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Lamentation scene, page from a Shahnama of Firdausi

Photo: Paul Macapia

Lamentation scene, page from a Shahnama of Firdausi

probably 1493

Death and mourning play a significant role in the Shahnama (the Book of Kings, an epic poem written by the Persian poet Firdawsi around 1000 AD), and images related to these themes occur frequently in illustrated versions of the epic. In some cases, the representations are generic, with figures making stock gestures to express their mourning. Such is the case in this representation of Talhand's mother mourning the death of her son. She and the women of her court tear their hair and rend their garments as they hear of Talhand's death. The males in the image act in a more reserved manner, although their pain is evident. Death in the Shahnama  is prevalent in the numerous battle scenes and the life and death struggles that occur so frequently on the pages of Shahnama  manuscripts. However, these death scenes have a moral and even spiritual component, emphasizing the role of destiny and the concept of justice as they relate to the deaths of heroes and villains alike.
Ink, opaque watercolor on paper
8 15/16 x 6 7/16 in. (22.7 x 16.4 cm)
Eugene Fuller Memorial Collection
Provenance: Purchased from Heeramaneck Galleries
Photo: Paul Macapia
Now on view at the Asian Art Museum

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 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


Karen Mathews, Assistant Professor of Art History, University of Miami, on the scene depicted in this Persian manuscript


Exhibition HistorySeattle, Washington, Seattle Asian Art Museum, Boundless: Stories of Asian Art, Feb. 8, 2020 - ongoing [on view Dec. 10, 2021 - July 24, 2022].
Published ReferencesRogers, Millard B. "Iranian Art in the Seattle Art Museum," Seattle, WA: Seattle Art Museum, 1972, fig. 41.

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