This exquisite page, on view at the Harvard Art Museums, contains an illustration of the great 10th-11th-century Iranian classic the “Shahnama,” or Book of Kings, by Firdawsi. The manuscript was produced around 1480. At the same time, Christian artists were illustrating ancient classics in a very different style, as visitors to “Beyond Words,” an exhibition of illustrated Italian Renaissance books and manuscripts at the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum, can see.
The Shahnama is by far the most influential work of Persian literature. It has been produced in many illustrated versions over the centuries. Probably the most famous is the 16th-century version made for the Iranian ruler Shah Tahmasp.
This copy, in ink, opaque watercolor, and gold on paper, was made in Shiraz, a flourishing center for manuscript production in 15th-century Iran. It illustrates an intricate, satisfying story.
Our hero, seated just to the left of center, is holding a portrait of himself. And he is realizing as he looks at it that his cover has been blown. He has been found out. It’s a very charged moment.
He is Iskandar, or Alexander the Great, the historical figure who, by Firdawsi’s time, had been transformed into the questing subject of a legend only slenderly linked to the truth.
In Firdawsi’s Islamic version of the Alexander Romance, Iskandar/Alexander is rebuffed after demanding tribute from the powerful Spanish queen Qaydafa.
In the meantime, however, Qaydafa’s son is captured. He is rescued by Iskandar himself, disguised as his own minister. Still in disguise, Iskandar goes to Qaydafa as an envoy, and is warmly received as her impetuous son’s savior.
But the wise Qaydafa is able to see through his disguise. Why? Because, earlier, she had surreptitiously sent a painter to make a full-length portrait of him.
The morning after Iskandar’s arrival, Qaydafa shows him the portrait. And this is the scene so beautifully illustrated here.
In the text the two rulers are alone when Qaydafa reveals the portrait to him; here, in a minor departure from Firdawsi, she is surrounded by female attendants. Although Qaydafa promises to keep Iskandar’s identity secret, she makes him promise not to threaten her kingdom and tutors him in humility.
It’s powerful, when you think about it, what a portrait can bring to bear on a slippery situation. You can see why an artist as capable as the illustrator of this dazzling page would be drawn to such a subject.
QAYDAFA RECOGNIZES ISKANDAR FROM HIS PORTRAIT
At Harvard Art Museums, 32 Quincy St., Cambridge. 617-495-9400, www.harvardartmuseums.orgSebastian Smee can be reached at email@example.com.