Bahram Gur in the White Pavilion

Bahram Gur in the White Pavilion

16th century

Two stories in the Khamsa address the lives and loves of rulers who appear in the Shahnama. In the Haft Paykar (Seven Portraits), the Sassanian ruler and hero Bahram Gura great king, hunter and slayer of mythical beastsbuilds a palace with seven pavilions that will serve as the lodging for princesses from the seven regions of the world.  Each night Bahram Gur visits a princess in a brightly colored pavilion, and she tells a moralizing or didactic tale to the ruler.

In this miniature, one of the princesses comes before Bahram Gur. The ruler sits on an elevated throne with the princess before him. Additional courtly figures, ladies in waiting and musicians surround them as they converse. The Haft Paykar is a simple love storythat of a powerful ruler who enjoys the company of exotic princessesbut it also has a deeper allegorical meaning.  In the story, Bahram Gur undertakes a spiritual journey from ignorance to wisdom as he visits the seven princesses and they assist him in his quest for self-knowledge and moral growth. The content of the Haft Paykar provided an exemplum for princesa moral guidebut the imagery tends to emphasize the beauty and exoticism of the princesses who come to Bahram's court to impart their wisdom.



Opaque watercolor, ink and gold on paper
9 3/16 x 5 7/16 in. (23.3 x 13.8 cm)
Eugene Fuller Memorial Collection
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

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

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


Karen Mathews discusses this miniature in more detail

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