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Manuscript B

An Illustrated Shahnama of 1650: Isfahan in the Service of Yazd


The Manuscript and its Context

In the summer of 2006, a bound manuscript of the Shahnama that greatly enhances our knowledge of mid-17th-century Safavid art came to light in London (fn.1). It contains that rarest of combinations: the name of the patron, the name of the copyist, the place in which the manuscript was copied, the signature of the illuminator, and twenty-seven signed paintings by the artist, Moʿin Moṣavver. In the summer of 2006, the manuscript was de-accessioned by the Cincinnati Historical Society, now the Cincinnati Museum Center, and was sold at auction in New York. A bookplate affixed to the interior of the binding reads, "Cornelius J. Hauck Collection, Cincinnati, Ohio" (fn.2). The manuscript was acquired by the London art dealer Sam Fogg, who sold it to the David Collection in Copenhagen.

In addition to the wealth of information about its production, the manuscript's illustrations stand out for the originality of their compositions, one sign that Moʿin Moṣavver had recently matured as an artist. Additionally, Moʿin Moṣavver chose some unusual episodes to illustrate, suggesting that the patron as well as the artist contributed to the overall appearance of the manuscript. Even if the patron were a well-documented historical figure, which he is not, the motives for the choice of certain episodes as opposed to others were presumably personal or idiosyncratic and impossible to connect with known historical situations or events. Moʿin's willingness to include rarely illustrated scenes further underscores the freshness of his vision and confidence as an artist.

In its present state, the manuscript contains 355 folios, each with 29 lines of text within the inner borders and a band of continuing text written on the diagonal that forms a border on the outer three margins of each folio. This distinctive feature distinguishes this Shahnama from the five other copies of the manuscript that Moʿin Moṣavver illustrated (fn.3). More significantly, the manuscript under discussion is the only one by Moʿin Moṣavver in which the patron's name is mentioned. The colophon on fol. 355a states that the manuscript was produced on the order of the navvāb Abu'l-Mahdi Hosayn in dar al-'ebādi-ye Yazd (fig. 2). It is possible that this navvāb is the same man as Mirzā Shah Abu'l Mahdi, identified by Iraj Afshar as the patron of a garden near Yazd and a lake opposite the ḵānqāh of Shah Ḵalil II in Taft. He may be identified with an anonymous vizier of Yazd who commissioned a building in Yazd in 1064 / 1653-1654 for which the poet Amin al-Din Zarkish composed a chronogram. Zarkish compares the vizier to Mani and Behzad, which may refer to his reputation as a patron (fn.4) The term navvāb may simply be used as an honorific similar to "Excellency" or it may refer to a governmental role such as deputy. Thus, what position Abu'l-Mahdi Hosayn held in Yazd is not precisely clear. As Massumeh Farhad has noted, some of the most sumptuous illustrated manuscripts of the mid-17th century were commissioned by non-royal patrons (fn.5). Farhad's suggestion that Moʿin Moṣavver's patrons came from the class of high court officials is supported not only by the evidence in the colophon of this Shahnama but also by the portrait from 1085 /1674 of Navvāb Mirzā Moḥammad Bāqer and his son (fn.6). This navvāb is most likely the monajjem baši, or chief astrologer, mentioned by Raphael du Mans and Chardin (fn.7).

In addition to the date of the completion of the manuscript, the 15th of Rabi' I 1060 / March 18, 1650, the colophon contains the name of the scribe, Moḥammad Sāleh ebn Ḡiās al-Din Moḥammad al-Kermāni, and states that it took him three years to copy the manuscript. The inscription dar al-'ebādi-ye Yazd implies that the scribe was working for Abu'l Mahdi Hosayn in Yazd, not Kerman and not Isfahan. Unfortunately, Moḥammad Sāleh ebn Ḡiās al-Din is not readily identifiable. One calligrapher named Moḥammad Jān al-Kermāni is attested, having copied a Shahnama in 1011 /1604, but even a cursory comparison of the two manuscripts indicates on the basis of handwriting style that the scribes are different people (fn.8). Of the calligraphers named Moḥammad Sāleh mentioned by Mehdi Bayāni as masters of Nastaliq, none shares the same parentage or dates as the copyist of this manuscript (fn.9). The only scribe who might be identified with the copyist of the Shahnama is the Moḥammad Sāleh whose Thuluth inscription appears in the mehrāb of the Masjed-e Shah (known as the Masjed-e Imām) in Isfahan (fn.10). A shared identity of the designer of inscriptions for the Isfahan mosque and the calligrapher of the David Collection Shahnama would confirm the itinerant nature of artists' lives in Safavid Iran. Moreover, a city such as Yazd, one of the major centers of silk-weaving in the 17th century, would have had the financial clout to attract calligraphers and artists from the capital.

