Image of CBL Per 111.6

Part 1: The pages of the Great Mongol Shahnama, a 19th century restoration in Iran

3 August, 2020

This week we have a guest post from Hoa Perriguey, a book and paper conservator based in Nice in the south of France. In April 2019, whilst working on her thesis at the Sorbonne in Paris, Hoa visited the Chester Beatty to examine folios from one of our manuscripts. We are delighted that she has kindly agreed to share some of her research with us on the Chester Beatty Conservation blog. Hoa’s first blog post will look at the modifications made to the manuscript in late 19th century Iran.

The Chester Beatty holds seven illustrated folios and four plain text-folios from the Great Mongol Shahnama (CBL Per 111). Made in 14th-century Iran, this exceptional Persian manuscript was dismantled in Paris at the beginning of the 20th century. Sold as single folios and bifolios in Paris and New York from 1913 onward, at least 57 illustrated folios are currently known, today dispersed in worldwide museum collections (1).

The folios show signs of extensive use. Since production in the 14th century, they have been repaired and modified several times; historic repairs are visible on the verso of CBL Per 111.2. However, some of the most notable repairs took place in late 19th century Iran (I will consider the second phase of repairs in the early 20th century made in the workshop of Georges Demotte in my next blog post). In the late 19th century, the manuscript was in the royal library of the Qajar dynasty, in Tehran. The repairs and modifications made in Qajar Iran may relate to contemporary interest in classical Persian literature, or to a new focus on historic manuscript paintings during the reign of Nasir al-Din Shah (r. 1848-1896) (2).

Image of eight folios: From left to right, upper line: CBL Per 111.2 ‘Faridun testing his sons,’ CBL Per 111.3 ‘Salm and Tur killing Iraj,’ CBL Per 111.5 ‘King Kayd of Hind telling his dream to Mihran,’ CBL Per 111.6 ‘Bahram Bahramiyan enthroned,’ lower line: CBL Per 111.7 ‘Khusrau writing to the Khaqan,’ CBL Per 111.8, CBL Per 111.9, CBL Per 111.11.
From left to right, upper line: CBL Per 111.2 ‘Faridun testing his sons,’ CBL Per 111.3 ‘Salm and Tur killing Iraj,’ CBL Per 111.5 ‘King Kayd of Hind telling his dream to Mihran,’ CBL Per 111.6 ‘Bahram Bahramiyan enthroned,’ lower line: CBL Per 111.7 ‘Khusrau writing to the Khaqan,’ CBL Per 111.8, CBL Per 111.9, CBL Per 111.11.

Through material examination, my study aimed to distinguish precisely which elements were added in Qajar Iran and differentiate these from the 20th century repairs. These changes have already been studied by scholars (3), but our examination under microscopy and transmitted light will bring more information. It is also a valuable way in which the conservator can learn more about the production and treatment of the manuscripts.

In this blog post, I will confirm the contemporaneity of the margins and the paper repairs, revise the interpretation of the date of Per 111.9 as its watermark was misread, and give more precision about the stages of repainting and the re-margining of the folios.

Introduction to the manuscript

The Great Mongol Shahnama was produced in the 1330s under Ilkhanid patronage in Tabriz, in northwestern Iran. It is exceptional for the quality of its paintings and for its size (4). Measuring originally 60 x 80 cm, it was particularly large for a work of literature at the time. Initially bound in two volumes (5), it has been estimated that the manuscript was originally made up of at least 380 handmade paper folios and 205 painted illustrations (6). However, a number of unfinished text folios and paintings suggest that the manuscript was never finished as planned (7).

The history of the manuscript between the 14th and the 19th centuries is not known (8). Nevertheless, it is clear that the manuscript was still in Iran in the late 19th century, as Antoine Sevruguin (1851-1933) a commercial photographer based in Tehran, took an image of the manuscript in a bound format (9).

Modifications in the Qajar workshops

By the late nineteenth century, the manuscript was in poor condition. The folios and the paintings, which are still abraded and creased, were probably very damaged. The margins were certainly even more worn. The restorers disbound the manuscript and trimmed the margins down to just outside the ruled text panel area, leaving a rectangle around 40 x 29 cm. What remains of the original folios is formed of a light brown heavily burnished handmade Islamic paper, likely made in 14th century Iran.

