Asian and African studies blog

09 May 2022

From Georgian Slave to Safavid Master: Some Possible Additions to the Corpus of Siyavush Beg Gurji

Today's guest blog is jointly written by Jaimee Comstock-Skipp (Leiden University PhD candidate) and Asim Saeed (Independent Researcher)

Siyavush Beg Gurji (c.1536–1616), a brilliant but elusive maestro from the Safavid era, has intrigued scholars for half a decade. Initiated by Anthony Welch in findings published nearly 50 years ago, some pages from a dispersed manuscript located in private German and Danish collections help widen our understanding of this individual, and the state of the arts in Iran at the turn of the sixteenth to the seventeenth century.

Fig 1 Garshasp and Zahhak. Or 12985  f74v Fig 2 Ardavan before Ardashir  IO Islamic 966  f.  360v
Fig. 1. Garshasp seated before Zahhak while the div, Minharas, is held prisoner (Or.12985, f. 74v). Public Domain
Fig. 2. Ardavan before Ardashir (IO Islamic 966, f. 360v). Public Domain

Born in Georgia, Siyavush Beg was brought to the first Safavid capital Tabriz where he trained to become a page. Upon the relocation of the Safavid court to Qazvin in 1548, Siyavush transferred there and continued his studies of calligraphy, illustration, painting, and poetry. He worked in the royal workshops to produce manuscripts for the shah and other courtiers and enjoyed royal support from subsequent Safavid monarchs up until 1590. He contributed three paintings to a copy of the Garshaspnamah of Asadi, which was an expansion of and complement to Firdawsi’s Shahnamah (dated 1573, fig. 1). Following these, Siyavush painted sumptuous illustrations for Shah Isma’il II's (r. 1576–1577) royal copy of the same work (dated 1576–77; dispersed), and afterward fulfilled non-courtly commissions.

During the lull in royal patronage of manuscript production in the late-1570s through the 1580s, Siyavush and his colleagues produced manuscripts for connoisseurs not related to the rulers. As a case in point, they worked on a copy of Khvandamir’s Habib al-Siyar (Friend of Biographies) that was produced in 1579 for Mirza Abu Talib ibn Mirza ʻAla al-Dawlat, a Tajik high official at the court in Qazvin (former Homberg collection, since dispersed). Elsewhere, a Khamsah of Nizami copied in 1549 for the Safavid financial secretary Ali Khan Beg Turkman (Morgan Library ms. M.836) has illustrations attributable to Siyavush c. 1579. Although not definitively associated with his hand, loose folios in his style are elsewhere scattered in collections (Pierpont Morgan Library ms. M.386.7r) and have appeared at auction (Christie’s, 10 October 2013, lot 29). It is believed that Siyavush Beg formally retired in the 1590s and headed to Shiraz where he is believed to have added to some projects prior to his death in around 1616.

In sum, up until now Siyavush Gurji’s official output has totalled fewer than thirty illustrations over a period of seven decades. However, it is hard to believe a richly gifted artist, passionately engaged with painting under four different Safavid monarchs (Tahmasp I, Isma’il II, Muhammad Khudabanda, and ʻAbbas I), and spending almost his entire life under royal aegis could produce work for only three manuscripts. To him we might also now credit illustrations in a second Khamsah of Nizami (Topkapi Palace Library ms. R.881, circa 1590–1610); and illustrations in two copies of Qazi Ahmad’s Gulistan-i Hunar, a treatise on calligraphers and painters (one in the Museum of Oriental Art in Moscow, and the other formerly in the collection of Clara C. Edwards). Furthermore, a group of Shahnamah manuscripts also reflect his artistic practices and stylistic details. Although they are unsigned, their illustrations repeating compositions and figures fit comfortably in his corpus, and suggest either his own participation or perhaps that of a colleague working closely alongside him.

These Shahnamah copies sharing common circumstances of production include the following:

  • British Library IO Islamic 966, with colophon dated 1604, page size 370 x 235 mm, figs. 2, 5, 9, 11
  • Kuwait’s al-Sabah Collection, Inv. No. LNS 233, no colophon, page size 350 x 235 mm
  • Yahuda Collection of the Israel Museum (ms. 120) dated 1617
  • Newly discovered illustrations, held in private collections, from a single dispersed Shahnamah manuscript (here labelled MS Exhibit 369 B) whose illustrations, compositions, and dimensions (averaging 355 x 240 mm) closely relate to the other Shahnamah works, as well as the above-mentioned Garshaspnamah  (Fig. 1, Or. 12985, page size 348 x 235 mm)

All these works have been attributed by scholars to be of Safavid origin and contain specific elements from the workshops of Qazvin on the cusp of artistic innovations originating in Isfahan. Although lacking an artist’s signature, they are apparently prepared in the late sixteenth century, and several folios across them have identical figures and compositional layouts.