The scribe of the 1650 manuscript seems to have followed a practice already established in the 16th century in which the copying and illuminating of manuscripts did not necessarily occur simultaneously and in the same location as the production of their illustrations. The best-known example of this practice, the Hafi Aurang of Sultan Ebrāhim Mirzā, was copied over a nine-year period by five different scribes working at three or four different locations (fn.11). Since the illustration on folio 109b, Rostam Overturns Čengiz (3-195), is dated the 20th of Rabi' II 1060 / April 22, 1650, just a few weeks after the completion of the copying of the text, the date in the colophon does not indicate the completion of the whole manuscript. Furthermore, two dispersed pages from this Shahnama are dated to the 2nd of Zu'l Qā'da 1058 / December 18, 1648, and Ramażān 1059 / September-October 1649 (fn.12). The date 1058 /1648 appears on a colophon page marking the end of the Kay Ḵosrow chapter, before the start of the chapter on the reign of Lohrāsp, a common break point in illuminated and illustrated Shahnamas. It thus refers to the copying of the text. The date 1059 /1649 is in the hand of Moʿin Moṣavver and is found on the page with the miniature Rostam Discovers Soḥrāb's Identity (2-172). It comes from an earlier passage in the text than the first colophon of 1058 /1648, supporting the proposal that Moʿin Moṣavver painted the illustrations after the completion of sections of the manuscript. Since the Rostam and Soḥrāb illustration also occurs earlier in the text than the picture of Rostam and Čengiz, dated 1650 (3-195). Moʿin must have produced the illustrations in the same sequence in which they appear in the epic.

Before turning to the illustrations, I would like to discuss the three illuminated ʿonvāns, or headings, that mark the beginning of the preface, the beginning of the epic proper, and the beginning of the Lohrāsp section. Each of these contains the signature of the illuminator, dahhabahu Mollā Mo'min Širāzi ("Mollā Moʿ'min Širāzi gilded [i.e. illuminated] it"), written in white partly on the narrow blue-and-white band separating the upper section of the illumination from the narrower section below it, and partly on the blue-and-white band below the section title (fig. 4). Although no other manuscripts with this illuminator's signature have yet been found, the incidence of signed illuminations in the Safavid period is extremely low and almost non-existent in the 17th century.

Even it Mollā Moʿmin was not working in Shiraz, his nisba "Širāzi" signifies a connection with one of the major schools of manuscript illumination in the Safavid period. While the style of paintings of the Shiraz school in the Safavid period followed fashions that originated in Tabriz and Qazvin in the 16th and early 17th centuries, manuscript illumination from Shiraz reveals originality and a high level of technical perfection. In the mid-17th century, when the commercial production of illustrated manuscripts had abated in Shiraz, the "brand-name" for illuminators may have continued to be strong, even if, like the famous 16th-century illuminator, ʿAbdāllāh Širāzi. they worked in the capital or other centers.

Mollā Moʿmin Širāzi's illuminations conform stylistically to those of the Isfahan school in the 17th century. The opening ʿonvān (fig. 4) consists of two bands of decoration: the upper, wider one containing a central, lobed diaper-shaped medallion surrounded by a similarly shaped band of blue within a wider band of gold. Above the lobed edge of the gold band stylized quatrefoils with yellow, pink, and dull-gold elements appear to float on a ground of undulating gold vines and saz leaves. The smaller horizontal band above the text contains a central medallion on a blue ground in which the title is written in gold. Like the band above, this medallion shape is echoed in surrounding bands of gold and blue. In addition to the narrow blue-and-white borders that surround the main illumination, a somewhat wider band containing a zigzagging red scroll on a light-green ground unites the upper and lower sections of illumination. A rhythmically arranged scroll of vines and saz leaves runs around the outer margins and the text is set within taḥrir, or cloud shapes, on a gold ground. In addition to the ʿonvāns, Mollā Moʿmin Širāzi would most likely have provided the decorated rubrics and gold passages surrounding the taḥrir. thus working in tandem with the calligrapher.

