Ardashir Captures Ardavan

Iran, Tabriz, Il-Khanid period, ca. 1330–36
Opaque watercolor, ink, and gold on paper
Purchase—Smithsonian Unrestricted Trust Funds, Smithsonian Collections Acquisition Program, and Dr. Arthur M. Sackler
Arthur M. Sackler Gallery S1986.103

Firdawsi’s preoccupation with the concept of justice and the passage of power is central to the story of Ardavan, the last king of the Parthians (247 BCE–224 CE), and Ardashir, the founder of the Sasanian dynasty (224–651). In the epic’s account of the fall of the Parthians, Ardavan invites young Ardashir to live at the royal court, but later in a fit of jealousy the elderly king banishes him to the stables. A series of harsh betrayals leads Ardavan to challenge Ardashir in battle. After forty days of fighting, a wounded and exhausted Ardavan is captured and brought before the ambitious Ardashir and executed.

This scene conveys a deep sense of despair—from Ardavan’s slumped shoulders and downcast eyes to the dry, twisting branches of the tree behind him. By cutting figures off at the margins and placing a central soldier with his back to the viewer, the artist heightens the poignancy of the moment. Such compositional devices were inspired, in part, by Chinese luxury goods that became available in Iran through active land and sea trade in the mid-thirteenth century.