Fig 3. Siyavashs fire ordeal. Exhibit 369 B Fig 4. Siyavash fire ordeal. LNS 233  f.42 r Fig 5 Siyavash fire ordeal  IO Islamic 966  f97r
The fire ordeal of Siyavush.
Fig. 3.  Exhibit 369 B, f. 114v © the owner
Fig. 4. LNS 233, f. 42r © The al- Sabah Collection, Dar al- Athar al-Islamiyyah, Kuwait
Fig. 5. IO Islamic 966, f. 97r, Public Domain

Figs. 3–5 depict the famous fire ordeal of the character Siyavush, where he is asked to ride through the blazing fire in order to prove his innocence against accusations levied by his step mother. Siyavush rides through the flames with his head turned back in all three images. The galloping black horse with a yak tail hanging from the neck, the decorated saddle and the whip in rider's hand, the astonished solider with his raised hands are obvious similarities. One wonders if some pouncing or stencilling techniques were applied. The common painter of these is posited to be one individual who follows a composition from Shah Tahmasp's famous Shahnamah as a model (now held in the Museum of Contemporary Art in Tehran). However, they are simpler versions, and could have been carried out by Siyavush Beg or his colleague.

Fig 6 Tus and Giv witht the maiden lady. Exhibit 369 B Fig 7. LNS 233  f.97r
Tus and Giv and the maiden lady.
Fig. 6. Exhibit 369 B, f. 109r © the owner
Fig. 7. LNS 233 MS, f. 97r © The al-Sabah Collection, Dar al-Athar al-Islamiyyah, Kuwait.

Other illustrations from ms. Exhibit 369 B, the British Library, and Kuwait collection have much in common. They share similar compositions, colour tones, heavily outlined backgrounds in which purple and pink towering masses of rocks at times overflow into the margins. Tadpole clouds populate golden and blue skies, dark green grounds are spotted with radiant flowers, above which short flame-like trees emerge (figs. 6-7). Old maple trees with bulky trunks brim with autumnal leaves (figs. 8-9).

Fig 8 Dying Rustam. Exhibit 369 B Fig 9 Death of Rustam  IO Islamic 966_f323v
The death of Rustam.
Fig. 8. Exhibit 369 B, f. 386v © the owner
Fig. 9. IO Islamic 966, f. 323v, Public Domain

In another famous episode of the Shahnamah, Tahmina is seen visiting Rustam's chamber in figs. 10 and 11 which again bear striking similarities. Upon close observation, the version in the private collection reveals some extraordinary features. A superbly sketched simurgh (the mythical bird of the Shahnamah) on Rustam's blanket (fig. 12) displays the artist’s genius and outstanding drawing skills (perhaps Siyavush’s), as he effectively connects the past with the present through a simple yet powerful image. In this folio as in the British Library’s copy, two towering cypress trees breach the upper margins above the richly decorated interiors with pink and lavender wall paintings. They both have elaborately detailed grounds covered in animal and foliate motifs. Cypress trees play an effective role in the images both visually and symbolically, for they are associated with the stature of heroes in classical poetry. The tree is also a symbol of immortality, eternity, grandeur, strength, and manliness. Tahmina's tryst with Rustam following her depicted arrival leads to the birth of their son Suhrab, one of the most known characters of the Shahnamah.

Fig 10. Daughter of the king of Samangan  Exhibit 369 B Fig 11. Rustam and Tahmina. IO Islamic 966_f79v
Tahmina visits Rustam.
Fig. 10. Exhibit 369 B, f. 93v © the owner
Fig. 11. IO Islamic 966, f. 79v, Public Domain

