Sussan Babaie: Looking at Persian Painting

Sussan Babaie

Professor Sussan Babaie explores the rich effects of a painting from an illustrated manuscript of the Shahnameh — or ‘Book of Kings’ — the national epic of Iran composed by poet Firdawsi around 1010. But what is so important about this painting?

The artwork has been attributed to the Persian painter Sultan Muhammad, a skilled master at the atelier of the Aqqoyunlu Turkmen in Tabriz. It depicts the hero of the Shahnameh, Rostam, resting unbeknownst that danger lurks nearby… Babaie unpacks the painterly ideas at play in depicting this dramatic moment.

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It’s a story related to an epic poem by the poet Firdawsi. He’s an early 11th poet – 10th century poet, who wrote what is understood to be a national epic of Iran. It basically captures the histories of pre-Islamic Iran though this incredibly moving set of stories that are composed in this epic poem. And they are always extremely theatrical.

What is so important about this painting, which comes alone? It’s a page of a manuscript of the Shahnameh, that is detached and so it has made its way into the British Museum collection, but we don’t have the rest of that manuscript.

It depicts the hero of the Shahnameh, Rostam, while he’s asleep in the middle of a lush forest. And whilst he’s asleep, a lion approaches him, and his horse — his beloved horse Rakhsh — protects him from the attacking lion.

The important thing about this particular painting — and I only want to focus on the spatial arrangement — is that this is a dramatic moment, and it’s depicted as if it’s frozen in time. The lush, forested area is depicted on the picture plane tilted up, so we see Rostam whilst he’s asleep on a bed, or on a cloth. He’s supposed to be seen not in full figure. But that tilting of Rostam against this background, and the silhouetting of the horse Rakhsh and the lion in battle at this other part of the painting — all of this allows you to read visually, see and capture the key aspects of the story, and recall in your mind the whole poem that relates to this. And the drama of that poem is actually aided by the way the painting depicts this incredibly busy forest. You have all kinds of things happening there. There’s a snake. There are birds and animals. And so this richness of contrasted and juxtaposed patterns of all kinds create an opportunity for the eye to roam, and to pick and choose, and think and reconstruct, and even recall the poem. The poems of Firdawsi, this epic poem, were meant to be recited. And, in fact, children in Iran are taught to memorise these poems and recite them. And the whole idea is that you’re reciting it out loud in a dramatic manner and the painting helps to visualise what you’re reciting. And it does so by this particular selection of how to juxtapose rich dense patterns next to one another. It doesn’t describe, it evokes in other words. And that’s a key aspect of thinking about how we look at Persian painting.


Painting; manuscript page (detached illustrated folio) from the epic Shahnameh of Firdausi

Sultan Muhammad, 1515-1522

Tabriz school

Safavid dynasty

Museum number 1948,1211,0.23

© The Trustees of the British Museum

Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International (CC BY-NC-SA 4.0)




Blue Dot Sessions, 2017


Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International (CC BY-NC-SA 4.0)

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