an illuminated and gilded manuscript of Ferdowsī’s Šāh-nāma measur­ing 26.5 × 38 cm, containing 346 pages and twenty-one paintings, written in nastaʿlīq, and kept in the former Royal Library (Golestan Palace Museum, no. 6) in Tehran. i. The manuscript.  ii. The paintings.


BĀYSONḠORĪ ŠĀH-NĀMA, an illuminated and gilded manuscript of Ferdowsī’s Šāh-nāma measur­ing 26.5 x 38 cm, containing 346 pages and twenty-one paintings, written in nastaʿlīq, and kept in the former Royal Library (Golestan Palace Museum, no. 6) in Tehran.

i. The manuscript.

ii. The paintings.

i. The Manuscript

The Bāysonḡorī Šāh-nāma manuscript was commissioned by the Timurid prince Ḡīāṯ-al-Dīn Bāysonḡor b. Šāhroḵ (d. 837/1433) in 829/1426 and was completed on 5 Jomādā 1833/30 January 1430. Accord­ing to page nine of the introduction, the Bāysonḡorī manuscript was not copied from one manuscript, but was prepared by comparing several copies of the Šāh-nāma. The purpose of this comparison was not to achieve greater fidelity to Ferdowsī’s original and to prune spurious verses; rather it was to modernize the language of the text and to add verses to it. The resulting manuscript is thus one of the most voluminous of all Šāh-nāma manuscripts, with more than 58,000 verses. The introduction is likewise full of accretions about the epic and its author in which even known historical figures are misidentified. For example, Abū Manṣūr ʿAbd-al-Razzāq (d. 350/961) is said to have been a contemporary of Yaʿqūb b. Layṯ (d. 265/879). Despite these inadequacies, the Bāysonḡorī manuscript and its introduction have served as the basis of many subsequent manuscripts (Plate I).

The value of the manuscript lies not in its text but in the artistry that went into its production. It was under Bāysonḡor, himself a connoisseur and a capable calligrapher (a sample of whose hand has survived in an inscription over a door and in an archway in Mašhad’s Gowharšād mosque), that the Herat school of painting, the third important school of painting in medieval Iran (after those of Tabrīz and Shiraz), came into being. The Bāysonḡorī manuscript was one of the most important works of this school. The manuscript’s illuminations, full and half-page miniatures, contain accurate depic­tions of a variety of animals, and, true to the general style of the Herat school, realistic scenes of palaces, their decorations, glazed tile work, and architecture, placed in imaginary landscapes. The use of colors, especially shades of red, green, brown, gold, sienna, black, white, and various blues, is particularly skillful. The first and the last pages of the introduction to the work as well as the opening and the final pages of the text have been set off by strikingly beautiful margins; a large decorative medallion containing the name and title of the book’s owner appears on one page of the double-page frontispiece. Each page is ruled into six columns and has thirty-one lines; the inside rulings are set off by gold inking. Surrounding the headings and on some pages, e.g., those on which verses are written in cruciform fashion, there is floral ornamentation in gold; a great deal of gold has also been used in the manuscript’s miniatures (for a detailed description of the decorative aspects of the work, see ʿA. Ḥabībī, Honar-e ʿahd-e Tīmūrīān, Tehran, 2535 = 1355 Š./1976, pp. 449-80). But for the name of the scribe, Mawlānā Jaʿfar Bāysonḡorī, which appears at the end of the manuscript, nothing is known from the work itself about the other craftsmen who collaborated on it; however, from a note by this same scribe, we know that the miniatures were executed by Mulla ʿAlī and Amīr Ḵalīl and the binding done by Mawlānā Qīām-al-­Dīn (ibid., p. 451). In its book craftsmanship, gilding, miniature work, calligraphy, and binding the Bāysonḡorī Šāh-nāma is second only to the Ṭahmāsbī Šāh-nāma, famous as the Houghton Šāh-nāma. The manu­script was published in a facsimile edition in Tehran on the occasion of the 1350 Š./1971 celebration of the 2500­-year anniversary of the founding of Iranian monarchy.

Bibliography: Given in the text.