Many elements of this illumination relate to earlier examples. The use of blue and gold, the inclusion of cartouches, overlapping layers of split-palmette leaf and vine scrolls in contrasting colors, and the flowers adorning the medallions all appear in 16th-century illumination from Shiraz, Tabriz, Qazvin, and Herat. However, the larger scale of the elements, the presence of lotus blossoms, and a new palette including pink, yellow, and the dark red of the central lozenge and zigzagging border are indicative of the new style that developed in the 17th century. This type of illumination appears looser and less geometric than that of the early i6rh century, and the colors arc warmer than the sober blues and greens in early Safavid ʿonvāns and sarlohs (fully illuminated pages). Nonetheless, this illumination is an opulent beginning to a richly illustrated manuscript. Its palette and floral and vegetal motifs, moreover, recall the "Polonaise carpets" of the first half of the 17th century, indicating that this style of illumination reflects the taste of the times rather than existing in isolation (fn.13).

As stated previously, the manuscript contains 27 paintings, but at least fifteen others were removed from the manuscript as early as 1922 and certainly before 1941 (fn.14). The manuscript was rebound, probably after the removal of the fifteen paintings, but before its acquisition by Cornelius Hauck. A partial codicological study in 2008 points to the fact that several pages are now placed out of their original sequence, but a page-by-page textual study should uncover the total number of missing folios. Except for the folios at the end of the Kay Ḵosrow chapter, before the beginning of the chapter on the reign of I.ohrāsp, the dispersed illustrations all come from the most popular sections of the epic, featuring Rostam and heroes such as Eskandar, Siyāvoš, and Esfandiyār. Of the illustrations still contained in the manuscript, all arc signed. The signatures on the first five paintings, folios 8a (1-126), 13a (1-168), 24b (1-270), 32a (1-328), and 39b (2-014), and on 44a (2-049) appear on the painted surface, whereas all the other signatures are in the center of the lower margin. All but folio 109b (3-195) bear the signature raqam-e kamina Moʿin Moṣavver ("drawing [or work] of the humble Moʿin Moṣavver"), while below the painting Rostam Overturns Čengiz on folio 109b the inscription provides the date, Tuesday the 20th of Rabiʿ al-Āḵar 1060, the phrase "If there has been any shortcoming, may it be forgiven" and the signature of Moʿin Moṣavver. Why Moʿin should have inscribed this particular page with a date is unclear, since it comes in the first half of the epic and of the extant illustrations of this manuscript. However, the composition of this painting and of numerous others in the manuscript reveals the degree to which Moʿin Moṣavver departed from 16th and early 17th-century prototypes to produce original interpretations of episodes in the poem.

By 1650, Moʿin Moṣavver had been working for at least fifteen years. In an inscription on his portrait of Reżā-ye ʿĀbbāsi, he states that he had begun painting the portrait of his master one month before Reżā died, in Zuʾl-Qaʿda 1044 / March-April 1635 and he completed it forty years later in Ramażān 1084 / December 1673 (fn.15). Although he developed a distinctive style early in his career, the influence of Reżā-ye ʿĀbbāsi is evident in the compositions of his manuscript illustrations. Like Reżā, he preferred to place the figures close to the picture plane and to limit the number of personages in his scenes. His palette is characterized by an intense fuchsia pink, often used for mountains and architectural passages, bluish lavender for the middle ground, and wine-red, frequently employed for robes and other articles of clothing. Unlike that of Reżā, his draftsmanship, particularly evident in drawings and the treatment of clouds in his paintings, is painterly and sketchy. In his drawings he had a light touch, accentuated by the frequent use of brown ink. Although his drawings from the 1630's and 1640's incorporate figural conventions such as the very round-cheeked youths found in the work of Reżā, he also developed his own types early in his career. Thus, men with very long mustaches with or without neatly trimmed, pointed beards populate all of his illustrations in the 1650 Shahnama. While only four illustrations in the manuscript contain women, they are notably similar to one another, with their round faces framed by hejābs and tiaras or crowns and their heads tilted at an angle to their bodies (1-270).

