Press Room 2016

SHAHNAMA - The Colorful Epic About Iran's Past

Special Exhibition March 18 to November 6

THE DAVID COLLECTION PRESENTS ITS MOST EXTENSIVE SPECIAL EXHIBITION SINCE THE MUSEUM REOPENED IN 2009

Why the Shahnama?
The Shahnama (The Book of Kings) is world literature. It has been a “classic” for centuries, especially in the Persian-speaking parts of the world, but also in India, Turkey, and the Middle East. Even in Germany, Great Britain, and the U.S.A., the old text has been translated and exhibitions of the epic’s countless illustrations have been held in recent years.

The Shahnama was written by the Iranian poet Firdawsi and finished in the year 1010. In his enormous work – probably the world’s longest poem, with over 50,000 verses – he recounted the story of Iran from a bygone mythical era to the 7th century, when Arab armies overran the ancient kingdom. As in the works of Saxo Grammaticus and Homer and in fairytales, the Shahnama combines history, thrilling narratives, dramatic battle scenes, and love stories that often have no happy ending. The epic has always been exceedingly popular in the Persian-speaking part of the Islamic world and still plays an important role as a national symbol in Iran.

Not many people in Denmark have heard of the Shahnama. This exhibition aims at remedying the situation.

A National Identity
Interest in Iran and Iranian culture is growing. The Persia of the past and present-day Iran can in many ways be seen from the same sense of selfhood. Firdawsi’s aim was to create a magnificent and indelible picture of ancient Persia, a national identity that he and the aristocracy of which he was part could be proud of. Because of its distinctiveness, it rejected the culture and history of the invading Muslim rulers. The Shahnama is consequently world history seen from an Iranian perspective, a polemic for a national identity and an age of glory before the advent of Islam. Since it was written in Persian, it was also a revolt against the alien Arabic language. There are conspicuously few Arabic loan words in the work, despite the fact that there were many in the Persian language during the author’s day. The content of the epic moreover does not conform to the historiography of the Koran.

Universal Themes
The Shahnama deals with themes that are universal and still valid today: friendship and enmity, freedom and tyranny, love and hate – to name just a few. The contrasts between these dualities are rarely unequivocal, however, since there are many reasons for the ways in which the heroes and villains of the Shahnama act. The work is full of good stories and legends about heroes and supernatural beings of the kinds found in The Lord of the Rings and Star Wars, for example. In addition, the Shahnama has been the source of inspiration for works of art that still exert a great power of attraction.

The Paintings
The paintings form the core of the exhibition. Instead of focusing on their context in art history, the exhibition follows the chronology in the Shahnama – from the creation of the world to the conquest of Iran by the Muslim Arabs. This progression is illustrated from start to finish with works from the David Collection. The majority of the paintings are from Iran, but some also come from India and Turkey. The motifs in the Shahnama are part of a pictorial tradition that can be followed from generation to generation. Examples are “Siyawush’s Trial by Fire,” where the young prince rides through a sea of flames, and “The Court of Gayumarth,” which describes a world at the dawn of time when man and beast lived in harmony with one another and with nature. Some illustrations from the Shahnama have achieved iconic status and are among the most famous Persian paintings today.

The Exhibition
This special exhibition gives the public a unique opportunity to experience an ancient, exotic, and dramatic world in pictures. The stories are played out through nearly 60 works of art, in addition to a display of weapons. Visitors will be able to study details in the miniatures with a magnifying glass. All the captions are in Danish and English. Apart from one miniature, which is on loan, all of the works of art are from the David Collection’s own holdings.

A fully illustrated catalogue in Danish and English editions with articles on several aspects of the Shahnama epic will be published in conjunction with the exhibition.

A reception will be held on Thursday, March 17th, from 4 to 6 p.m. to mark the opening of the exhibition. Members of the press who wish to attend the reception should contact the museum’s head of communications, Sonja Wiesener, at s.wiesener@davidmus.dk for an invitation.

On April 13th at 7 p.m., David’s Bazaar will feature a lecture in Danish about the exhibition by Peter Wandel, with the sensual title “Violent Beauty.”

Tickets at DKR 50 can be bought at billetlugen.dk; click here for more information.

There will be free guided tours of the special exhibition during the museum’s opening hours. See the spring program for guided tours here.

Miniature from Firdawsi's Shahnama, "Siyawush's Trial by Fire", detail, Iran, Shiraz; c. 1440Miniature from Firdawsi's Shahnama, "Siyawush's Trial by Fire", detail, Iran, Shiraz; c. 1440

Miniature from Firdawsi's Shahnama, ”The Court of Gayumarth”, detail, Iran, Shiraz; 1575-90Miniature from Firdawsi's Shahnama, ”The Court of Gayumarth”, detail, Iran, Shiraz; 1575-90

Miniature from Firdawsi's Shahnama, ”Rustam is Cast into the Sea by the Div Akvan”, detail, India, Bijapur; c. 1610Miniature from Firdawsi's Shahnama, ”Rustam is Cast into the Sea by the Div Akvan”, detail, India, Bijapur; c. 1610

Miniature from Firdawsi's Shahnama, ”Kay Khusraw Captures the Demon-occupied Bahman Castle”, detail, Iran, Tabriz; between 1520-35Miniature from Firdawsi's Shahnama, ”Kay Khusraw Captures the Demon-occupied Bahman Castle”, detail, Iran, Tabriz; between 1520-35

Miniature from Firdawsi's Shahnama, ”Isfandiyar Slays the Simurgh”, Iran, Tabriz; between 1520-35Miniature from Firdawsi's Shahnama, ”Isfandiyar Slays the Simurgh”, Iran, Tabriz; between 1520-35