Princeton's Great Persian Book of Kings


The Shahnama Book of Kings includes 48 exquisite examples of Persian miniature painting, illustrating a masterpiece of world literature 

PRINCETON, NJ---Over 1,000 years ago, the Persian poet Abu'l-Qasim Firdausi (935–1020) narrated the history of Iran and its peoples—spanning 50 monarchs from the dawn of time to the 7th century A.D.—through gripping tales of ancient triumphs, larger-than-life heroes and grand adventures. Called the Shahnama, or Book of Kings, the epic has been a source of artistic inspiration in Persian culture for centuries and is the most frequently illustrated work of Persian poetry. Firdausi’s Shahnama has been a vital source of artistic inspiration in Persian cultures for centuries.

Princeton University owns five illustrated versions of the Shahnama, one of which, the Peck Shahnama, named for its donor, ranks among the finest 16th-century Persian manuscripts in the U.S., due to its impressive size and the quality of its materials and decoration. Having recently undergone conservation treatment, for which the entire manuscript was disbound, the outstanding—though relatively unknown—Peck Shahnama is now the centerpiece of a exhibition before the codex is rejoined.       

Princeton’s Great Persian Book of Kings—on view at the Princeton University Art Museum from October 3, 2015 through January 24, 2016—will feature all of the manuscript’s 48 illustrated and illuminated folios and will introduce the captivating splendor and art-historical significance of the Peck Shahnama to the public for the first time. The exhibition will be organized to follow the Shahnama’s narrative, structured around mythical, legendary and historical eras, and will offer insight into Persian manuscript production and the history of Persian miniature painting.

The Peck Shahnama was bequeathed to the Princeton University Library in 1983 by Clara S. Peck in honor of her brother, Fremont C. Peck, a member of Princeton’s Class of 1920. Ms. Peck (1896–1983) was a horse breeder and collector of rare books and manuscripts with a particular affinity for literature on natural history, sporting, hunting, and equine history. It was doubtless the varied, and often delightful, representations of horses and other animals, polo games, and hunting scenes that attracted Miss Peck to this deluxe Book of Kings

“The lasting and universal themes depicted in the magisterial Peck Shahnama remain emphatically relevant and still resonate with individuals and cultures around the world today,” said James Steward, Nancy A. Nasher–David J. Haemisegger, Class of 1976, Director. “This beautiful example of Persian miniature painting is a masterwork of literature and art, and Princeton looks forward to bringing more attention to it through this exhibition and publication.”

The Peck Shahnama was illustrated in 1589–90 in the city of Shiraz in south-central Iran and is an exceptional example of the manuscripts created in that center of learning and culture. Every intricate detail, from the gold-specked paper to the number and content of the illustrated scenes, was conceived in advance by a master book designer.

Shahnama manuscripts trace the vibrant artistic tradition of Persian miniature painting as it developed from late medieval through early modern times. Each deluxe Shahnama is a singular work of art—no two volumes contain the same verses or illustrate the same scenes.

The exhibition was guest curated by Marianna Shreve Simpson, a specialist in the Islamic arts of the book, who was previously curator of Islamic Near Eastern art at the Freer Gallery of Art and Arthur M. Sackler Gallery, Smithsonian Institution, and director of curatorial affairs and curator of Islamic art at the Walters Art Museum, Baltimore. 

Princeton’s Great Persian Book of Kings has been made possible by generous support from Amani Ahmed, Ziad Ahmed, Inaya Ahmed, and Faria Abedin; the Frances E. and Elias Wolf, Class of 1920, Fund; the Sharmin and Bijan Mossavar-Rahmani Center for Iran and Persian Gulf Studies, Princeton University; and the Allen R. Adler, Class of 1967, Exhibitions Fund. Additional support has been provided by the New Jersey State Council on the Arts/Department of State, a Partner Agency of the National Endowment for the Arts; and by the Friends of the Princeton University Art Museum. Generous support for the publication has been provided by the Barr Ferree Foundation Fund for Publications, Department of Art and Archaeology, Princeton University, and the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation.



            A 208-page catalogue, published by the Princeton University Art Museum and distributed by Yale University Press, accompanies the exhibition and includes a major scholarly essay by the curator, detailing the Peck Shahnama’s origins, history and artistic characteristics; stunning new photography of each of the manuscript’s illuminated and illustrated folios, accompanied by insightful commentary on their narrative themes and artistic presentation; and an essay by Louise Marlow (professor of religion and chair, Middle Eastern studies, Wellesley College) on the manuscript’s extensive marginal glosses.



The Story of Princeton’s Great Persian Book of Kings

Saturday, October 17, 5 p.m.

50 McCosh Hall

Marianna Shreve Simpson, guest curator of Princeton’s Great Persian Book of Kings, presents the story of Princeton’s Peck Shahnama, the treasured illuminated manuscript that traveled from Iran in the seventeenth century to India, then England, and finally to the United States. A reception in the Museum will follow.


Traditional Persian Music: Amir Vahab and Ensemble

Thursday, November 12, 6 and 7 p.m.

Join us for two performances by Amir Vahab, celebrated Persian instrumentalist, vocalist, and composer. A reception in the Museum will follow.

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About the Princeton University Art Museum

With a collecting history that extends back to the 1750s, the Princeton University Art Museum is one of the leading university art museums in the country, with collections that have grown to include over 92,000 works of art ranging from ancient to contemporary art and spanning the globe.

Committed to advancing Princeton’s teaching and research missions, the Art Museum also serves as a gateway to the University for visitors from around the world. Intimate in scale yet expansive in scope, the Museum offers a respite from the rush of daily life, a revitalizing experience of extraordinary works of art and an opportunity to delve deeply into the study of art and culture.

The Princeton University Art Museum is located at the heart of the Princeton campus, a short walk from the shops and restaurants of Nassau Street. Admission is free. Museum hours are Tuesday, Wednesday, Friday and Saturday 10 a.m. to 5 p.m.; Thursday 10 a.m. to 10 p.m.; and Sunday 1 to 5 p.m. The Museum is closed Mondays and major holidays.

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