Image of Left: CBL Per 111.2 recto lower edge under transmitted light; right: CBL Per 111.2 recto, upper right corner.
Left: CBL Per 111.2 recto lower edge under transmitted light; right: CBL Per 111.2 recto, upper right corner.

To refurbish the entire manuscript, the workshop made four major modifications after trimming them down: they repaired losses to the folios with paper patches; re-margined them; added some new folios; and rebound them all in a single volume. (It was not unusual to replace a book’s covers in this way: in the 1870s it was reported that the shah’s librarian was replacing old bindings in the Qajar library.)  The newly added folios were marked with catchwords on the text block and on the margins, which helped to retain the correct order of the folios before they were rebound. They were also paginated with Persian numbers.

Two kinds of paper can be distinguished in these modifications: first, a Russian paper was used to make the new margins and patch repairs; secondly, another type of paper was used for the new text folios. This is a thin handmade Islamic paper with a light brown colour, heavily sized and burnished, while the Russian paper is cream coloured and machine-made. Some paintings were also retouched in a Qajar style (10). These modifications can be seen on the Chester Beatty folios: they have all been re-margined; Per 111.2 and Per 111.3 have been patch repaired; and Per 111.6 has been repainted in a Qajar style. The folios of text Per 111.9 and Per 111.11 are also interesting evidence of the changes made during this period, as they were both added to the manuscript in the 19th century (11).

As we can see with transmitted light, the margins of all but one of the Chester Beatty folios bear the watermark “1839 Π ℾ,” which indicates a paper produced in a Russian papermill (12). Russia and Iran traded goods throughout this period when, as their own domestic production declined, Iran imported Russian paper. As an expensive product, handmade paper is normally used within fifteen years of its production (13). As such, the date of 1839 in the watermark would suggest that the paper was used by the mid-19th century when Nasir al-Din Shah began his long reign (r.1848-1896). Furthermore, this supports the proposal that the manuscript was probably refurbished and reassembled during the second half of the 19th century.

Per 111.2 and Per 111.3 were probably in very poor condition: the most exposed parts of the folios – corners and edges – must have been torn or worn away. Two repairs, yellower in colour than the original 14th century paper, are visible on Per 111.2: in the upper left corner and in the lower edge of the original folio. Under transmitted light, the Russian watermark is visible in the lower margin.

Moreover, the “9” of this watermark is also visible in the paper repair, indicating that the patched repairs were made with the same Russian paper as the margins and are indeed contemporaneous with the remargining process. No watermark is visible in the three repaired corners of Per 111.3, but they are of the same wove Russian paper.

Image of Watermark of CBL Per 111.2 under transmitted light.
Watermark of CBL Per 111.2 under transmitted light.

The third modification was the replacement of extensively damaged text folios with entirely new ones. The Tehran calligrapher copied the exact text and replaced each damaged folio with a new copy in its correct position. The calligraphy seems to correspond to a nineteenth-century hand, but in imitation of a historic fourteenth-century style, so it seems likely that these new folios were produced at the same moment as the other modifications noted here (14). In addition, the calligraphy of the original folios has sometimes been retouched: the same hand which wrote the new Qajar folios has also written over the original calligraphy. Per 111.11 is an example of a Qajar text folio bearing the exact text copied from the original folio.

Per 111.9 is a slightly different example of the Qajar text copied on the Russian “1839 Π ℾ” paper. Although the watermark is identical to the one in the margins (visible at the lower right edge), the paper is lighter and more yellow than the margins and was probably toned – perhaps attempting to match better with the fourteenth-century text folios.  The repairs of Per 111.2 are also of the same yellower colour and were probably made with the same batch of “1839 Π ℾ” toned paper.

Image of Left: CBL Per 111.9 in visible light, and right: CBL Per 111.9 observed under transmitted light.
Left: CBL Per 111.9 in visible light, and right: CBL Per 111.9 observed under transmitted light.

