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Burzuy presents the book of kalilah wa dimnah to king nushirvan, illustrated
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Ink, gouache and gold on paper, text above and below in four columns of fine nasta`liq script in black ink on gold-sprinkled cream paper, double intercolumnar rules in gold; reverse with text in four columns of fine nasta`liq script with double intercolumnar rules in gold, one large illuminated panel with heading in white thuluth script, eight smaller triangular illuminated panels; wide margins of gold-flecked cream paper\nThe Shahnama manuscript made for Shah Tahmasp of Persia (1514-76, reigned 1524-76) is universally acknowledged as one of the supreme illustrated manuscripts of any period or culture and among the greatest works of art in the world. Probably no other Persian work of art, save architecture, has ever involved such enormous expense or taken so much artists’ time. No expense was spared, and the burnished paper, gold leaf, calligraphy, gilded leather binding and 258 large-scale illustrations occupied all the artists and artisans of the royal atelier for of twenty years, a period when Persian painting and calligraphy was at its absolute zenith.\nThe Shahnama, or ‘Book of Kings’, is the Persian national epic, telling the history and mythology of Persia from prehistoric times until the seventh century. The author, Firdausi, presented his epic poem of 30,000 couplets, the result of thirty-five years work, to Sultan Mahmud of Ghazna in 1010 AD. It quickly became a revered and popular text associated intricately with kings and princes, and a symbol of royal sovereignty.\nThe Shah Tahmasp Shahnama is thought to have been started by Tahmasp’s father, the first Safavid emperor Shah Isma`il (r.1502-24). By 1522, the probable date of the commissioning of this copy of the text, Shah Isma`il had completed his conquests and established his empire, and was devoting more time and energy to art and culture. Shah Isma`il died in 1524 and his son, Tahmasp, continued his father’s artistic projects, including this copy of the great Persian epic. The manuscript does not have a colophon, but the dedication states definitely that it was made for the library of Shah Tahmasp. One of the miniatures is dated 934 A.H./1527-8 A.D.\nThe provenance of this copy of the Shahnama is one of the most glittering of any manuscript. It was commissioned by one emperor, Shah Isma`il, completed by another Shah Tahmasp, gifted to a third, Sultan Selim II of the Ottoman Empire, and was later owned by one of the great bibliophilic families of the modern era, the Barons de Rothschild, whose Western manuscripts included such masterpieces as the Belles Heures of the Duc de Berry and the Hours of Catherine of Cleves. Its history is not without drama. During the Second World War the manuscript was taken from Paris by the Nazis as war loot and was later returned to Baron Maurice de Rothschild as a result of the restitution efforts of the Allied Command following the end of the war. The manuscript was acquired in 1957 by Arthur A Houghton Jr., the noted American bibliophile. The manuscript was disbound in order to exhibit the illustrated folios, but in 1971 seventy-six folios were transferred to the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York. Thereafter further folios were separated and offered on the market. In 1994 the text block, illumination, binding and remaining 118 miniatures were returned to Iran in a deft exchange for a Willem de Kooning painting.\nIn addition to those returned to Iran and the 78 in the Metropolitan Museum, there are illustrated folios from this manuscript in the Museum fur Islamische Kunst, Berlin, the David Collection, Copenhagen, the Freer Gallery of Art, Smithsonian Institution, Washington D.C., the Museum of Fine Arts, Richmond, Virginia, and the Los Angeles County Museum of Art.\nThe Episode Illustrated on Folio 649\nThe scene illustrated here shows the moment when Burzuy, after his travails and investigations in India, presents the finished book of the Fables of Kalilah wa Dimnah to King Nushirvan.