If B. W, Robinson's attribution to Moʿin of some of the illustrations to a Shahnama in the British Library produced between 1630 and 1640 is correct (fn.16), his style evolved in minor ways from around 1640 to 1650. Both the British Library and the 1650 Shahnama, contained a picture of Rostam Killing the White Div (cf. ms. A, f.79a and ms. B, 2-059). The compositions are nearly identical, with the only differences being the smaller text blocks on the earlier page and the angling of the head of Rostam and Kay Kavos to the left rather than to the right. A snow leopard in the earlier page is replaced by a human figure in the later version, the earlier plane tree has become a leafy variety, and possibly the palette is different, but essentially the artist has only slightly modified his earlier illustration. Otherwise, the choice of episodes for illustration in the 28 images in the British Library Shahnama, which were painted by several different artists, overlaps with that of the 1650 manuscript in only nine instances (see Appendix I). A comparison with 17th-century illustrations of the same scenes included on the Cambridge University Shahnama Project website (fn.19) reveals that most of Moʿin Moṣavver's compositions in the 1650 manuscript are highly original, even if he chose to depict the same episodes as many other artists in his period.

In some instances, Moʿin has illustrated a scene, but has deviated from the text either by depicting a figure differently than he is described or by adding figures. The painting Esfandiyār Slays the Dragon is a case in point (5-127). Whereas the story describes him approaching the dragon in a box with swords piercing its sides that is placed on a horse-drawn cart, he is portrayed on horseback shooting the dragon with arrows while two divs (demons) lie wounded and dying in the foreground. Although in the story Esfandiyār did emerge from the box, he polished the dragon off with a sword, not arrows, and nowhere are the divs mentioned. As a dramatic device, the divs heighten the sense of the extraordinary, but one wonders whether the artist had this in mind when he included them or if he was responding to a variant of the standard text.

As Shreve Simpson has noted, Moʿin Moṣavver also combined two episodes in one in the painting Rostam and the Iranians in the Snow (4-306), now in the Harvard Art Museum (fn.20). The lower half of the composition illustrates the burial of five paladins in the snow, now detectable only by the standards and pennants sticking out of the snow, while above, Rostam and his companions search for the lost Iranians. By combining two stages of the story, the artist has produced a more visually compelling composition than if he had painted one or the other episode alone or on successive pages. Moreover, no other 17th-century artist had attempted to depict the paladins lost in the snow, but had only shown Rostam and the companions hunting for them.

Moʿin Moṣavver illustrated two of the single combats from the section on the Battle or the Twelve Rukhs on facing pages (4-099 and 4-100). Each of the combats of the Rukhs is depicted in a provincial Isfahan-style Shahnama manuscript in the John Rylands library, Manchester, also dated 1650, with two episodes per page on consecutive folios (fn.21). Thus, the bunching of illustrations of certain sections of the epic was not unknown in the 17th century. However, the British library Shahnama of c. 1630-1640 mentioned above does not have any double-page scenes. What is more interesting in the 1650 manuscript is that Moʿin made no attempt to unite the two compositions by suggesting a single landscape. Not only is the ground in Fariborz Defeats Kalbād (4-099) on the right violet, while on the left in The Battle of Gorāza and Siyāmak (4-100) it is white with pink mountains, but also the horse of Kalbād is cut off by the inner margin and its hind quarters do not appear on the left.

A far more unusual and innovative double-page pair of images appears on the dispersed folios from the end of the reign of Kay Ḵosrow and before the start of the chapter on the reign of Lohrāsp (finispiece) (fn.22). The double-page opening consists of a portrait of a youth in European garb holding a hat and standing next to a small white dog. He tilts his head toward the left with a slight smile. On the left-hand page, a young woman whose feet face left bends back toward the right and holds a wine bottle out in the direction of the young man with her left hand while holding a wine-cup to the left, over the marginal ruling, with her right hand. The setting within the marginal rulings consists of vegetation and clouds painted gold in the style popularized by Reżā-ye ʿĀbbāsi. The outer margin includes birds, deer, foxes, and rabbits in landscape. This type of marginal decoration had been in use in Persian painting since the early 16th century and continued to be popular until the end of the Safavid period.

