Epic of the Persian Kings

Sunday, September 19, 2010

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The Art of Ferdowsi’s Shahnameh at Fitzwilliam Museum, Cambridge

The Fitzwilliam Museum at Cambridge University is playing host to an exhibition entitled “Epic of the Persian Kings: The Art of Ferdowsi’s Shahnameh” featuring illustrations inspired by the Shahnameh.

The exhibit, which opened September 11, presents a spectacular range of richly illustrated manuscripts and miniature paintings selected from public and private collections in the UK and includes the Royal Collection at Windsor Castle, the British Museum, the British Library and several others.

The exhibit explores the monumental artistic legacy of one of the world’s greatest literary epics: the 1000 year-old Persian ‘Book of Kings’, or Shahnameh.

“Epic of the Persian Kings” brings together nearly one hundred paintings from these lavishly illustrated manuscripts spanning 800 years, in the most comprehensive exhibition of Shahnameh.

A diverse program of events will accompany the exhibition, from talks and lectures by international authorities on the Shahnameh and creative workshops for all ages, to concerts of Persian music, film and theatrical performances bringing these tales to life.

A thousand years ago, the Persian Book of Kings was presented to the world.

Completed by the poet Ferdowsi as a vast work telling the Iranian history of the world, the exquisite epic has inspired countless lavishly illustrated manuscripts since, mixing traditional Royal history with the mythical and supernatural on a journey recounting everything from the creation of the world to the rise and fall of convoluted empires.

It is twice as long as the Iliad and Odyssey and, with a 35-year production cycle, is the longest poem ever written by one author. Hardly surprising, then, that the Fitzwilliam’s compilation of almost 100 paintings from the 800-year narrative are described as a “comprehensive” dynasty of Kings, heroes, dragons and demons.

“Ferdowsi’s Shahnameh has been the wellspring of Persian culture for the past thousand years,” says museum director Timothy Potts, who calls it “the pre-eminent compendium of legend and knowledge about Iran’s past”.

“It is the handbook to good kingship and heroic valour and, above all, the encapsulation of what it is to be authentically Persian. It is also about what Persia is not. Ferdowsi lived nearly four centuries after the coming of Islam, yet he limits his chronicle to the pre-Islamic past and purges his language of Arabic and other extraneous influences, seeing the Arab conquest as a disaster for the culture of his homeland.”

“His poem was to be a paean to a Persian past that struggled to maintain itself against Arab, Turkish and other peoples and ways of life.”

Railing against the culture of the time, Ferdowsi’s words were initially greeted with hostility, but by the 13th century their influence had started to spiral. “Other cultures have their literary icons – Homer for the ancient Greeks, Shakespeare for the English, Dante for the Italians,” suggests Potts. “But none of these exercised quite the defining influence on so many levels of culture and identity up to the present day as the Shahnameh did for the Persians.”

The miniature paintings were made by Persian, Arab, Turkic, Mongol, Kurdish, Indian and other courts, using them as symbols of power. European high-flyers soon followed suit, providing plenty of material for academics at Cambridge University, who is aiming to produce a corpus of the illustrations.

During the millennium since its completion, illustrated manuscripts of the Shahnameh have spread Persian culture well beyond Iran’s borders, from Egypt and Anatolia to India and Central Asia.

Owing to the enormous popularity of its stories and characters, and their depiction in a wide range of media, the Shahnameh offers a panoramic view of Persian art from the 12th until the 19th century.

One outstanding Shahnameh manuscript you can see in the exhibition is one of several drawn from the Fitzwilliam Museum’s own collection. This manuscript (MS 22-1948) was produced in the city of Shiraz in southwest Iran between approximately 1435 and 1400, under the Timurid dynasty, and beautifully demonstrates how Ferdowsi’s poem presents a vast choice of scenes for illustration — much like the individual frames of an epic film.

For example, the story of Alexander the Great, called Eskandar in the Shahnameh, is an important chapter in this epic poem, as seen in the painting Eskandar (Alexander the Great) visits the Ka‘ba. On his way from India to North Africa he makes a stop in Mecca, which may be seen as a rite of passage in his long journey towards self-discovery.

Eskandar pays respect to the Ka'ba, the House of Abraham, which Ferdowsi describes as "the place of worship before any others existed…where God causes you to worship and to remember him." Here, Eskandar watches as a pilgrim reaches for the door handle of the Ka'ba; in later versions Eskandar himself is depicted as a pilgrim.

Another painting from this copy of the Shahnameh depicts the King Key Kavus airborne. Ferdoswi tells how, set on by Eblis (the Devil), a div (demon) appeared to King Key Kavus in the form of a young man and tempted him to explore the mystery of the heavens. The king nurtured young eagles, attached them to a throne and had legs of lamb impaled on skewers above to urge the eagles upwards.

The throne was lifted into the sky, but when the birds were exhausted, it descended in the forests of Amol, and Key Kavus implored God's pardon for his pride. Here, the throne’s soaring height is suggested by the spears' breaking through the picture frame and by the figure at the bottom left whose head tilts back to observe the scene. The throne has an extra panel that Key Kavus holds firmly as he looks upwards anxiously, bow at the ready.

The exhibition is presented with support from the Iran Heritage Foundation and other organizations, and will run until January 9, 2011.

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