\nThe story which leads up to this point relates how Burzuy, a wise and highly respected man of science and learning, had heard of a magical plant growing in the mountains of India, which, when applied as a salve to corpses, brought them back to life. This he related to King Nushirvan, and asked permission to travel to India to seek out this amazing herb. Nushirvan gave his blessing to the venture and sent Burzuy on his way with precious gifts and treasures for the Rajah of India. On arrival in India, and having presented his diplomatic gifts to the Rajah, Burzuy turned towards the mountains and set off on his quest. However, after many months of searching and testing every herb he could find, he had still not discovered the magical plant. Dispirited, and nervous about the potential displeasure of King Nushirvan, he was brought to a great and wise sage of advanced years. The sage told Burzuy that the object of his quest was not a plant, but a book of knowledge and wisdom called the Kalilah wa Dimnah. By reading the book a man without knowledge is brought to wisdom and understanding – the  lifeless man is revived. Thus Burzuy realised that the magical plant was a metaphor for the Kalilah wa Dimnah, and the story of the reviving corpses was symbolic of the power of science and learning.\nBurzuy returned to the Rajah’s palace and asked to be allowed to copy the Kalilah wa Dimnah, but the Rajah allowed him only to read it to himself. However, realising the importance of the wisdom contained in it, Burzuy read only as much every day as he could remember, and by night he would copy out what he had memorized. Every time he wrote to King Nushirvan he included a chapter of Kalilah wa Dimnah, so that eventually King Nushirvan wrote to him, saying “The sea of Knowledge has reached our shores”. Burzuy then departed for Iran and was received with great ceremony and praise by King Nushirvan, who told him “By virtue of your Kalilah, I feel my spirit revived and filled with life”. The king commissioned Buzurjmihr, the great sage of Iran, to translate the text into Pahlavi, and the resulting manuscript was kept in the royal treasury.\nThe symbolism of this scene has three levels. The first is the stated one concerning the magical plant and the book of Kalilah wa Dimnah, representing the power of science and learning. The second is the fact that the magical plant and the book of Kalilah wa Dimnah are to be found in India, a source of wisdom and knowledge throughout the ancient and mediaeval epochs. It is pertinent that this episode in the Shahnama follows immediately that of the arrival of the game of chess at the court of Nushirvan, also from India, sent as a gift and riddle from the Rajah of Hind to the same king of Persia. The third is that of the presentation of a treasured book of literature by an author to a King of Iran. In this we may see Firdausi creating a parallel to his own situation as a poet about to offer his own masterpiece of literature to a powerful Sultan, a literary self-portrait in a manner similar to that of later western artists who included themselves in group scenes. The episode of Burzuy comes near the end of the Shahnama, and the riches and approbation conferred on Burzuy by his king was perhaps a timely hint to a potential patron to reward Firdausi in a like manner. That Firdausi was to receive a dramatically different reward is ironic. When Firdausi finally presented his 30,000 couplets to Sultan Mahmud of Ghazna he was rewarded so meagrely that, in high dudgeon, he divided the coins between the bath-house attendant and a passing sherbet seller. A further irony is that Firdausi’s epic was to become a touchstone of Iranian literature, the text which, above all others, was to be revered by future kings as confirmation of their sovereignty, and in turn surpassing the fame and popularity of the Kalilah wa Dimnah.\nThis text of Kalilah wa Dimna, also known as the ‘Fables of Bidpai’, was based on a third century Sanskrit work, the Pancatantra. As its name implies, it was a set of five books, each a series of stories of practical wisdom and sagacious conduct, with an amoral tone, demonstrated by the animal characters such as the jackals, lion, bull, crows and so on. As well as Pahlavi, it was translated into Syriac, Arabic, Greek, Latin and Castilian by the thirteenth century, and was hugely influential on a wide variety of eastern and western literature.