52 Weeks of Inspiring Illustrations, Week 19: the Shahnameh of Ferdowsi

A two-page spread from the St Andrews copy of Ferdowsi’s Shahnameh.

Within our small, but perfectly formed, collection of ‘oriental’ manuscripts, is a fine copy of the Shahnameh, an epic poem written by the Persian poet Ferdowsi between 977 and 1010AD. Based largely (but not entirely) on earlier prose works, the poem presents, on a massive scale, the history of Persia from mythical times to the conquest by the Arabs in the 7th century, and is of enormous importance in the canon of Persian literature.

The slaughtering of a mythical beast from the St Andrews copy of Ferdowsi’s Shahnameh.

Our manuscript, which was written in 1605, is an excellent example of the text. Finely written and decorated, it is also profusely illustrated. Some of them are relatively formulaic battle scenes which bear close similarity to each other; others show the slaughter of mythical beasts; but some are less commonplace, and depict more lifelike scenes. One even appears to show a birth by caesarean section.

An example of an illustration being placed over existing text, from theShahnameh.

Interestingly, the illustrations appear to be later additions to the manuscript. They have been superimposed over portions of the text, the missing sections of which have been meticulously replaced in the margins. Stylistic evidence suggests that the illustrations have been executed in India. When this might have happened we do not know, but it is clear evidence that the manuscript has travelled widely before it ended up in St Andrews. The lavish nature of the manuscript, and the effort which has been made with both illustration and text, prove that this is a high-status copy of the work.

An execution scene from the St Andrews copy of Ferdowsi’s Shahnameh.

In 2011, following the recommendations of an earlier survey of the Oriental Collection, we commissioned significant conservation work on this manuscript, with the assistance of a grant from the Scottish Council on Archives. The work was carried out by Helen Loveday, a specialist in oriental paper conservation, who removed and replaced its rather tired (probably 19th century) velvet-covered binding, replaced some old paper repairs with more appropriate modern treatments, repaired worm-holes and other paper damage, separated and cleaned some pages with illuminated borders which showed a tendency to stick together,  and consolidated the illustrations where pigments were loose or lifting. The result is a spectacular restoration of a fascinating manuscript, which fully justifies its place in our roll-call of ‘inspiring illustrations’.

NR

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