(Dj. Khaleghi Motlagh)


ii. The Paintings

Of the three great extant royal Šāh-nāmas—the others being the Il-khanid (“Demotte”) version of ca. 1335 and the so-called Houghton Šāh-nāma done for the Safavid Shah Ṭahmasb (r. 930-84/1524-76) in ca. 929-42/1522-35—the Bāysonḡorī manuscript is perhaps the most calculated in its formal presentation. Its twenty-one paintings (one a double-page frontispiece) represent a particularly intense crystallization of early Timurid notions of pictorial creativity within the con­text of a book, and its adroit exploitation of past artistic traditions eloquently underscores the evolution of the dynasty’s ruling ideology twenty-five years after its founder’s death. It was copied at Herat on 5 Jomādā 1833/30 January 1430 by Mawlānā Jaʿfar Bāysonḡorī, the Tabrīzi calligrapher who appears to have also served as the prince’s chief librarian. It is unlikely that this copy is the original manuscript of the new text prepared for the prince (see above); an unillustrated version done for the prince in 833/1430 is also known (Malek Library, Tehran, no. 6031), and, while reports of earlier il­lustrated Bāysonḡorī copies have occasionally surfaced (Binyon et al., p. 69; Gray, pp. 85-88), the Golestān Palace manuscript remains the only known illustrated version. In reality a distorted hybrid, the Bāysonḡorī Šāh-nāma’s textual codification nevertheless achieved authority as the canonical recension, partly due to the cultural prestige of the prince’s court, and this revisionist impulse is mirrored in the manuscript’s illustrative program. Enhanced by jewel-like illumination that provides a glittering framework reminiscent of enameled metalwork, the visual tone of the book is set by a splendid frontispiece of a royal hunt; the seamless formal qualities of this terse, stylized orchestration of hunters, courtiers, attendants, and musicians are char­acteristic of the remaining illustrations: precise draughts­manship, compositional clarity, and a sophisticated, frequently daring, use of color. Included in the upper right corner of the composition is a mounted royal figure under a parasol generally accepted as an idealized “portrait” of Bāysonḡor himself; similar figures have been identified in other manuscripts executed for the prince (Robinson, pp. 386-87).

Apart from the frontispiece and the addition of an illustration to the preface (Ferdowsī and the poets of Ḡazna), the text proper contains only nineteen illustrations, a dramatic contraction in the rate of illustration for royal copies of the epic; the great Il-khanid and Safavid versions yield an estimated 180 and 258 illustrations respectively. Stylistically, the paintings represent the culmination of a process first apparent in the prince’s copy of Saʿdī’s Golestān (830/1426-27; Chester Beatty Library, Dublin, p. 119) and carried through to one of his two copies of Kalīla wa Demna (833/1429; Topkapi Saray Library, Istanbul, R. 1022); traditional vocabulary, drawn in large part from earlier west Iranian book painting, namely Jalayerid manu­scripts as well as those done for Bāysonḡor’s cousin Eskandar Mīrzā at Shiraz, is maintained, but it is now given perceptibly greater clarity, precision, and balance. While elements of scientific perspective, i.e., fore­shortening, are in evidence (The murder of Sīāvoš, Esfandīār slays Arjāsp), they are subordinated to an emphasis on design in two dimensions. Earlier conven­tions are not so much changed as they are distilled into brilliant refinements that approximate surface pattern, and within this context color, here achieving a breath­taking degree of quality and purity, assumes a powerful new importance as a spatial and compositional device.

Apart from richness of materials and refinements of technique, it is the structural nature of the illustrations—the implementation and repetition of both compositional formulae and components—that explains the book’s particular visual resonance. Wildly imaginative compositions (e.g., Esfandīār slays Arjāsp) are not absent, but many of the manuscript’s illustrations comprise figural motifs and even architecture duplicated and modified from the stock reserve of the prince’s earlier work; the frontispiece, for example, includes among its constituent parts sections of paint­ings from Bāysonḡor’s 831/1427-28 Homāy o Homāyūn (Nationalbibliothek, Vienna, N.F. 382) and the 830/1426-27 Berenson Anthology (I Tatti, Florence, Berenson Collection). The copying process is operative internally as well; three scenes—“Jamšīd teaching the crafts,” “Kay Kāvūs listening to the minstrel Dīv,” and “the presentation of Bahrām Gōr to Monḏer”—are virtually duplicates of one another in their enthrone­ments. Both entire compositions and specific figural components, most likely preliminary works or con­temporary copies, have survived among a group of Timurid drawings preserved in albums in Istanbul and Berlin, many of them with pricked outlines for transfer: frontispiece (Topkapi Saray Library, H. 2152, fol. 45a); “Esfandīār slays Arjāsp” (Topkapi Saray Library, H. 2152, fol. 93a); “Jamšīd teaching the crafts” (Staatsbibliothek, Diez A, fol. 73, S. 77, no. 1); “the murder of Sīāvoš” (Topkapi Saray Library, H. 2152, fol. 62b); “Rostam lassoes the Khagan of China” (Staatsbibliothek, Diez A, fol. 73, S. 57.6 and 76.1; Topkapi Saray Library, H. 2152, fol. 87b). In addition, a remarkable workshop document of about 830/1427 (Topkapi Saray Library, H. 2153, fol. 98a), addressed to Bāysonḡor from Jaʿfar Bāysonḡorī, may well include the Golestān Palace Šāh-nāma among the listing of works in progress, and its details shed further light on the structure and creative process of a royal Timurid library (Ozergin),

