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Seattle Art Museum (SAM)

Prisoner before the Shah

Prisoner before the Shah

ca. 1650

Only with magnification can we fully appreciate the minute details in Persian miniature paintings—the foliage peeking through the throne room's windows; the embellishment covering the golden throne; the texture of the individual arrows, instruments, and vessels; the five perfectly rendered pomegranates; and the fine strands of hair in the figures' ear-locks and beards. Each of these details was painted by hand, but requires a magnifying glass (or the zoom feature on the touchscreen kiosk in this gallery) to truly perceive their artistry.
Opaque watercolor and gold on paper
11 1/8 x 6 1/2 in. (28.3 x 16.5 cm)
Eugene Fuller Memorial Collection
Provenance: Purchased from Warren E. Cox, June 4, 1956
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


Although works of fiction generally received the most acclaim in the literary world, historical chronicles also played an important role in courtly life and artistic production. The model for most Islamic historical texts was the Shahnama, or Book of Kings, which is actually a work of fiction. The popularity of the Shahnama encouraged rulers from all over the Islamic world to create histories of their reigns with the Shahnama as their model. In these adaptations, the content of the accounts shifted from the mythical past to the historical present.

The Mughal dynasty in India, with its deeply rooted Persian court culture, enthusiastically adapted the format of the Shahnama to its own political and cultural ends. Numerous historical chronicles were written and illustrated under Mughal patronage, and these texts alternated between generic descriptions of royal activities (battles, hunts, receptions, ceremonies) and minute historical detail. The images accompanying these texts reflected this dichotomy.
Akbar Hunting Scene; border from Farhangi-Jaharangiri manuscript, late 16th-early 17th century, Indian, Mughal, 45.69
Photo: Paul Macapia

Related Objects in SAM's Collections

Photo: Paul Macapia
Akbar on horseback receiving homage, 17th century, Islamic, Indian, Mughal, 41.204
Photo: Paul Macapia
Akbar Hunting Scene; border from Farhangi-Jaharangiri manuscript, late 16th-early 17th century, Indian, Mughal, 45.69
Photo: Paul Macapia
Babur Scene from the Akbarnama manuscript; border from Farhangi-Jahangiri manuscript, late 16th century, Indian, Mughal, 46.28
Photo: Paul Macapia
Prince Miranshah greets Princess Serai Malak Khanum, ca. 1435-36, Northern Iranian, 49.133
Photo: Paul Macapia
Mourning scene, perhaps the death of Iskandar (Alexander the Great), 17th century(?), Persian, 55.14
Photo: Paul Macapia
Zal riding on the neck of Simurgh (the mythical female phoenix), late 15th-16th century, Persian, 47.95
Photo: Paul Macapia
Talhand's Mother Learns of his Death / A Lamentation Scene:  Mourning for a Dead Hero, ca. 1493, Persian, 47.98


The most influential literary work in the Islamic world was the Shahnama, or Book of Kings. Based both on oral transmission and written tradition, the Book of Kings consists of stories about the lives of legendary and historical kings of Persia. In the early eleventh century, the author Firdawsi compiled these stories into a work of sixty thousand rhyming couplets. From then on, knowledge of the Book of Kings was an essential element of Islamic-Iranian culture for rulers of the Islamic world, most of whom were of Turkic origins. Associations with past Persian rulers provided political legitimacy for rulers who were foreign to the lands they conquered.

The Book of Kings consistently recounts events and activities such as battles, feasts, death scenes, hunts, and imperial audiences, but it also concentrates on the extraordinary exploits of heroic figures like Rustam, Bahram Gur, and Alexander. Shahnama manuscripts from the fourteenth century on were often lavishly illustrated, and a wide repertoire of images related to the tales in the Book of Kings exists.
Mourning scene, perhaps the death of Iskandar (Alexander the Great), 17th century(?), Persian, 55.14
Photo: Paul Macapia


Exhibition HistoryUtah, Provo, Brigham Young University, Beauty and Belief: Crossing Bridges with the Arts of Islam, February 24, 2012 - November, 2013

New York , New York, Grolier Club, n.d

Paris, France, Musee des Arts Decoratifs, 1912
Published ReferencesRogers, Millard B. "Engagement Book: Iranian Art in the Seattle Art Museum," Seattle, WA: Seattle Art Museum, 1972, fig. 47.

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