Horses, horses, and more horses of various coats and all kinds of colors, patterns, and textures — but all perfectly groomed, with graceful curved necks — charge, challenge, and cavort, in image after image in the illustrated and illuminated folios of the Peck “Shahnama,” also called “Princeton’s Great Book of Kings.”
Princeton University owns five illustrated versions of the “Shahnama,” but the Peck “Shahnama” ranks among the finest 16th century Persian manuscripts in the United States, due to its impressive size, as well as the quality of its materials and decoration.
This exquisite volume was bequeathed to the Princeton University Library in 1983 by Clara S. Peck (1896-1983), in honor of her brother, Fremont C. Peck, a member of Princeton University’s Class of 1920.
Clara Peck, whose father was an executive of the F.W. Woolworth Company, was a horse breeder and avid collector of rare books and manuscripts, and had an affinity for literature on natural history, sporting, and equine subject matter.
She was particularly enchanted if the volume was rich in depictions of horses at war, at play, or being ridden for a hunt. No doubt the varied and sometimes fantastic representations of horses and other animals in the “Book of Kings” charmed her.
While undergoing extensive conservation treatment by Princeton University Library’s Preservation Office earlier in 2015, the entire manuscript was disbound, and painstakingly matted and framed for the exhibit, “Princeton’s Great Persian Book of Kings,” on view at the Princeton University Art Museum through Sunday, January 24.
Guest-curated by Marianna Shreve Simpson, an internationally renowned specialist in the Islamic arts of the book, the exhibit introduces the majestic and historic significance of the “Book of Kings” to the public for the first time. It features all of the manuscript’s 48 illustrated and illuminated folios, and has been organized to follow the “Shahnama’s” narrative, a tale of legendary times and larger-than-life mythical heroes in ancient Persia — now Iran.
“Princeton’s Great Book of Kings” offers insight into the history of Persian miniature painting and manuscript production through the extensive labels that accompany the exhibit. Even more can be gleaned through the 208-page catalog, published by the PUAM and distributed by Yale University Press, which includes a major scholarly essay by Simpson, as well as contributions from Louise Marlow, professor of religion and chair of Middle Eastern studies at Wellesley College.
The catalog features full-color reproductions of each of the manuscript’s illuminated and illustrated folios, using new photography by Roel Munoz, Princeton University Library’s digital imaging manager, and Beth Wodnick Haas, digital imaging technician.
The Peck “Shahnama” was illustrated between 1589 and 1590 in the city of Shiraz in south-central Iran, then a center of learning and culture. Many, many manuscripts telling of this and other ancient epics were produced in Shiraz, but this “Shahnama” is considered to be an exceptional example of such literary and artistic works. Every intricate detail, from the custom-made, cream-colored, gold-specked paper, to the number and content of the illustrated scenes, was conceived in advance by a master book designer.
“The project ‘team’ also would have required one (perhaps two) painter(s) and his or her assistants to execute the 48 large-scale compositions — and probably additional illuminators and their assistants to carry out the manuscript’s abundant decoration,” Simpson writes in the catalog essay.
The grand tale that weaves its way through the “Book of Kings” goes back some 1,000 years, when the Persian poet Abu’l-Qasim Firdausi (935-1020) narrated the history of Iran and its people, spanning the lives of some 50 rulers, from earliest recorded time to the seventh century A.D.
Like the myths and legends of other lands, the narrator tells the story through tales of triumph and defeat, with heroes, villains, and adventures. The “Shahnama” epic has been a source of artistic inspiration in Persian culture for centuries.
“Its poetic themes are universal and resonate across the centuries: the inevitability of fate, the power of faith and humankind’s relationship to a supreme being, intergenerational schisms, and morality as a determining factor for human conduct,” Simpson writes, in an article about the exhibition in the PUAM’s Fall 2015 magazine.
“Other fundamental motifs have a particular ‘national’ or cultural inflection, including the conflict between Iran and the neighboring land of Turan; Iranian kingship as a supreme and divinely sanctioned institution; and dynastic legitimacy as embodied in the notion of ‘farr,’ or royal fortune, charisma, and God-given glory,” she writes.
