Pictures as Mirrors for Shah Tahmasb: How manuscript paintings shaped court culture in early modern Iran

Date of Award

Fall 10-1-2021

Document Type


Degree Name

Doctor of Philosophy (PhD)


History of Art

First Advisor

Rizvi, Kishwar


This dissertation investigates how sixteenth-century manuscript paintings shaped courtly identity and behavior at a time of sweeping political change in Iran. During the first half of the sixteenth century, rulers of the new Safavid dynasty in Iran commissioned richly illustrated manuscripts. Turning to a corpus of paintings from a royal copy of the medieval Persian epic Khamsa, this study examines these paintings in light of the numerous extratextual inscriptions incorporated into the pictorial world (an unstudied body of evidence despite the book’s renown), and puts them in dialogue with autobiographical writings, court chronicles, diplomatic letters, and literary anthologies from the period. Their combined insight to demonstrates that, through extratextual inscriptions, the paintings effectively acted as gatekeepers by regulating the viewing activities of courtiers and instructing them in proper courtly behavior. Therefore, I argue that, through its inscriptions, the manuscript became an active agent of change in its own setting, affecting in equal measure its patron, artists, and audience.

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