Fig 12. Close up of Simurgh
Fig. 11. Close up of Rustam's covering

There are many other parallels across these Shahnamah manuscripts that have been noted elsewhere, but it is worth exploring how their common illustrations came about. Regarding the style of Siyavush-like paintings in the British Library IO Islamic 966, Basil Robinson credits the unnamed artist as a “young Isfahani.” Isfahan became the site of the new Safavid capital in 1598 and an innovative artistic style popularized by Siyavush’s younger colleague, the artist Reza Abbasi, emerged there early on after the power shifted from Qazvin. The scholar Barbara Schmitz has since modified Robinson’s “young Isfahani” attribution to an “old Qazvini” artist working alone in a style that had by the early 1600s gone out of fashion. Whether or not it was Siyavush, this same individual executed the majority of the miniatures in this copy dated 1604. Robinson has also attributed three miniatures of the British Library’s Garshaspnamah to this same “young Isfahani” which Norah M. Titley has contested to be the work of Siyavush Beg. Aditionally, the scholars Adel T. Adamova and Manijeh Bayani have convincingly proposed Siyavush Beg as the possible illustrator of the Shahnamah copies in the British Library and Kuwait (see Ademova and Bayani, cat. 32, 459 - 486). They suggest that Siyavush set to work to illustrate the Kuwait version sometime prior to 1600, almost twenty years after he contributed to Shah Isma’il II’s Shahnamah. He would have next begun working on the British Library manuscript dated 1604. They stylistically justify their argument by noting how the artist followed conventions originating in the Qazvin school of painting. The hitherto never-before referenced paintings of MS Exhibit 369 B carry striking similarities to both the London and Kuwait manuscripts, and we can insert this new Shahnamah material and others into the trajectory delineated above.

Sometime between 1579 and 1604, the “young Isfahani”/ “old Qazvini” Siyavush Beg may have busied himself with yet another magnificent Shahnamah, that of MS Exhibit 369 B. Perhaps up until his final days, he might have contributed to the Shahnamah copy in the Israel Museum that was completed a year after his death. Though not much can be said with absolute certainty about the production of manuscript Exhibit 369 B, on stylistic grounds the illustrations appear to have been produced by Siyavush Beg or a painter working alongside him during the last quarter of the sixteenth century. Their sumptuousness vouches for an expensive production affordable to a prince or an aristocrat who could employ elite artists and cover the expenses of their studio.

Our conclusions are based on stylistic comparisons and the upsurge of sub-royal patrons who were commissioning richly illustrated manuscripts in parallel or in competition with princely ateliers during the second half of the sixteenth century. Economics impact arts, and one reason for the increase in such sub-royal productions was the lack of reliable royal patronage during the reign of the feeble and almost blind Safavid Shah Muhammad Khudabanda (r.1578–1587). Another possible owner of the manuscript in question could be that of the artist producing it himself; having made other copies to sell, perhaps he enjoyed his own compositions so much that he directly duplicated them.

Within these four manuscripts, the same figures frequent compositions, clad in rich garments with delicately sketched hands and rendered movements, bulky turbans and fur collars. Animals populate compositions, especially the meticulously drawn horses and foxes with fluffy tails. There are soldiers in helmets, kings in crowns, archers, and musicians. Stylistically, the most decisive element that links all of the paintings is the near perfect sense of weight and balance by the painter. Also common is the unbroken brush movement and the use of colour that is thoroughly typical of the Qazvin palette, and the painter’s penchant for transgressing the text frame and extending images into the margins. Although he did not physically sign these works with letters comprising his name, Siyavush’s hand and influence can be identified in these illustrations and bear his hallmarks.

With special thanks to Katja Preuss for her generous contributions & guidance, the Cambridge Shahnama Project and some wonderful friends.

Asim Saeed (Independent Researcher) and Jaimee K. Comstock-Skipp (Leiden University PhD candidate)
 ccownwork copy

Contact Asim: artmusekhi@gmail.com

Contact Jaimee: Academia.edu

Further reading:

Adamova, Adel T., and Manijeh Bayani, Persian Painting: the Arts of the Book and Portraiture. Dar al-Athar al-Islamiyyah: The Al-Sabah Collection, Kuwait. New York: Thames & Hudson, 2015.
Babaie, Sussan, et al., Slaves of the Shah: New Elites of Safavid Iran. London: I.B. Tauris, 2004.
Qazi Ahmad,  Golestān-e honar, tr. Vladimir Minorsky as Calligraphers and Painters: A Treatise by Qāḍī Aḥmad, Son of Mīr-Munshī, Washington, D.C., 1959.

Robinson, B.W. “Shah Ismail II's Copy of the Shahnama.” Iran 14 (1976): 1-8.
———— “Shah Ismail II's Copy of the Shahnama: Additional Material.” Iran 43 (2005): 291-299.
Schmitz, Barbara. Islamic and Indian Manuscripts and paintings in The Pierpont Morgan Library. New York: The Pierpont Morgan Library, 1997.
Titley, Norah. “A Manuscript of the Garshāspnāmeh.” The British Museum Quarterly 31:1/2 (Autumn 1966): 27-32
————Persian Miniature Painting and its Influence on the Arts of Turkey and India. Austin: University of Texas Press, 1984.
Welch, Anthony. Artists for the Shah: Late Sixteenth Century Painting at the Imperial Court of Iran. New Haven: Yale University Press, 1976.

.