in very different, simple style about two centuries before that work was commissioned.

The Shanameh had a central place in Persian culture. Equally central among the visual arts was the art of book illustration. It was inevitable that each great patron—and there were to be many of them—wished to commission his own personal copy. The origin of the Houghton version is not entirely clear but it must have been begun at Tabriz, possibly around 1522. The authors of this edition suggest that it was started on the orders of Shah Isma’il as a gift for his eight-year-old son, the future Shah Tahmasb, who had in 1522 returned from being the extremely youthful governor of Herat (today in Afghanistan). The evidence for associating it with Isma’il is not quite apparent and seems merely conjecture. What is sure is that the manuscript is inscribed as commissioned for the library of Tahmasb as shah.

It seems not to have been entirely completed until the 1540s. Might it not have been begun when he came to the throne in the 1520s? From an early age Tahmasb appears to have had a strong feeling for art, and in middle age is recorded as telling one of his pages to “stick to painting whenever you can—it is your guide to good taste.” Just so, one thinks, might some High Renaissance European patron have spoken, though for him or her “painting” would have had a different connotation.

In setting the genesis of the Houghton Shahnameh at the point of Tahmasb’s return from Herat to Tabriz, Dickson and Welch undoubtedly indicate an important stylistic truth about the illustrations. After the first overall impression of their sheer “Persianness,” the miniatures begin to fall into two broad stylistic categories, representative of the artistic traditions and tastes fostered in those two cities—themselves extremes east and west of the Persian kingdom. In the Houghton Shahnameh the two centers are fused in a single manuscript, typifying the “Safavi synthesis,” analyzed by Professor Welch, who speculates not only about art but about personalities: he finds combined in the book the influence of the young Tahmasb, “the slightly cowed lad,” educated to appreciate Herat style, and that of “his conqueror father,” Isma’il, interested in painting of a more dynamic, visionary kind, associated with Tabriz.

Whatever the exact facts, there can be no doubt that a volume as large-scale as the Houghton one would require several painters to work on it. It contains over two hundred and fifty miniatures, here distributed among fifteen different hands. And the execution of such a major commission would have required considerable organization under a leading painter acting as its director. Although once or twice the miniatures are signed, it conceivably mattered little to the patron which painter did what, and one may well suppose that the distinctions in style were not noticed in the way we now notice them. At the same time, the status of the finest painters was obviously high at court; their work was praised in glowing phrases and some of them enjoyed the privilege of access to the shah. All this is admirably conveyed by the authors, with direct quotation from the extravagant yet engaging rhetoric of the Persian Vasari called “Master Dust” (Dust Muhammad), for whom the shah’s library was “the site where the cherubim nest” and a distinguished contemporary fellow painter, “a true ruby of Badakhshan and a star of lapis lazuli.” More prosaically but absorbingly conveyed are the practical preparations for an elaborate, illuminated book like the Houghton one, how the various tasks on it were divided, and the types of pigment used.

For those unversed in the nuances of Persian styles, it is exciting to follow the authors visually and find how much sense can be made of their distinctions among miniatures which might otherwise seem almost too monotonously brilliant, bright-colored, and uniform. And the two broad categories—opposites in certain ways—symbolized by Herat and Tabriz have each gifted exponents.

Herat represents what might roughly—very roughly indeed—be called “realism.” In the Houghton volume there are miniatures which have an almost quattrocento feel for logical composition, grasp on space, and precise observation—the crisp shape of a pavilion, the pose of a crouching servant or cringing courtier, or a furry bird’s nest, including eggs, fixed in the slim branches of a tree. All is clear, controlled, and hard-edged. There are the expectedly beautiful patterns, often of minutely inlaid doors and floors and niches, with porcelain-like panels of decoration in palest blue and white, showing animals at play or fighting. Less expected are miniatures where space is austerely disposed and patterning restricted, and the intervals between people and objects observed with cool, deliberate care. And the color too, for all its brilliance, is no less subtly placed. The tiny accent of a seated ruler’s jadegreen boot rests on a rectangle of plain café-au-lait rug with intense but quiet effect—more stunning than any rainbow crescendo of hues.

This graceful but firmly plotted, sharply studied world takes one back in mood to Bihzad, artistically speaking lord of Herat and arguably the most gifted of all Persian painters. He was probably too old to work on the Houghton Shahnameh, but something of his style influenced some of the artists involved, mingled with theirs, and was diluted. Bihzad had been able to range from courtly, romantic subjects to the atmosphere of the bathhouse, pungently seizing on gesture and character but having an eye also for the pattern made by a row of hanging towels. In the Shahnameh such range was hardly needed. The tone throughout is elevated and aristocratic. With battle and slaughter—sometimes cruelly of animals as well as of men—a favorite theme, it could scarcely be other than serious. Yet, of course, it offered opportunities for fantasy.

And there in particular the style of Tabriz had its contribution to make. “Dionysian” (in contrast to Apollonian) and “expressionist” are adjectives applied to it by the authors. Its stylistic roots seem to go back to Chinese art, whence are borrowed not only its dragons and demons but cloud-symbols and rocks. Instead of being hard-edge and logically contained, compositions tend to “bleed” out of their borders, with trees waving seaweed-like and even jagged mountains turning deliquescent, rising up like tinted foam and scarcely more substantial-looking. The mood is at times slightly grotesque but nearly always magical. And this style was beautifully attuned to depicting such a subject as the fabulous giant bird, the Simurgh, whose vast plumes of tail curl in snaking outlines of emerald, purple, and rose against an expanse of gold sky in a steep, rocky landscape of melting blue-green and shot-pink crags from which flows a silver stream. (See the illustration on page 13.)

If Herat observes and re-orders earth, Tabriz seems happier imagining heaven (the heaven virtually of Revelations). Yet to make such a contrast is ultimately false. There are still touches of fantasy in the more solid, artistically sober Houghton miniatures, as there are “natural” details in even the wildest, most fanciful ones. Mingling of influences is part of the fascination of the art in this book, and perhaps its quintessence is found, as Professor Welch certainly finds it, in the miniature of Gayumars sitting—floating, rather—on a mountaintop that flickers around him like a tongue of phosphorescent flame, while below crowd his people in spotted skins, sprung up like so many magical fungi, but each piquantly characterized. This painting is, we know, by Sultan Muhammad. An echo of the effect it created is caught by “Master Dust,” who tells hyperbolically how the very “lions of painting” cowered at the sight of it, hurt by the power of the artist’s brush.

It may be that the art represented in the Houghton Shahnameh will remain for many people simply too rich, too strange, even a little decadent. By the time he presented the book to Selim II the Shah had undergone a violent puritan conversion, one aspect of which was to ban the secular arts. What he gave away was what he no longer prized.

Perhaps not everyone wants to play at being a sultan, but the uniqueness of owning the present edition has a distinctly sad side to it, not mentioned by the authors. The original book itself has ceased to exist as an entity. In London in 1979 seventeen pages of it were exhibited at Agnew’s for sale, and seven pages had previously been auctioned at Christie’s in 1976. In the catalogue to the Agnew exhibition we were told frankly that there had been “a limited number of private sales” and that seventy-eight miniatures had been “transferred to the Metropolitan Museum of Art.”

From its inception in sixteenth-century Tabriz down to 1959, when Arthur Houghton, Jr., acquired it, this Shahnameh survived intact. The more it is now praised and valued, after centuries of being unknown, the more extraordinary seems its fate. The present edition, reproducing every miniature, is not only a monument: it is a memorial to something that has been destroyed and can no longer be completely studied and appreciated in any other form.

This Issue

October 7, 1982