Thanks to magnifying glasses provided by the museum, viewers of “Princeton’s Great Book of Kings” can get an intimate look at the illustrations within each folio. We can see incredible details, such as the magnificent tiling and rugs that adorn the interior scenes; robes, armor, and headdresses that the people wore; swords, sabers, lances, daggers and other weaponry carried onto the battlefields; and courtly possessions such as pen cases, candlesticks, and china.
Horses are far from the only animals depicted in the Peck “Shahnama.” Scenes depict royal hunting parties chasing down lions, not usually associated with the Near East — one usually thinks of Africa when imagining the king of beasts. Birds, bears, snow leopards, and an assortment of deer-like creatures are also portrayed.
“The Peck menagerie features a noteworthy assortment of other animals, with many, such as camels and elephants, quite recognizable even when represented at a fully improbable scale,” Simpson writes. “The manuscript’s opening composition seems to mix every mammalian and avian species under the sun, with an array of supernatural and mythical beings, including a large Phoenix-like bird, a dragon rising up from the rocky background, and a rogue’s gallery of colorful ‘divs’ or monsters, along the side.”
Due to scheduling problems, Simpson was unable to be interviewed and referred this writer to her essay in the exhibit catalog. Via E-mail, she conveyed considerable information about her background. Earning her B.A. at the University of Pennsylvania in 1971, Simpson earned her Ph.D. from Harvard in 1978. The title of her doctoral dissertation was “The Illustration of an Epic: The Earliest Shahnama Manuscripts.”
Simpson has published, taught, and lectured widely on medieval and early modern Islamic art in general and the arts of the book in particular, especially Persian illustrated manuscripts. Current research interests include gift exchange between Iran and Europe in the early modern period, the color red, medieval Persian ceramics, and Firdausi’s “Shahnama” (Book of Kings).
From 1980 to 1992 Simpson helped direct the Center for Advanced Study in the Visual Arts at the National Gallery of Art, and from 1992 to 1995 served as curator of Islamic Near Eastern Art at the Freer Gallery of Art and Arthur M. Sackler Gallery, Smithsonian Institution. From 1995 to 2000 she was director of curatorial affairs and curator of Islamic Art at the Walters Art Gallery (now the Walters Art Museum) in Baltimore, and continued her affiliation with the museum as senior consultant for the Islamic Manuscript Digitization Project from 2009 to 2010.
Over the years Simpson has taught at Georgetown University, Princeton University, Johns Hopkins University, the University of Pennsylvania, and Bard Graduate Center in New York to name a few. Recent honors include the Paul Mellon Senior Fellowship at the Center for Advanced Study in the Visual Arts at the National Gallery of Art and membership to School of Historical Studies at the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton.
From 2011 to 2013 Simpson served as president of the Historians of Islamic Art Association. In addition to guest curating the exhibit at the Princeton museum, she is currently a visiting scholar at the Penn. In spring, 2016, she will direct a graduate seminar in the curatorial studies program at the University of Delaware.
She praises the Princeton Library’s preservation office and its meticulous work for bringing long-term stabilization to the Peck “Shahnama.”
“Happily, this work has allowed the museum the opportunity to display all of the manuscript’s illustrated folios as individual works of art and to introduce one of the university’s treasures to a broad audience,” Simpson writes. “The paintings and illuminations on display in ‘Princeton’s Great Book of Kings’ bring the gripping tales and themes in Firdausi’s ‘Shahnama’ to life, and let us experience the visual splendor Clara Peck must have enjoyed and wanted to share in bequeathing the manuscript to Princeton.”
Princeton’s Great Book of Kings, Princeton University Art Museum. Through Sunday, January 24, 2016. Free. Tuesday, Wednesday, Friday, and Saturday, 10 a.m. to 5 p.m.; Thursday, 10 a.m. to 10 p.m.; Sunday, 1 to 5 p.m. 609-258-3788 or www.artmuseum.princeton.edu.