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Rare Folios from the Book of Kings Showcase Iran's Literary Masterpiece at the Sackler Gallery
The Bier of Iskandar(Alexander the Great)From a Shahnama(Book of Kings) by Firdawsi(d.1020), Tabriz, Iran. Il-Khanidperiod, circa 1330-1336. Opaque watercolor, ink and gold on paper. Freer Gallery of Art. Purchase F1938.3

WASHINGTON, DC.- Intricately detailed and sumptuously painted images of kings, heroes and mythological creatures from the Shahnama, Iran’s national epic and one of the world’s greatest literary masterpieces, is on view in “Shahnama: 1000 Years of the Persian Book of Kings” at the Sackler Gallery Oct. 23 – April 17, 2011. Completed in ca. 1010 by the poet Firdawsi, the Shahnama recounts the myths, legends and “history” of Iran from the beginning of time to the Arab conquest in the 7th century. The exhibition comprises 33 paintings and objects from the 14th to 16th centuries, including folios from two of the most celebrated copies of the Shahnama in existence.

“This exhibition celebrates the remarkable achievement of Firdawsi and the manuscript painting it has inspired over the last millennium,” said Massumeh Farhad, chief curator, curator of Islamic art and organizer of the exhibition. “In its cultural significance and popularity the Shahnama is on equal footing with the works of Shakespeare, Homer and the Mahabharata.”

The Shahnama is composed of some 50,000 verses, structured around the reign of 50 monarchs, which in turn serve as a frame for other stories, replete with colorful characters and supernatural beings. The stories explore epic themes, such as honor, loyalty, justice and fate through heroic battles, feats of bravery as well as human folly and hubris. The vivid poem draws on a wealth of oral and written sources, including the Avesta, the sacred text of the Zorastrian religion.

The exhibition includes several folios from a 14th-century copy of the Shahnama completed for the Mongol rulers of Iran, which is considered an artistic watershed in the history of Persian manuscript illustration because of its scale and highly original compositions. Also on display are folios from the most lavishly produced Shahnama manuscript in the Islamic world, a 16th-century copy commissioned by Shah Tahmasb (reigned 1524-76). Several silver and bronze vessels, produced in the sixth and seventh centuries under Sasanian patronage, are also included.

“Shahnama: 1000 Years of the Persian Book of Kings” is divided into three parts. After an introduction to principal themes of the epic and their ancient Iranian origins, the exhibition introduces major characters from the Shahnama’s mythical section such as the legendary hero Rustam, known as the protector of Iran, and his father, Zal. A highlight of this section is the painting The Court of Jamshid, that depicts the enthroned legendary monarch who introduced the arts, crafts, and sciences to Iran and thought that he was superior to all, even God. His hubris, however, cost him his life and throne. This remarkable illustration embodies the ideals of Persian manuscript painting with its emphasis on meticulously balanced compositions, jewel-like surfaces and superb draftsmanship.

The second section of the exhibition focuses primarily on Iskandar or Alexander, the Macedonian conqueror, who ushers in the quasi-historical section of the Shahnama. Although Alexander invaded Iran in 330 BCE, he is represented in Persian literature as a just, sage-like king. “The recasting of Alexander illustrates how effortlessly the epic transforms history to serve the interest of national myth and ideology” said Farhad.

The galleries will offer exhibition-related programming that includes a family-friendly performance of the legendary Persian tale “The Adventures of King Bahram, the Hunter” by Ardavan Mofid & Co. Oct. 17 at 2 p.m. On Dec. 4 from 2-5 p.m., the galleries will offer a two-part program: the renowned scholar and professor of Persian literature Dick Davis will speak on the role of women in the Shahnama, andAzar Nafisi, the best-selling author of Reading Lolita in Tehran, will discuss the lasting significance of Iran’s national epic.

Sackler Gallery | Massumeh Farhad | The Shahnama |

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