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Paradise in miniature, The Court of Kayumars — part 1

The Aga Khan Museum in Toronto houses a famous Persian miniature from "The Shahnameh," a grand book from around 1525. This book, meaning 'The Book of Kings,' illustrates the history of ancient Persian rulers. The miniature showcases Kayumars, the first king, signaling a peaceful civilization. However, it also hints at impending doom. The artwork, filled with intricate details and gold-speckled borders, reflects the influence of Chinese painting and the importance of calligraphy in Islamic art.

Sultan Muhammad (attributed), The Court of Kayumars (Safavid: Tabiz, Iran), c. 1524–1525, from the Shah Tahmasp Shahnameh, c. 1524–35, opaque watercolor, ink, and gold on paper, 45 x 30 cm (Aga Khan Museum, Toronto) Speakers: Dr. Michael Chagnon, Curator, Aga Khan Museum, and Dr. Steven Zucker.
Created by Steven Zucker and Smarthistory.

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Video transcript

(gentle music) - [Steven] We're standing in the galleries in the Aga Khan Museum in Toronto, looking at one of the most famous, if not the most celebrated Persian miniature. It is absolutely drop-dead stunning. This is a single folio, that is, a single page from a much larger book. - [Michael] "The Shahnameh" was composed around the year 1000, 1010. There are many, many manuscripts of "The Shahnameh." This particular manuscript was produced with 258 illustrations, around the year 1525,1535, so a good 500 years after the composition of the text. - [Steven] Shahnameh means The Book of Kings, and it is literally a mytho-history of the rulers of ancient Persia. - [Michael] "The Shahnameh" covers the reign of 50 kings. So frequently, scholars talk about the text as having three sections: the first being a mythical section, the second being a heroic section, and the third being a historical section. - [Steven] This volume would have been fabulously expensive to produce. It took decades. - [Michael] Entire departments or libraries of a king's court would have been funded and mobilized with teams of workers, artists of different specialties, from gilding to painting and drawing to using lapis to creating a binding, whole teams of artists brought together over many, many years to create a single manuscript. This particular manuscript is large. It's lavishly illustrated. There's lot of gold and really high-quality pigments used, and as you can see, you have the absolute height of artistry and draftsmanship coming together to create an incredibly gorgeous scene. - [Steven] The longer I look, the more I see. There are the three principal figures, but then there are an almost uncountable number of subsidiary figures, some that are so subtle that they're almost impossible to recognize. You also have animals. You have embedded figures in the stones thesmselves in a sort of playful way to engage your viewing of this. These pictures were meant to be lovingly contemplated. They were meant to draw you in. Here, we see the principal figure of Kayumars, the first king in the Persian tradition, and he's the one who brings civilization to the world. And so we see here a coming together of all different kinds of people who have just learned how to live in a civilized, harmonious way, and even the animals are seated side by side in absolute harmony. - [Steven] The king is seated at the mountaintop, and below him you can see a waterfall that I'm assuming was once bright silver spilling down into this lush landscape that's filled with vegetation, it's filled with animals, and it is like a paradise. - [Michael] That's right. It's a paradise, and it's a paradise on the brink of being lost, and this one of the great poignances of this painting. We believe that the figure that Kayumars is signaling toward is his son, who's about to be killed by the armies of the son of the devil. And we see this moment of coming together of humanity, of peace between peoples, but with the gesture of the king toward his son, who is about to be lost, we have the foretelling of imminent doom. It's a piece that hovers on the precipice of great drama. - [Steven] The verdant landscape is so rich, it's so fruitful, that it literally spills out of the frame of the image onto the page itself, and that page is not plain, but speckled with this wonderful, playful application of gold. - [Michael] With this mobilization of great artistic genius behind this piece, we have the gold-speckled borders, as well as this beautifully executed landscape, not just verdant greenery, but also multicolor rocks that spill out from beyond the inner margins. In doing that, it brings you into this world. And we have a real sense of a play with depth. We're not just looking at a flat series of elegantly applied colors. We're actually looking into a world. When I look at the clouds against that gold background, or the way some of those rock formations are delineated, I can't help but think about the great history of Chinese painting. - [Michael] For many centuries preceding the creation of this manuscript, there was really intensive interaction between East Asia and the Iranian world that was most prominently affected by the establishment of a Mongol empire that stretched across the entire expanse of Asia essentially. With that, you had an exchange of ideas, an exchange of visual forms, an exchange of techniques that get really digested into the Persian painting repertoire. - [Steven] And it's important to note that the script itself is its own art form and one that is prominent in art throughout the Islamic world. - [Michael] That's right. Calligraphy is really the highest form of art, traditionally, in the Islamic world, and that's because the word is itself central to Islam. - [Steven] But this is not religious text. This is secular text. This is about the history of Persia, and it's important to Iran as an expression of Iran's historical identity. - [Michael] That's right. "The Shahnameh" was composed at a time that historians call the Iranian Revival. It was at a moment after the Islamization of the Iranian world, when literature and language in Persian was being reinvigorated. And this particular text is actually a combination of a lot of different mini epics that were stitched together and versified by the poet Ferdowsi as an expression of this new revived consciousness of Iranianess at the turn of the 11th century. - [Steven] And then half a millennium later, there's an additional revival when the Safavids reestablished the unity of Persia. - [Michael] That's right. In 1501, you have the establishment of the Safavid Dynasty, and within a decade or two, you have the quick consolidation of all of the former territories of Iran, which had previously been quite atomized. With this reunification, you have the dominance, once again, of Persian literary forms. Also, the Safavids are quire well known for establishing Shiism as the state religion of Iran. It's an incredibly historical manuscript. The text, of course, is central to Iranian identity as the book of Iranian kingship, but also because this is one of the very few, if not the only, painting in the Persian tradition that is actually recorded and spoken about by a contemporary historian. A couple decades after this was produced, in the 1540s, a writer, Dust Muhammed, composed a preface to an album, and in that, he speaks about the painter, Sultan Mohammed, and he speaks about this painting in particular of Kayumars, with all of the figures dressed in leopard skins. And so it's a really important piece. We don't have a lot of paintings in the Persian tradition that are actually written about and historically recorded. So this is a very, very important individual piece, and it's a real treasure to have here in Toronto. (gentle music)