restricted access Shahnama: The Visual Language of the Persian Book of Kings (review)
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Shahnama: The Visual Language of the Persian Book of Kings. Ed. by Robert Hillenbrand. (VARIE Occasional Papers, 2.) Aldershot: Ashgate. 2004. xv + 185 pp. £55. ISBN 0 7546 3367 5.

The Shahnama or 'Book of Kings', the national epic poem of the Iranian people, has long been known in the West thanks to a number of translations and studies. But study of Firdawsi's great, and immensely long, Persian classic in the West has accelerated in an extraordinary way during the past two decades or so. This applies especially, though not only, to the study of the many illustrated manuscripts produced in the Persian-speaking world between the thirteenth and nineteenth centuries. The volume under review testifies to the quality and maturity of scholarship in this field. Based on the proceedings of a conference held at Edinburgh in 2001, it comprises twelve studies covering a wide range of subjects relating to the Shahnama and its iconography.

In summarizing the contents of the book one can scarcely avoid plagiarizing to some degree the work of the editor, for Hillenbrand's introductory chapter, 'New Perspectives in Shahnama Iconography', summarizes the content and significance of each contribution. The chapter also includes brief but suggestive excursus on a number of questions, such as the interrelation between the work of scribe and painter, the extent to which artists and patrons actually read the Shahnama, and the factors determining the choice of subjects illustrated. Next comes Shreve Simpson's 'Shahnama as Text and Shahnama as Image: A Brief Overview of Recent Studies, 1975–2000', which amply demonstrates the growth in Shahnama studies both literary and art-historical. Only eleven out of the dozens of works published in Persian are included here, however. While the need for concision is understood, a number of useful books are omitted, such as those by Zhila Nasiri on the major Shahnama codices of textual importance; by 'Ali Riza Mu'ayyid on simile and metaphor in Firdawsi; and by Hamza Vahdat on his poetic descriptions. All the same, Simpson has provided Shahnama specialists with a most helpful survey and bibliography.

Chapters 3–7 all focus on individual manuscripts of Firdawsi's epic. Jonathan Bloom's 'The Great Mongol Shahnama in the Qajar Period' investigates the manuscript's nineteenth-century restoration. This is followed by Sheila Blair's 'Rewriting the History of the Great Mongol Shahnama', an acute analysis of palaeographical and other evidence. In 'The St Petersburg Illustrated Shahnama of 733 Hijra (1333 AD) and the Injuid School of Painting', Adel' Adamova re-examines the subject of her and L. K. Guzal'ian's 1985 monograph; she demonstrates the manuscript's special importance in the history of Persian painting, and that artists illustrating the epics were not tied to a single standard repertory of subjects. Elaine Wright's 'Firdausi and More: A Timurid Anthology of Epic Tales' is an elegant piece of detective work revealing exactly how a volume of Shahnama-esque epic poems now shared between the British Library and the Chester Beatty Library was ingeniously [End Page 71] — and almost invisibly — thoroughly 'made over' for a new patron only two decades after its completion. Finally, in 'The Kevorkian-Kraus-Khalili Shahnama: The History, Codicology and Illustrations of a Sixteenth-Century Shirazi Manuscript', Tim Stanley not only describes this much-travelled codex and its vicissitudes over several centuries but also brings to light several special features, such as the placement of illustrations relative to the text.

Chapters 8–11 take us away from the domain of manuscripts and miniature paintings to works in other media, all firmly linked to Shahnama themes — or, to put it another way, to the mythic history of ancient Iran. In 'Characters out of Context: The Case of a Bowl in the Victoria and Albert Museum', Sylvia Auld proposes a new interpretation of the characters in the main frieze of a brass bowl, which can function as Shahnama characters, as emblems of royal pursuits, or as astrological images. Avinoam Shalem's 'Bahram Gur Woven with Silk: A Silk Fragment in the Diocesan Museum of St Afra in Augsburg and the Modes of Rendition of a Popular Theme' discusses a highly distinctive Iranian...