© The Aga Khan Museum
© The Aga Khan Museum
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This enthronement scene AKM29 (folio 26 recto) falls in the middle of a rare tale from the Shahnameh, an epic poem completed by Firdausi in 1010. Firdausi’s poem spans the reign of 50 monarchs, recounting the story of Iran from mythical times through to the arrival of the Muslim Arabs in the 7th century AD. The tale of youthful romance captured in this folio occurs during the reign of the legendary Iranian king Manuchihr. The two lovers are Zal, the brave and handsome scion of a noble clan from the region of Sistan in eastern Iran, and Rudaba, the beautiful daughter of Mihrab, king of the neighbouring tribute territory of Kabul and a descendant of the evil tyrant Zahhak who once held sway over Iran.
During a hunting expedition Zal and his companions rode from Sistan to Kabul, where they were warmly welcomed by Mihrab. One of the ruler’s courtier’s remarked that he had a daughter named Rudaba, who was “lovelier than the sun,” and Zal immediately fell in love with the young woman’s description. Upon returning to his palace, Mihrab described Zal as a fine gentleman and a mighty warrior, whereupon Rudaba was likewise immediately smitten.
One evening Rudaba sent a servant to guide Zal to her castle. She greeted her suitor by letting down her long dark hair, similar to Rapunzel in the Brothers Grimm fairy tale, so that Zal could use it as a rope to scale the walls. After he climbed up to the rooftop, the two lovers passionately embraced.
The lovers’ fathers, as well as the Iranian king Manuchihr, vehemently opposed any match that would join a member of Iran’s nobility to a descendant of the evil Zahhak. This parental and royal opposition led to protracted discussions and meetings, letters of entreaty, gift exchanges, tests of Zal’s wisdom and physical prowess, and auguries cast by court astrologers, until the love-struck couple was finally permitted to wed.
Many volumes of the Shahnameh, including the one dated 1341 to which this folio belongs, illustrate the fateful moment when Zal and Rudaba first meet and fall madly in love. Few depict the moment captured here: when Manuchihr learns that Zal is engaged to marry Mihrab’s daughter. The king is shown seated on his throne and holding an animal-headed mace (a symbol of legendary Iranian royalty). He turns to address his priests and nobles in attendance on every side. All agree that Zal’s father Sam should be summoned to court for a consultation about how to end the ill-advised affair between Zal and Rudaba.
As in other enthronement scenes in the 1341 Shahnama, the picture plane for this composition is relatively small and stepped upwards in the centre, allowing Manuchihr to be seated higher than the flanking courtiers. Despite its compact size, the unknown artist of this painting managed to fit a total of ten figures, including a pair of attendants behind the throne, into the scene.
— Marianna Shreve Simpson
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