Khosrow Discovers Shirin at her Bath

Photo: Paul Macapia

Khosrow Discovers Shirin at her Bath

mid 16th century

One story based on historical figures from the Shahnama  is that of Khusrau and Shirin. Khusrau is a Sasanian king, and Shirin an Armenian princess whose beauty and virtue are famed far and wide. Khusrau is determined to find her, and his desire starts a chain of events that includes mistaken identity, betrayal and penitence and finally leads to the physical and spiritual union of the two lovers.

In one of the most often illustrated scenes from the Khusrau and Shirin romance, Khusrau, having set out to find Shirin in Armenia, passes a young maiden bathing in a pool. He stops to spy on her and is arrested by her beauty. He has no idea that he is actually gazing on Shirin, the object of his quest. The image shows Khusrau on horseback in the upper right, his finger held to the side of his mouth in a gesture of amazement, awed by Shirin's beauty. Shirin, oblivious to his presence, continues to bathe, as her horse stands nearby drinking from the river. The water would originally have been silver, which has tarnished over time, and would have complemented the luminous gold sky behind Khusrau. Small details like Shirin's clothing draped over a tree add to the intimacy of the scene, although the figures themselves do not display much emotion, frozen in an ideal landscape.
Ink, color, gold, and silver on paper
11 3/4 x 7 5/16 in. (29.9 x 18.6 cm)
Eugene Fuller Memorial Collection
Provenance: [Heeramaneck Galleries, New York, by 1950]; purchased from gallery by Seattle Art Museum (Eugene Fuller Memorial Collection), February 16, 1950
Photo: Paul Macapia
Now on view at the Asian Art Museum

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 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

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 Khusrau discovering Shirin at bath


Exhibition HistoryRome, Italy, Palazzo Brancaccio: Exhibition of Iranian Art, 1956 (1956)

Paris, France, Petit Palais: "7,000 Years of Art in Iran," 1961 (1961)

Essen, Germany, Villa Huegel: "7,000 Years of Art in Iran," 1962 (1962)

Den Haag, Netherlands, Gemeente Museum: "7,000 Years of Art in Iran," 1962 (1962)

Zurich, Switzerland, Kunsthaus: "7,000 Years of Art in Iran," 1962 (1962)

Vienna, Austria, Osterreichische Mus. Fur Angewandte Kunst: "7,000 Years of Art in Iran," 1963 (1963)

Milan, Italy, Palazzo Reale: 7,000 Years of Art in Iran, 1963 (1963)

Seattle, Washington, Henry Art Gallery, University of Washington, "The Warp and Weft of Islam", March 10-April 15, 1978 (traveled to Portland, Oregon, Portland Art Museum, Fall 1979)

Published References"Handbook, Seattle Art Museum: Selected Works from the Permanent Collections." Seattle, WA: Seattle Art Museum, 1951, p. 22 (b&w)

S.A.M. Guild Engagement Calendar, 1953, no. 7.

Palazzo Brancaccio, Rome, Mostra d'arte Iranica/Exhibition of Iranian Art, 1956, p. 276, no. 515

Petit Palalis, Paris, 7,000 Years of Art in Iran, 1961, no. 1103, p. 197
Villa Hugel, Essen, 7,000 Jahre Kunst in Iran, 1962, no. 591.
Palazzo Reale, Milan, 7,000 Anni d'Arte Iranica, 1963, p. 182, no. 624.

Osterreichisches Mus. Fur Angewandte Kunst, Vienna, Kunstschatze aus Iran, 1963, no. 686.

Rogers, Millard B. "Engagement Book: Iranian Art in the Seattle Art Museum," Seattle, WA: Seattle Art Museum, 1972, fig. 45.

S.A.M. Engagement Book, Iranian Art, 1973, #45.

"Middle East Studies Association Bulletin," Vol. 22, No. 1 (July 1988), Middle East Studies Association of North America, cover illus.

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