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KEY WORDS AND IDEAS
Shahnama (Book of Kings), Iran, Safavid empire, storytelling, figural art, royal workshop, watercolor, ink
LINK TO THE THEME OF THIS CHAPTER
This painting from the first cycle of the Shahnama vividly recounts the struggle between good and evil as the good king Tahmuras, son of King Hushang (see image 27), defeats the evil demons (divs).
This richly colored and illuminated page is one among 257 paintings that illustrate the epic and highlight specific themes.
This image, painted by Sultan Muhammad, bursts with energy and dynamism. At the center, the Iranian king Tahmuras (on horseback) strikes the demon with his ox-headed mace. His blue robe embroidered with golden threads and ornate crown capped by a tall plume add to the vibrancy of the illustration. In the lower left corner, anthropomorphic demons (divs) are outnumbered and bound in chains. On the right, a group of courtiers on horseback watches the scene unfold. The painter conveys his talent and sense of humor through the depiction of the demons: though representative of the forces of evil, they cower in fear, their faces twisted in an almost comical parody of the grotesque.
Although Tahmuras, the son of King Hushang, was a heroic leader, he could not escape falling under the influence of the evil div Ahriman. According to legend, when Tahmuras finally managed to defeat Ahriman and the army of demons, they offered to teach humankind the precious art of writing in exchange for their lives. According to the story, this is how people learned various alphabets, including Arabic, Chinese, Greek, and Persian.
The anthropomorphic depiction of the demons in this scene reflects the influence of works on paper and silk from Central Asia, suggesting that Eastern paintings and drawings were circulating in the royal workshop (kitabkhana) in Tabriz at this time.
Related excerpt from the Shahnama:
On their side the demons and their magicians also prepared for war, crying out to the heavens and raising great clouds of smoke and vapor. Once again the prescient Tahmures resorted to sorcery; by sorcery he bound in chains two-thirds of Ahriman’s army (and for this reason he was afterwards known as "Tahmures, the Binder of Demons"), and the other third he shattered with his heavy mace, laying them prone in the dust . . . Tahmures spared the [remaining] demons, and they too became his slaves . . .
—Dick Davis, The Lion and the Throne: Stories from the Shahnameh of Ferdowsi, Vol. 1 (Washington D.C.: Mage Publishers, 1998), p. 22
RELATED AUDIO FROM THE GALLERY GUIDE
Sheila Canby: Ferdowsi, who wrote the Shahnameh, completed it in 1010 A.D. The Shahnameh of Ferdosi is absolutely central to the culture of Persian-speaking people. People still name their children after heroes of the Shahnameh. The Shahnameh means "The Book of Kings," and it does not just talk about the government of kings; there are many, many battle scenes, there are love scenes, there are encounters with witches, demons, dragons—all kinds of wonderful monsters, actually.
The stories that are incorporated would tell the stories of all the kings of the prehistoric and early pre-Islamic historical periods. The illustration of the epic started in the early fourteenth or very late thirteenth century, really, it seems, under the impetus of the Mongol conquerors of Iran who took awhile to kind of settle down and then started commissioning the illustrated versions of these manuscripts. But before that, we find some of the stories are illustrated on luster tiles. And we also have pottery bowls that have illustrations from the stories. Then what's interesting is that, even though it's not in their tradition, the Turks are doing illustrated Shahnamehs. So we find this great sweep of illustrated manuscripts across the world from Istanbul to India. The Shahnameh appeals to people at all levels of society because the book itself incorporates people at all levels of society.