Illustrated books were an especially important art form in Iran from the fourteenth century to the sixteenth century. They flourished during a cultural revival that took place under the Ilkhanids, the Mongol dynasty which ruled Mesopotamia and Iran from 1258 to 1336 C.E. The Ilkhanids were the descendants of Genghis Khan’s grandson Hülegü who conquered Iran in 1258 C.E. They ruled as foreigners in a conquered land and they employed the power of words and images to support their right to rule. The Ilkhanid court commissioned luxury manuscripts as didactic works of art in which they identified themselves with the kings and heroes of Iranian history, primarily those of the Shahnama, or Book of Kings.
Shahnama or Book of Kings
The most popular illustrated text of the period was the Shahnama or Book of Kings, an epic poem written by poet Abu al-Qasim Firdausi in about 1010 C.E. In the Shahnama, Firdausi recounts the myths, legends, and early history of Iran. We can interpret the text as a series of adventure stories and romances, but also as a guide to ethics, a chronicle, and a manual for royal conduct.
There are ten surviving illustrated Shahnama manuscripts datable from approximately 1300 C.E. to 1350 C.E. The scholar Robert Hillenbrand has noted a concentration of illustrated Shahnamas during the first half of the fourteenth century, that may be attributed to the Ilkhanids’ desire to adopt this powerful symbol of Iranian kingship for their broader educational or propagandist mission.
Bahram Gur in a Peasant’s House
“Bahram Gur in a Peasant’s House,” a folio from the so-called Second Small Shahnama, is an illustrated manuscript page now in the collection of the Brooklyn Museum. The “Small Shahnamas” are a group of three small, dispersed, and undated manuscripts which were created in Iran in the first half of the 14th century. The painting illustrates the Shahnama story of the ruler Bahram Gur, in disguise, visiting the home of a peasant. Bahram Gur overhears the conversation of the peasant and his wife who is milking a cow in the background. The cow refuses to give milk and the woman attributes this to Bahram Gur’s tyrannous rule in the country. When Bahram Gur hears this, he resolves to become a just and merciful ruler and the milk immediately begins to flow.
Women in Ilkhanid Iran
Bahram Gur is resplendent in his gold robe at the center of the painting, but both he and the peasant are looking at the woman in the far right corner. She sits with her back turned as she milks the cow, but she is clearly the focus of attention. The scholar Sheila Blair has argued that the depiction of women in illustrated manuscripts from the Ilkhanid period indicates an upgrade in their status in the society. This painting shows that a woman of low social status can reform a tyrant.
Seljuq painting style
“Bahram Gur in a Peasant’s House” is quite similar to another folio, “Buzurgmihr Masters the Game of Chess,” from the “First Small Shahnama” in the collection of The Metropolitan Museum of Art. They are both examples of the continuation of the style developed by Seljuq (Turkic dynasty of Central Asian nomadic origins) artists in Iran during the twelfth and thirteenth centuries. The influence of the earlier Seljuq style can found here in the use of delicate, subdued tones against a plain gold background. The Ilkhanids may have chosen to adopt the Seljuq painting style as an additional way to integrate Mongol rule into indigenous cultural traditions.
The influence of the ruling court in painting styles
Shahnama manuscripts were also made in areas which were outside direct Mongol political control. The Injuids began as vassals of the Ilkhanids in southern Iran and later established themselves as the independent rulers of the cities of Shiraz and Fars. Qawam al-Dawlah wa-al-Din Hasan, vizier (a high executive officer) to the Inju governor in Fars province, commissioned a Shahnama manuscript in 1341, and its folio of “Bahram Gur in a Peasant’s House” is now located in The Walters Art Museum in Baltimore. The Injuids commissioned their own Shahnama manuscripts in an effort to establish the legitimacy of their own rule, but they did so in a style which was very different from the Ilkhanids.
The art historian Stefano Carboni has described Injuid style as “simple, almost naïve compositions [displaying an] absence of refined detail [in] the rigid postures of figures, the oversize trees and plants, and rapid, imprecise brushstrokes.”  The dissimilarity between the Walters and the Brooklyn “Bahram Gur in a Peasant’s House” underscore the differences between Injuid and Ilkhanid styles and also illustrates how clearly the role of the ruling court can be seen in artistic production. The Injuids did not seek to continue the earlier Seljuq style as way of legitimizing their rule and instead developed a new style which bears little resemblance to earlier work done under the Ilkhanids.
 Stefano Carboni, “Synthesis: Continuity and Innovation in Ilkhanid Art,” The Legacy of Genghis Khan, ed. Linda Komaroff and Stefano Carboni. (New York/ New Haven: Metropolitan Museum of Art, Distributed by Yale University Press, 2002), p. 217.
Read more about art under the Mongols in a Reframing Art History chapter.
Sheila Blair, The Art and Architecture of Islam 1250–1800 (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1995).
Linda Komaroff and Stefano Carboni, eds. The Legacy of Genghis Khan: Courtly Art and Culture in Western Asia, 1256–1353 (New York: Metropolitan Museum of Art; Distributed by Yale University Press, 2002).
Marie Lukens Swietochowski, Illustrated Poetry and Epic Images: Persian Painting of the 1330s and 1340s (New York: The Metropolitan Museum of Art, 1994).
Arthur George Warner, Edmond Warner, The Shahnama Of Firdausi, English translation (London: Paul, 1905).