Assuming that both figures are contemporary with the manuscript, they are highly significant for several reasons. Generally speaking, if such figures were not known to be from a Shahnama manuscript, they would be identified as album pages, produced as pendants for insertion in an album. Because paintings were removed or moved around in albums, one can rarely be entirely certain that they were intended to be placed and viewed together. Such doubts do not exist with these paintings. The complimentary use of red and purple in the clothing of both figures sets up a pleasing resonance between the two images that is accentuated by their poses and gestures. B. W. Robinson has noted another version of the male figure, signed by Moʿin and dated 1652, and a further image in mirror reverse (fn.23). Additionally, Moʿin's portrait of Reżā-ye ʿĀbbāsi depicts the artist painting a picture of a standing man in European garb, wearing the same style hat as the one that the 1650 figure holds. In Reżā-ye ʿĀbbāsi's last painting, European Giving a Dog a Drink from 1634, the dog is the same variety as that in the Shahnama figure, and it also appears in a painting of a standing European by Reżā from 1628 (fn.24). This breed of dog, most likely a papillon, was not the only type that Europeans in Iran possessed in the 17th century, since a painting on the exterior wall of the Chihil Sutun in Isfahan portrays a European with an Italian greyhound. Rather, by 1650 the dog and the hat had become the accepted props with which an artist could suggest that a figure was European. Likewise, the pose of the woman with her arm outstretched and her veil spread like a cape appears in other works of the 17th century (fn.25) and may ultimately refer back to a lost work by Reżā.

What relevance did these figures have to the Shahnama? They have no narrative connection with the epic, and function as bookends demarcating the end of the early section of the manuscript and the beginning of the later segment. Possibly they were inserted at the request of the patron. However, a more likely, though unverifiable, scenario would be that Moʿin Moṣavver wished to introduce a novel means of separating the two main sections of the book. The figures would have appeared up-to-date and fashionable in 1650, and they might have injected an clement of surprise to the reader perusing such a well-known text. As with the compositional deviations from the norm in Moʿin's illustrations to this manuscript, the pendant figures of a standing man and woman offer an unexpected element that must have been intended to delight the patron.

With its wealth of names and dates, the David Collection Shahnama still has secrets to divulge. A glance at the two appendices to this article enables one to see how illustrations have been placed erroneously in the rebound manuscript. The second appendix shows where the catchwords on the verso do not match up with the first word on the following recto. Even after having identified fifteen dispersed pages, one cannot be sure that other folios were not also removed from the manuscript. Despite these outstanding questions, the information that is found in this manuscript contributes to our understanding of the teamwork involved in producing such a book. The calligrapher Moḥammad Sāleh ebn Ḡiās al-Din Moḥammad al-Kermāni most likely decided on the novel format of the manuscript with the marginal band of text running around three sides of each page. The illuminator, Mollā Moʿ'min Širāzi, would have produced the illuminated ʿonvāns that open the manuscript, and the later chapter on Lohrāsp and would have embellished the text with gold and decorated rubrics. Following the calligrapher and illuminator, Moʿin Moṣavver would have produced the illustrations. The maker of the now-lost binding would have completed the job by arranging the text paper in quires, sewing them together, and encasing them in a binding.

Does this manuscript mark a major step in Moʿin's career? The internal evidence suggests that Moʿin came into his own as a manuscript illustrator of high status with this Shahnama. Instead of working as part of a team of painters, as in the British Library Shahnama of c. 1630-1640 (ms.A), Moʿin executed and signed every miniature in the David Collection manuscript. After this manuscript he embarked on an even more ambitious project, the two-volume Shahnama of 1655, now shared between the Chester Beatty Library (ms.D) and the Aga Khan (ms.C). His painting style did not change markedly from around 1640 until 1655. Yet clearly he found patrons who favored his work and preferred his style to that of his contemporaries working at the Safavid court, such as the artists of the Windsor Castle Shahnama. At this stage of our knowledge, the presence of the names of the patron, scribe, and illuminator and Moʿin's signature on every illustration appears to indicate a level of control that he had not enjoyed before, when he was part of a team of artists illustrating a manuscript. Even if Moʿin used a very limited palette and range of figures, his choice of episode and his customary faithfulness to the text, with a few lapses, provide interest and originality. Despite its missing pages, the David Collection Shahnama in its present state proclaims the pride of authorship and ownership embodied within it. The manuscript demonstrates that Isfahan, the capital, was not the only source of artistic excellence and innovation, and that at least one citizen of Yazd had the wealth and influence to attract leading artists of the book to produce a first-rate illustrated Shahnama.

The Illustrations
Despite Moʿin's debt to his master Reżā in many aspects of pictorial composition, palette, and subject matter, his individuality shines forth in the 1650 Shahnama. The catalog section of this article analyzes each illustration stylistically and proposes where the known dispersed pages were placed in the original manuscript.

Go to the catalog and illustrations

Sheila R. Canby
Last Updated: December 12, 2014 | Originally Published: 2010 (PDF file 8.3 mb)