Iskandar at the Talking Tree

Iran, Tabriz, Il-Khanid period, ca. 1330–36
Opaque watercolor, ink, and gold on paper
Purchase, Freer Gallery of Art F1935.23

When Iskandar reaches the end of the world, he encounters a tree with two trunks. From one trunk sprout male heads that speak during the day in a voice that strikes terror, while the female heads of the other trunk talk sweetly at night. Loudly the male half warns Iskandar that he has already seen his share of blessings and “when he has reigned for fourteen years, he must quit the royal throne.” At midnight the female heads urge him not to give in to greed, which makes one “wander the wide world, harass mankind, and kill kings.” Lastly, they disclose, “Death will come soon: you will die in a strange land, with strangers standing by.”

The artist of this remarkable painting took some liberties with the story. In addition to the male and female faces in the branches, he inserted the heads of a rabbit, a fox, a rooster, and a bird, among other animals. At the base of the tree, fantastically shaped fungi and rocks, inspired by Chinese models, replace the animal bones and skins described in the Shahnama. Their inclusion contributes to the sense of eeriness and foreboding that Iskandar must have felt beneath the tree that predicted his fate.