Collections: Egyptian, Classical, Ancient Near Eastern Art: Kohl Jar with Cover

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Kohl Jar with Cover

This image of a mounted king speaking with a shepherd in a village belongs to a manuscript of the Bust?n (Orchard) of Sa'di (died 1283 or 1291), an Iranian poet born in Shiraz and educated in Baghdad. Sa'di's texts and verses are best known for their lyrical reflection upon the human experience. Completed in 1257, the Bust?n falls into the "mirrors for princes" literary genre; such a manuscript would have played an important role in a prince's education, its paintings emphasizing the moral of a given story.

This illustration refers to the tale of a cruel Ghurid king (part of an eleventh-twelfth-century dynasty that ruled parts of Afghanistan and India) who learns an important lesson from a local villager. Lost while hunting one day and separated from his courtly entourage, the king must spend the night alone in the open air. As he prepares to sleep, he spies on a peasant conversing with his son about their cruel king who burdens his mules without feeding them and exploits the wretched and weak. When the king is discovered the next morning by his attendants, one of his boon companions asks how the ruler was treated overnight. Back at court, the king becomes furious as he remembers the words of the peasant and orders the poor man to be brought to him and killed. With little hope of survival, the peasant decides to speak the harsh truth to his king, advising him that a monarch is ultimately judged by his subjects—including the peasant woman at her spinning wheel illustrated in the painting.

The three verses of Persian at the top of the page narrate the moment when the king's courtiers find him after his night alone. The illustration, however, includes references to several parts of the story, suggesting a continuous narrative by encompassing all the characters in one setting.

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