Finally, the Chester Beatty conserves a painting which has been almost entirely repainted in the nineteenth century: Per 111.6. Although no analysis has been carried out, the Qajar style is easily identifiable in the faces with distinctive pink cheeks and heavy eyebrows. Other retouched folios in the USA were analysed by Evie Z. Holmberg in her 1976 Master’s thesis (15). She identified three modern 19th century pigments in areas of repainting. In areas of white, titanium and zinc, and a green pigment containing arsenic, either Emerald or Paris green. The vermillion used in the retouching is sometimes very thin, with particles measuring 1-2 μm, which could be indicative of a modern machine ground pigment. In addition, Sarah Bertalan examined the repainting of the two folios in the Metropolitan Museum of Art to spotlight the original and modern pigments. She determined multiple areas of retouching and observes that “small areas of later retouching are easily distinguished, being glossy, thick colour admixtures” (16).

Unfortunately, the white areas of the retouched Chester Beatty painting are flaking, suggesting the use of lead white (17, 18). Unlike the original painting, the gouache retouching is sometimes applied in thick layers. This can be seen in the blue sky that has been painted with thick, un-diluted brushstrokes, which appear opaque in transmitted light.

Image of Left: CBL Per 111.6, detail, natural light; Right: CBL Per 111.6, detail, transmitted light.
Left: CBL Per 111.6, detail, natural light; Right: CBL Per 111.6, detail, transmitted light.

The faces of Per 111.5 and Per 111.6: unusual damage

Faces and architectural details have been modified and retouched throughout the folios, but Per 111.6 is the only example of extensive repainting. In future, examination with infrared spectroscopy might be able to determine the extent of original and repainted areas. Observed under microscopy, another detail could indicate that this painting had an important meaning: the face of the king enthroned in the middle, has been scratched with force and insistence since the time of its repainting in Qajar Iran. This abrasion has left deep cuts in the paper and removed the painted layer, especially around the eyes. No other face in the painting has been scratched like this, suggesting this alteration was an intentional act. The motivation for this alteration is unknown.

Image of CBL Per 111.6 observed under microscopy.
CBL Per 111.6 observed under microscopy.

The painting on Per 111.5 also shows strange damage, which seems to be intentional; the paint layer has been smudged in specific areas. These are all localised around the faces, and only four of the six figures have been damaged, and one of the animals in the landscape. Who damaged these two folios and when, requires further investigation.

At different times throughout Islamic history, figurative representations in manuscripts have been effaced (19). For example, faces can be deliberately erased by smudging or rubbing the painted surface.

Image of CBL Per 111.5: detail of the damaged faces.
CBL Per 111.5: detail of the damaged faces.

The context and the place of these actions can only be determined with difficulty. We can see that the face of king Bahram II in Per 111.6 has been scratched after it was repainted (i.e. in the late 19th century). However, the smudged faces on folio Per 111.5 could have been erased at any time since the production of the manuscript in the 14th century.

The use-life of the Chester Beatty folios of the Great Mongol Shahnama deserves more study. The successive repainting, retouching, and wear to the folios reveals their importance, and the ways in which their successive owners took care of them and brought them up to date. The Qajars refurbished the manuscript to make it readable again: all the folios were re-margined with the same rigorous but well-executed system. First, the lateral margins were pasted on to the folio, then the vertical margins. The edges were shaved down at the point where they overlap the original folio to avoid any build-up of thickness between the different layers of paper. In contrast, the modifications made in the early 20thcentury, the subject of my next post, are badly crafted collages, which are often skewed and rough.

The study of the evolution of these folios, visible through the changes made to each one, are proof of the multiple lives that this manuscript has lived. In my next post, I hope to share my observations of the folios next major reformatting in the early 20th century.

Hoa Perriguey, Conservator

Footnotes

(1) Sheila Blair and Oleg Grabar, Epic Images of Contemporary History: the illustrations of the Great Mongol Shahnama, Chicago, 1980.

(2) Jonathan Bloom, ‘The Great Mongol Shahnama in the Qajar Period,’ in Shahnama: the visual language of the Persian Book of Kings, Aldershot: Ashgate, 2004, pp. 25-34.

(3) Priscilla Soucek, ‘DEMOTTE ŠĀH-NĀMA’, Encyclopedia Iranica, vol. VII , Fasc. 3, 1994, pp. 277-278. 

