Shahnameh of Shah Tahmasp

From Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia
Jump to navigation Jump to search
The Court of Gayumars

The Shahnameh of Shah Tahmasp (Persian: شاهنامه شاه‌طهماسب‎) or Houghton Shahnameh is one of the most famous illustrated manuscripts of the Shahnameh, the national epic of Greater Iran, and a high point in the art of the Persian miniature. It is probably the most fully illustrated manuscript of the text ever produced. As created, it had 759 pages, 258 with a miniature. The page size is about 48 x 32 cm, and the text written in Nastaʿlīq script of the highest quality. It was broken up in the 1970s and pages are now in a number of collections.[1]


It was created in Tabriz at the order of Shah Ismail I by the most prominent artists of Safavid Persia, either intended as a gift to Suleiman the Magnificent, sultan of the Ottoman Empire, or perhaps to celebrate the return of his son Tahmasp from a period as governor of Herat.[2] The work began in the 1520s, before the death of Ismail I in 1524, and was probably mostly complete by the mid-1530s,[3] in the reign of Tahmasp I. It was finally given to the then Ottoman Sultan, Selim II, in 1568, presented by a delegation. It long remained in the Topkapı Palace library in Istanbul, but appeared in the collection of Edmond James de Rothschild by 1903.[4]

The manuscript once contained 258 miniatures, but was split up by Arthur Houghton II, who acquired it in 1959, and the miniatures sold individually. Houghton donated 78 paintings to the Metropolitan Museum of Art in 1972, and others were sold individually. The Metropolitan's miniatures have been the subject of an exchange agreement with the National Museum of Iran. The dispersed miniatures are in several collections, including the Khalil collection.[5]

On 6 April 2011, a page from this manuscript from the collection of the leading scholar of the manuscript, Stuart Cary Welch, was sold for 7.4 million pounds ($12 million).[6]


The huge scale of the work would have required help from all the leading artists of the royal workshop, including Mir Sayyid Ali, Sultan Mohammad, Aqa Mirak, Mir Musavvir, Dust Muhammad, and probably Abd al-Samad,[7] and the style of the miniatures varies considerably, though the quality is consistently high. A number of artists have been identified from their style by scholars, but are not known by name.[8] The manuscript shows the fusion of the styles of the schools of Herat, where the Timurid royal workshops had developed a style of classical restraint and elegance, and the painters of Tabriz, whose style was more expressive and imaginative. Tabriz was the former capital of the Turkmen rulers, successively of the Kara Koyunlu and Ağ Qoyunlu, who had ruled much of Persia before Ismail I defeated them to begin the Safavid dynasty in 1501.[9] Dust Muhammad wrote an account of Persian painting which mentions the manuscript, and is the first of many accounts to single out the Court of Guyumars (illustrated here), which he says is by Sultan Mohammad. Later scholars have called this miniature "matchless" and "probably the greatest picture in Iranian art".[10]

Davazdah Rokh Battle.Iran&Turan
Bizhan Versus Ruyyin,
Barta versus Kuhram
Lahhak and Farshidvard
Kai Khusrau and Afrasiyab

A famous unfinished miniature showing Rustam asleep, while his horse Rakhsh fights off a lion, was probably made for the manuscript, but was never finished and bound in, perhaps because its vigorous Tabriz style did not please Tahmasp. It appears to be by Sultan Mohammad, whose later works in the manuscript show a style adapted to the court style of Kamāl ud-Dīn Behzād. It is now in the British Museum.[11]


  1. ^ Leoni, Francesca. "The Shahnama of Shah Tahmasp: Heilbrunn Template of Art History". Metropolitan Museum of Art. Retrieved 13 February 2016.
  2. ^ Piotrovsky and Rogers, 112
  3. ^ Walther & Wolf, 424
  4. ^ Walther & Wolf, 420
  5. ^ Piotrovsky and Rogers, 112-117; Walther & Wolf, 420
  6. ^ "16th century folio sets Islamic art auction record". Retrieved 13 February 2016.
  7. ^ Walther and Wolf, 420; for Abd al-Samad, see his biography; there is some controversy over his contributions
  8. ^ Piotrovsky and Rogers, 112-117
  9. ^ Titley, 80; Walther & Wolf, 420-424
  10. ^ Titley, 83; Welch, 17, both quoted
  11. ^ Canby (1993), 79-80
  12. ^ Canby (2014), 86, 335
  13. ^ Canby (2014), 68
  14. ^ Canby (2014), 280, 353
  15. ^ Welch, Stuart Cary, Wonders of the age : masterpieces of early Safavid painting, 1501-1576 (excerpt) (PDF), p. 58 (No. 12 )
  16. ^ Canby (2014), 82, 335
  17. ^ Canby (2014), 148, 340


  • Blair, Sheila, and Bloom, Jonathan M., The Art and Architecture of Islam, 1250-1800, 1995, Yale University Press Pelican History of Art, ISBN 0300064659
  • Canby, Sheila R., Persian Painting, 1993, British Museum Press, ISBN 9780714114590
  • Canby, Sheila R. (2014), The Shahnama of Shah Tahmasp: The Persian Book of Kings, Metropolitan Museum of Art, p. 337, ISBN 9780300194548
  • Piotrovsky M.B. and Rogers, J.M. (eds), Heaven on Earth: Art from Islamic Lands, 2004, Prestel, ISBN 3791330551
  • Titley, Norah M., Persian Miniature Painting, and its Influence on the Art of Turkey and India, 1983, University of Texas Press, ISBN 0292764847
  • Walther, Ingo F. and Wolf, Norbert, Masterpieces of Illumination (Codices Illustres); pp 350–3; 2005, Taschen, Köln; ISBN 382284750X
  • Welch, Stuart Cary. Royal Persian Manuscripts, Thames & Hudson, 1976, ISBN 0500270740

Further reading[edit]

  • Dickson M. B. and Welch S. C., The Houghton Shahnameh, 1981, Fogg Art Museum, Harvard University, Cambridge, Massachusetts, 2 vols.
  • Rüstem, Ünver, The Afterlife of a Royal Gift: The Ottoman Inserts of the Shāhnāma-i Shāhī. In Muqarnas, vol. 29, 2012, pp 245–337.
  • Waghmar, Burzine K., An Annotated Micro-history and Bibliography of the Houghton Shahnama. In Sunil Sharma and Burzine Waghmar, eds. Firdawsii Millennium Indicum: Proceedings of the Shahnama Millenary Seminar, K R Cama Oriental Institute, Mumbai, 8–9 January 2011; pp 144–80; Mumbai, K. R. Cama Oriental Institute: 2016, ISBN 9789381324103
  • Welch, Stuart Cary, A King's Book of Kings: The Shah-nameh of Shah Tahmasp, 1972, Metropolitan Museum of Art, ISBN 0870990284, 9780870990281