Nowhere, however, is the distinctive nature of the Timurid transformation of the past more apparent than in the manuscript’s nearly exact duplication of three late 8th/14th-century Šāh-nāma paintings, most likely Jalayerid, now preserved in Istanbul (Atasoy, figs. 20, 21, 27). What were earlier perceived as powerful and dramatic evocations of the epic have been reduced to a uniform, stylized mime that is artificial and theatrical in effect and a brilliant visual celebration of royal splendor. Of the known remaining royal Timurid Šāh-nāma manuscripts or fragments—a ca. 838/1435 copy executed at Shiraz for Bāysonḡor’s brother Ebrāhīm Solṭān b. Šāhroḵ (Bodleian Library, Oxford University, MS Ouseley Add. 176), a ca. 838/1435 detached minia­ture (Tahmīna enters Rostam’s chamber) from a lost Šāh-nāma probably copied at Herat for Bāysonḡor’s son ʿAlāʾ-al-Dawla (Harvard University Art Museums, 1939.225), and a ca. 843/1440 Šāh-nāma done for Bāysonḡor’s brother Moḥammad Jūkī b. Šāhroḵ, then governor at Balḵ (Royal Asiatic Society, London, MS 239)—none approaches the Bāysonḡorī copy’s brilliant imperial facade. The distinctive artificiality of the manuscripts’ illustrations, with their tenuous links to physical reality, stands as a remarkably inventive embodiment of Timurid cultural aspirations. It can be viewed as a specific reaction in the wake of Tīmūr’s death in 807/1405 to the new cultural demands facing Šāhroḵ and his sons, a Turkic military elite no longer deriving their power and influence solely from a charis­matic steppe leader with a carefully cultivated linkage to Mongol aristocracy. Now centered in Khorasan, the ruling house regarded the increased assimilation and patronage of Persian culture as an integral component of efforts to secure the legitimacy and authority of the dynasty within the context of the Islamic Iranian monarchical tradition, and the Bāysonḡorī Šāh-nāma, as much a precious object as it is a manuscript to be read, powerfully symbolizes the Timurid conception of their own place in that tradition. A valuable documen­tary source for Timurid decorative arts that have all but disappeared for the period, the manuscript still awaits a comprehensive monographic study.



A complete pictorial record of the manuscript’s illustrations can be found in An Album of Miniatures and Illuminations from the Baysonghori Manuscript of the Shahnameh of Ferdowsi dated 833 A.H./1430 A.D. and Preserved in the Imperial Library, Central Council of the Celebration of the 2500th Anniversary of the Founding of the Persian Empire, Tehran, 1350 Š./1971.

N. Atasoy, “Four Istanbul Albums and Some Fragments from Fourteenth Century Shah-Namehs,” Ars Orientalis 8, 1970, pp. 19-48.

L. Binyon et al., Persian Miniature Paint­ing, London, 1933, pp. 69-71.

B. Gray, Persian Paint­ing, Geneva, 1961, pp. 85-88.

E. Grube and E. Sims, “The School of Herat from 1400 to 1450,” The Arts of the Book in Central Asia, ed. B. Gray, Paris, 1979, p. 158.

M. K. Ozergin, “Temerlu sanatına ait eski bir belge. Tebrizli Ca’fer’in bir arzı,” Sanat tarihi yıllığı 6, 1976, pp. 471-518.

B. W. Robinson, “Prince Baysonghor’s Nizami: A Speculation,” Ars Orientalis 2, 1957, pp. 383-91.

I. Stchoukine, Les peintures des manuscrits timurides, Paris, 1954, pp. 53-54.

(T. Lentz)

(Dj. Khaleghi Motlagh, T. Lentz)

Originally Published: December 15, 1989

Last Updated: December 15, 1989

This article is available in print.
Vol. IV, Fasc. 1, pp. 9-11