Epic of the Persian Kings: The Art of Ferdowsi’s Shahnameh at Fitzwilliam Museum, Cambridge

By Ben Miller | 07 September 2010
The Fire Ordeal of Siyavosh burns brightly at the Fitzwilliam this week© The Fitzwilliam Museum
Exhibition: Epic of the Persian Kings: The Art of Ferdowsi’s Shahnameh, Fitzwilliam Museum, Cambridge, September 11 2010 – January 9 2011

A thousand years ago, the Persian Book of Kings was presented to the world.

Completed by the poet Ferdowsi as a vast work telling the Iranian history of the world, the exquisite epic has inspired countless lavishly illustrated manuscripts since, mixing traditional Royal history with the mythical and supernatural on a journey recounting everything from the creation of the world to the rise and fall of convoluted empires.

It is twice as long as the Iliad and Odyssey and, with a 35-year production cycle, is the longest poem ever written by one author. Hardly surprising, then, that the Fitzwilliam’s compilation of almost 100 paintings from the 800-year narrative are described as a “comprehensive” dynasty of Kings, heroes, dragons and demons.

A photo of a biblical figure riding a horse through a sea
Faridun crosses Tigris to challenge Zahhak© The Fitzwilliam Museum
“Ferdowsi’s Shahnameh has been the wellspring of Persian culture for the past thousand years,” says museum director Timothy Potts, who calls it “the pre-eminent compendium of legend and knowledge about Iran’s past”.

“It is the handbook to good kingship and heroic valour and, above all, the encapsulation of what it is to be authentically Persian. It is also about what Persia is not. Ferdowsi lived nearly four centuries after the coming of Islam, yet he limits his chronicle to the pre-Islamic past and purges his language of Arabic and other extraneous influences, seeing the Arab conquest as a disaster for the culture of his homeland.

“His poem was to be a paean to a Persian past that struggled to maintain itself against Arab, Turkish and other peoples and ways of life.”

Railing against the culture of the time, Ferdowsi’s words were initially greeted with hostility, but by the 13th century their influence had started to spiral. “Other cultures have their literary icons – Homer for the ancient Greeks, Shakespeare for the English, Dante for the Italians,” suggests Potts. “But none of these exercised quite the defining influence on so many levels of culture and identity up to the present day as the Shahnameh did for the Persians.”

A photo of a helmet
A distinctive vegetal North Indian helmet ornament, made by overlaying gold wire onto a cross-hatched steel surface, arrives from 19th century North India© The Fitzwilliam Museum
The miniature paintings were made by Persian, Arab, Turkic, Mongol, Kurdish, Indian and other courts, using them as symbols of power. European high-flyers soon followed suit, providing plenty of material for academics at Cambridge University, who is aiming to produce a corpus of the illustrations.

Charles Melville, an expert in Persian History from the university, suggested the exhibition to Dr Stella Panayotova, the Fitzwilliam’s Keeper of Manuscripts and printed books. “She had little trouble persuading us of the appropriateness of celebrating Ferdowsi’s millennium in the university that has done so much to further understanding of his achievement,” admits Potts.

Melville is praised by the director for bringing “unrelenting energy and enthusiasm” to the project, as well as persuading a stellar cast including the British Library and the British Museum to contribute manuscripts. “We are grateful that so many of these owners have allowed their works to join the ones here in Cambridge,” says Potts.

“It has made for an exhibition far grander and more important than would usually be possible – one that does full justice to Ferdowsi’s legacy.”

See Culture24 later this week for a Curator's Choice special on Epic of the Persian Kings with Dr Stella Panayotova.
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