In the Realm of Princes: The Arts of the Book in Fifteenth Century Iran and Central Asia

“In the Realm of Princes: The Arts of the Book in Fifteenth-Century Iran and Central Asia” highlighted the remarkable artistic achievements of Timurid princes and their Turkoman rivals. It included 33 of the finest 15th-century paintings, manuscripts, and portable luxury objects from Iran and present-day Afghanistan in the United States.

In the 1370s, the charismatic but brutal Turkic warlord Timur, also known as Tamerlane in the West, swept out of Central Asia and conquered a vast territory that extended from Anatolia—in present-day Turkey—to the borders of China. He chose Samarqand—in present-day Uzbekistan—as his capital and established the Timurid dynasty, which reigned until 1506. Although the Timurids lost political control over much of their conquered lands by the middle of the 15th century, they were responsible for one of the most artistically brilliant periods in the history of the Islamic world.

Fifteenth-century arts of the book reached an apogee during the relatively peaceful reign of the last Timurid ruler, Sultan Husayn Mirza (1470–1506), whose capital Herat—in present-day Afghanistan—became the unrivaled artistic and literary center of West Asia. Among the most important artists in Herat was Kamal-uddin Bihzad (d. 1535), largely accredited with introducing a new sense of naturalism into Persian painting. Bihzad signed few works and because of his legendary status, numerous compositions have been erroneously attributed to him. The Freer and Sackler galleries have the largest collection of paintings by Bihzad in the United States, which were on view together for the first time: a signed painting, believed to be one of the artist’s last, “An Old Man and a Youth,” and two other compositions attributed to his hand, “Sa’di and the Youth of Kashgar” and “Abduction by Sea.”