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

Monday 29 October 2012
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.

A battle scene from the St Andrews copy of Ferdowsi’s Shahnameh.
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.

A rescue scene from the St Andrews copy of Ferdowsi’s Shahnameh.
A hunting scene from the St Andrews copy of Ferdowsi’s Shahnameh.
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.

A birthing scene from the St Andrews copy of Ferdowsi’s Shahnameh.
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’.


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5 thoughts on "52 Weeks of Inspiring Illustrations, Week 19: the Shahnameh of Ferdowsi"

  • Peter Harding
    Peter Harding
    Friday 16 March 2018, 8.46pm

    Have you details of incidents the pictures refer to?

    • St Andrews Special Collections
      St Andrews Special Collections
      Monday 19 March 2018, 11.48am

      Dear Peter, thanks for your query. I have passed your question to our manuscripts archivist.

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  • Davy Clincart
    Davy Clincart
    Sunday 27 September 2020, 9.13pm

    It seems to me that Ferdowsi and the Shamaneh is a good example of a people's culture being the most powerful political tool in a people preserving their identity. Who would you suggest are current Scottish / Celtic Ferdowsi's or perhaps Omar Khayyam?


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