\nthe artist\nAqa Mirak was one of the leading royal artists of Shah Tahmasp’s reign and is thought to have been the director of the atelier during the later years of the production of this manuscript. Many of the illustrations in his crisp, clear style, with a vibrant palette and large figures, are to be found in the later pages of the Shahnama. Nevertheless, such was his reputation amongst his fellow artists and his patron that he was given the honour of painting the first illustration in this copy of the Shahnama, the scene of Firdausi and the Court Poets of Ghazna, on folio 7. He was a boon companion of Shah Tahmasp himself and contemporary sources indicate how highly he was regarded by his fellow artists. S.C. Welch gives a lengthy and perceptive account of Aqa Mirak in the first volume of the great two-volume publication with Martin Bernard Dickson, published in 1981 (pp.95-117). Therein we discover that Dust Muhammad, another of the artists of the royal atelier, describes Aqa Miraq thus:\n“the surety of the community of Sayyids, the genius of the age, the prodigy of our era…..the Heir to the Khans….among those privileged to approach the Shah….At the House of Painting he but picks up his brush and depicts for us pictures of unparalleled delight. As for likenesses - and where are their like? – as the farseeing view them, they are foremost in sight. God grant him his pictures and paintings! Good Lord! The glory of this painter! What God-given might!” (Dickson and Welch, Vol.I, p.95).\nSam Mirza, another of his contemporaries, describes him as “a genius of the age, as peerless in designing as in painting…..the guiding spirit of the corps [of artists].” (Dickson and Welch, Vol.I, p.95).\nFinally, Qutb al-Din, writing in 1556-7, describes him as “the peerless paragon…” and S.C. Welch explains that he was “the seal” of the Tabriz School of artists.\nAqa Mirak also contributed to the other great royal manuscript of Shah Tahmasp’s reign, the Khamsa of Nizami, now in the British Library (Or.2265). His career continued after the decline of Shah Tahmasp’s interest in painting in the 1550s, and he subsequently painted for Prince Ibrahim Mirza.\nThe principal works on the Shahnama of Shah Tahmasp and other royal manuscripts of the period are as follows:\nDickson, M.B., and Welch, S.C., The Houghton Shahnama, Cambridge (Harvard University Press), 2 Vol., 1981\nWelch, S.C. Royal Persian Manuscripts, London, 1976\nWelch, S.C., Wonders of the Age. Masterpieces of Early Safavid Painting, 1501-1576, Harvard, 1979\n\nOther publications relating to this miniature or to early Safavid Painting include:\nG.F.C.C. Répertoire des Biens Spoliés en France Durant la Guerre 1939-45, VII, p.34, no.398\nBernard O’Kane, Early Persian Painting, Kalila and Dimna Manuscripts of the Late Fourteenth Century, London, 2003\nFalk, T. (ed.), Treasures of Islam, Geneva, 1985\nThompson, J., and Canby, S. (eds.), Hunt For Paradise, Court Arts of Safavid Iran, 1501-1576, New York and Milan, 2003\nLevy, R., and Banani, A., The Epic of the Kings, Shah-Nama, the national epic of Persia by Ferdowsi, London, 1967
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dimensions

Miniature 27.6 by 25.7cm. leaf 47 by 31.8cm. text 28 by 18.5cm.

exhibition

Musée des arts decoratifs, Paris, 1903 Musée d’art et d’histoire, Geneva, 1985

literature

Dickson and Welch, vol.II, no.246 Geneva 1985, no.59

provenance

Commissioned for the Safavid Emperor Shah Tahmasp, circa 1525-40 Presented in 1568 by Shah Tahmasp to the Ottoman Sultan Selim II (reigned 1566-74) In the collection of Baron Edmund de Rothschild, 1903-1934 By Descent to Baron Maurice de Rothschild, 1934-1957 Taken as war loot by the Nazis from Paris, circa 1940 Returned to Baron de Rothschild, 1946-48 Arthur A Houghton Jr. 1958-1977


*Merci de noter que le prix n'est pas recalculé à la valeur actuelle, mais se rapporte au prix final réel au moment où l'objet a été vendu.

*Merci de noter que le prix n'est pas recalculé à la valeur actuelle, mais se rapporte au prix final réel au moment où l'objet a été vendu.


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