Farhad carving Shirin's portrait

Photo: Paul Macapia

Farhad carving Shirin's portrait

probably 18th century

An obstacle to the happiness of the star-crossed lovers Khusrau and Shirin was Farhad, a stonemason, who upon seeing the beautiful Shirin from afar fell in love with her. The news of his love reached Khusrau, by now married to Shirin, and he decided to test Farhad's love with an impossible task: he promised Farhad he could have Shirin if he could tunnel a path through Mount Bisitun to bring milk for Shirin's bath.

Farhad undertook the task with great zeal and alarmed Khusrau when he came close to completing it. Khusrau crushed Farhad's hopes of winning the love of the princess by telling him that Shirin was dead. Devastated and heartbroken, Farhad plunged his own axe into his head and died.

Before Farhad undertook the challenge to tunnel through Mount Bisitun, he carved a portrait of his beloved. In one version of the tale he actually carved her likeness into the mountain so that he could see her face every day. In this image, however, he creates a freestanding portrait of Shirin, working intently in a garden setting, with his stone-carving tools scattered on the ground around him. This image probably does not reflect artistic practice in an accurate way. The scene's composition, however, helps to emphasize the physical closeness of the sculptor to the object of his devotion, and the care and attention to detail lavished on the portrait serve as a substitute for Farhad's unattainable love.
Opaque watercolor, ink and gold on paper
6 1/4 x 3 1/2 in. (15.8 x 8.9 cm)
Eugene Fuller Memorial Collection
Provenance: Purchased from David Benzaria, New York, New York, January 5, 1940
Photo: Paul Macapia
Not currently on view

Art and Literature

Islamic writers in the Middle Ages and early modern period (ninth to nineteenth centuries) practiced a number of prose genres—history, biography, and travelogue among them—but poetry in the Persian language was considered the highest form of literary accomplishment. Persian was the language of high culture in the Islamic world, and many royal courts used Persian as their official language. Poetry was associated with venerable Arabian oral traditions as well as the poetic quality of the Qur'an, and mastery of this genre in Persian or Arabic required extensive knowledge of languages and texts. Poets were important members of royal courts, holding much higher positions than painters, for example. In the relationship between art and literature in the Islamic world, the word always took precedence over the image. Only in the modern period do visual artists achieve the same level of fame and fortune as their literary counterparts.

In Islamic manuscripts, images serve mainly to illustrate the texts provided, which does not mean that the images were not enjoyed as artistic creations themselves or that the work of painters was completely derivative. This situation simply indicates the working conditions painters faced in the Islamic world. As an adornment to the excellence of Persian poetry, Persian painting achieved great fame in the visual arts. And like poetry, Persian painting was exported across Islamic lands, with famous poets and painters collaborating to create luxurious, lavishly illustrated literary manuscripts.
Miniature: Line Drawing of Artist at Work, ca. 1600, Persian, 62.205

Lyric Romanticism

Poetry was the highest form of literary achievement in medieval and early modern Persia, and the fame of Persian poets spread throughout the Islamic world. Authors such as Nizami, Jami, Sa'di, Hafiz and Rumi generally composed poetic works in rhyming couplets, or masnavis, and published them in anthologies or collections of texts. One of the most beloved of these anthologies was the Khamsa (Quintet) of Nizami. Although the Shahnama (Book of Kings) was considered the greatest work of epic Persian poetry, the Khamsa was the most popular example of Persian love poetry. The variety of illustrations of Nizami's stories point to the enduring popularity of the Khamsa  in the Islamic world.

Indeed, the stories in the Khamsa lend themselves to illustration. They combine didactic works (Makhzan al-Asrar, or Treasury of Secrets, and the Haft Paykar, or Seven Portraits), love stories (Layla and Majnun, Khusrau and Shirin) and heroic tales (Iskandarnama), several of which feature subjects from the Shahnama as their protagonists. Nizami's greatest originality resides in his complicated and tragic love stories, where love is to be understood on literal, physical, metaphorical and spiritual levels.
Khosrow Discovers Shirin at her Bath, mid 16th Century, Northern Iranian, Shiraz School, 50.69

Art for the Palace/Tent

Secular Islamic manuscripts feature a variety of themes—some of them fantastic and mythical—illustrating popular literary and poetic works. Other manuscripts represent the lives and daily activities of the people who commissioned them—royal and elite patrons who populated the court in the fifteenth to the eighteenth centuries.

The imagery in these secular Islamic manuscripts mirrors the lives of people in the upper levels of society and depicts their favorite pastimes. The images display a high degree of fantasy: court figures and rulers are represented in an ideal form, as they wished to be seen rather than the way they actually were. A certain tension exists between the real and the imaginary. One cannot be truly certain if what one sees is historically accurate.
The Alhambra, Grenada, Spain
Photo: Jaron Berman

Related Objects in SAM's Collection

Photo: Paul Macapia
Farhad carving Shirin's portrait, probably 18th century, Persian, 40.37
Photo: Paul Macapia
Khosrow Discovers Shirin at her Bath, mid-16th century, Northern Iranian, Shiraz School, 50.69
Princess from Turkestan before Bahram, 16th century, Persian, 47.16


Karen Mathews, Assistant Professor of Art History, University of Miami, on Farhad and Shirin


Exhibition HistorySeattle, Washington, Seattle Asian Art Museum, Boundless: Stories of Asian Art, Feb. 8, 2020 - ongoing [on view July 16 - Dec. 5, 2021].

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