(4) Robert Hillenbrand, ‘The Arts of the Book in Ilkhanid Iran,’ in The Legacy of Genghis Khan, Courtly Art and Culture in Western Asia, 1256-1353, New York: Metropolitan Museum of Art, 2012, pp.135-196.

(5) Sheila Blair, ‘On the Track of the Demotte Shāhnāma Manuscript,’ in Les manuscrits du Moyen-Orient. Essais de codicologie et de paléographie, Varia Turcica 8, Istanbul and Paris, 1989, pp. 125-131.

(6) Amin Mahdavi, An Event-Driven Distribution Model for Automatic Insertion of Illustrations in Narrative Discourse : A Study Based on the Shahnama Narrative,’ Thesis (unpublished), University of Edinburgh, 2004. 

Based on Mahdavi’s study, Robert Hillenbrand makes an estimation of ‘380 folios and at least 205 illustrations.’ See, Robert Hillenbrand, ‘The Great Mongol Shāhnāma: Some Proposed Repatriations,’ in The Diez album: contexts and contents, Leiden, Boston: Brill, 2017, pp. 441-468, p. 449.

(7) Grabar and Blair, Epic Images, pp. 11-12.

(8) Several hypothesis have been made by scholars: it could have been kept in a Safavid library in Iran and several paintings could have been cut and pasted into albums now conserved in Berlin. See, Jonathan Bloom, ‘The Great Mongol Shahnama in the Qajar Period,’ and Robert Hillenbrand, ‘The Great Mongol Shāhnāma: Some Proposed Repatriations.’

(9) See, Sheila Blair, ‘On the Track of the Demotte Shāhnāma Manuscript,’ p.128 and Robert Hillenbrand, ‘The Great Mongol Shāhnāma: Some Proposed Repatriations,’ p.446.

(10) Moya Carey, Persian Art: Collecting the Arts of Iran in the Nineteenth Century, London: V&A publishing, 2017

(11) Sheila Blair, ‘Rewriting the History of the Great Mongol Shahnama,’ in Shahnama: the visual language of the Persian Book of Kings, Aldershot: Ashgate, 2004, pp. 35-50.

(12) Jonathan Bloom, in ‘The Great Mongol Shahnama in the Qajar Period,’ p.30, cites the book: Zoya Vasil’evna Uchastkina, A History of Russian Hand Paper-Mills and Their Watermarks, transl. J.S.G. Simmons, Monumenta Chartae Papyraceae Historiam Illustrantia, Hilversum 1962, nos. 370-1.

(13) This is the observation of Briquet, although Francis Richard thinks that it could be a slightly longer period of time in the Middle East. They are cited by Bloom in, ‘The Great Mongol Shahnama in the Qajar period,’ p.30.

(14) Sheila Blair, ‘Rewriting the History of the Great Mongol Shahnama,’ p.45.

(15) Elvie Zachariades Holmberg, Identification of Pigments Used on 14th Century Persian Miniatures From the “Demotte” Shah-Nameh, Master’s thesis (unpublished), 1976.

(16) Sarah Bertalan, ‘Close Examination of Leaves from the Great Mongol Shahnama’, in The Legacy of Genghis Khan, Courtly Art and Culture in Western Asia, 1256-1353, New York: Metropolitan Museum of Art, 2012, pp. 227-232.

(17) Silvia Centeno, Marcelo Guzman, Akiko Yamazaki-Kleps, Carlos Della Védova, “Characterization by FTIR of the Effect of Lead White on Some Properties of Proteinaceous binding media,” Journal of the American Institute for Conservation, vol.43, 2002, pp. 139-150.

(18) E. W. FitzHugh, “Appendix 9: Study of pigments on selected paintings from the Vever Collection.” In An Annotated and Illustrated Checklist of the Vever Collection, by G. D. Lowry and M. C. Beach, 425–32. Washington, DC: Arthur M. Sackler Gallery, Seattle and London: University of Washington Press, 1988.

(19) Finbarr Barry Flood, ‘Between Cult and Culture: Bamiyan, Islamic Iconoclasm, and the Museum,’ in The Art Bulletin, vol. 84 n°4 (Dec. 2002), College Art Association, pp.641-659.

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