Illustration in the Shāhnāma tradition (Persian) Lesson 24 - Prof. dr. Gabrielle van den Berg

The Shāhnāma or Book of Kings by Manṣūr Abū al-Qāsim Firdawsī Ṭūsī narrates the legendary history of the kings of the world and of Iran, in about 50.000 verses. It starts with the first king on earth, the mythical Pīshdādī king Gayūmarth, and ends with the last Sasanian king Yazdigird III, who was defeated by the Arabs in the middle of the seventh century.

Thousands of manuscript copies of the Shāhnāma were made. Notaby from the fourteenth century onwards, we witness a steep rise in the production of Shāhnāma manuscripts. It coincides with the rise of Turco-Mongol dynasties in West and Central Asia, who generously patronized Persian literature, historiography and art. For these rulers, both the content of the Shāhnāma and its vehicle, the often richly illuminated and illustrated manuscript, served as a confirmation of their royal claims. By commissioning manuscripts, they had themselves written into the Shāhnāma tradition, for example via extensive dedications or via paintings depicting them.

The illustrators of such expensive manuscripts were professional painters who worked according to certain rules with regard to the structure of the Shahnama. The Shahnama Project found, for instance, that they kept to fixed "breaklines" in the text: certain verses signalled the place for an illustration. Colour was also used to structure the text and help the reader find his bearings.

About this manuscript

Title: Shāhnāma

Classmark: Or. 494

Author: Manṣūr Abū al-Qāsim Firdawsī Ṭūsī

Copyist: ʿImād al-Dīn ʿAbd al-Raḥmān al-Kātib

Format: Codex

Date of creation: 15 Ramaḍān 840/ 24 March 1437

Language(s): Persian

Script: Nastaʿlīq

On folio 1a we find a medallion-shaped ornament, a so-called shamsa. Folio 1b has an illuminated heading (ʿunwān) followed by the prose preface of Abū Manṣūr (ff 1b-7a), the tenth-century author of a now lost prose Shāhnāma. This so-called ‘older’ preface often features in manuscript copies of Firdawsī’s Shāhnāma.

This prose preface is followed by a double-page illustrated frontispiece (ff 7b-8a), showing a princely reception in a garden.

Folios 8b and 9a are illuminated pages (sarlawḥ); the opening verses of the Shāhnāma on these illuminated pages are framed by verses ascribed to Ibn Yamīn.


The top and the bottom of each illuminated page contains a hemistich (miṣrāʿ) written in gold letters, in a white oval form placed in a blue floral border with accents of red, white and gold. The opening verses are written in black against a white background and surrounded by cloud-shaped brown-golden lines.

These illuminated pages count eleven verses or distichs (bayts) in two columns; one hemistich or miṣrāʿ per column. In the following folios the text is divided over four columns, with 25 lines - amounting to 50 bayts - per folio.

Apart from the double page illustrated frontispiece, the manuscript contains 18 illustrations (ff 11b, 24b, 49a, 67a, 89b, 114a, 133b, 151b, 180a, 204a, 240b, 259a, 268b, 296a, 318a, 354a, 385a, 419b). These are not full-page illustrations, but typically take up half a page in a stepped form, often exceeding the margins of the text block. Eight illustrations have been subject to repainting.

More about this manuscript: Lesson 18 and 53

Further reading
Farhad Mehran. Mapping Illustrated Folios of Shahnama Manuscripts: The Concept and Its Uses. In: Shahnama Studies II. The Reception of the Shahnama. Edited by Charles Melville and Gabrielle van den Berg. Leiden & Boston: Brill, 2012, 235-266.

Marianna Shreve Simpson, Šāh-nāma (iv). Illustrations. In: Encyclopaedia Iranica Online.


  1. A number of the illustrations have been repainted. Which ones and how do you think they can be recognized?

  2. What colour is the ink used in the rubrics? What would this indicate? A regular text page in this manuscript has four columns and 25 lines. How do rubrics affect this structure?

  3. The champion Rustam features in six of the eighteen paintings of Or. 494. What strikes you in the way he has been depicted in these six paintings?

  4. Compare the illustrations in the Leiden manuscript with illustrations in some of the manuscripts in the Shāhnāma Project Database. What can you say about the sequence of illustrations in the Leiden manuscript in the viewer?