It is likely that this painting depicts King Solomon and the Queen of Sheba, which was a popular subject in Persian painting. In Islamic culture Solomon is a prominent figure as both a King and Prophet – Qur’anic passages tell of Solomon converting the Queen of Sheba, a worshipper of the sun, to Islam (Qur’an XXVI, sura al-shu'ara, vv.22-44). He is said to have presided over a wondrous entourage of birds, men and genii and that he made both creatures and elements subservient to his will (Ilse Sturkenboom, ‘Links in a Chain of Transfer: Pictorial and Textual Images of Solomon and the Queen of Sheba in the Mantiq al-Tayr’ in Beiträge zur Islamischen Kunst und Archäologie, Wiesbaden, 2017, p.70). Usually depicted as an enthroned couple, seated at the middle of a court of humans and animals, winged figures and other wonderful creatures, the image became increasingly popular from the 1480s. Other depictions of the scene, all from copies of the Mantiq al-Tayr, include one in the Royal Asiatic Society (MS 248a, dated 1478), another in the British Library (MS Or.4151, f.92b, attributed to Shiraz and dated AH 877/1472 AD) and a third in the Gulistan Palace Library in Tehran (inv.2152, again attributed to Shiraz and dated AH 880/1476 AD).
The scene was often depicted across a double frontispiece of manuscripts, sometimes with the patron of the manuscript inserted into the scene. Here, the face of King Solomon bears a very strong likeness to that of the Emperor Baysunghur. Baysunghur (1397-1433) was a great patron of the arts and commissioned a number of portraits of himself, including one in the Gulistan Shahnama of Baysunghur, dated 1430; a painting of ‘Baysunghur ibn Shahrukh Seated in a Garden’ from a Kalila wa Dimna of Nizamuddin Abu’l-Ma’ali Nasrullah, painted in Herat in 1429 (now in the Topkapi Palace Library and published Thomas W. Lentz and Glenn D. Lowry, Timur and the Princely Vision, exhibition catalogue, Los Angeles, 1989, pp.66-67, cat.no.21); and a painting of ‘Humay in the Fairy Palace’, painted in the Academy of Baysunghur in 1427 and now in the Osterreichische Nationalbibliothek, Vienna (published B.W. Robinson, Persian Drawings from the 14th through the 19th Century, Canada, 1965, p.45, pl.13). In all of these paintings Baysunghur bears a very strong resemblance to our main figure - painted with a rounded face and feathery moustache and wearing a gold crown and gold earring with a single hanging pearl.
A number of other features of our painting find comparables in work from the period of Baysunghur and just after. The carpet on which the throne in our painting sits is for instance very similar to those depicted in a painting, ‘Tahima comes into Rustam’s Chamber’ which is attributed to 1434-40, in the Harvard Art Museum (1939.225) or in the painting of ‘Humay in the Fairy Palace’ mentioned above which was painted in 1427. However many of the features of our painting also closely resemble the depiction of Solomon and Bilqis in the RAS manuscript of 1478 (MS 248a). Like ours that has a silver octagonal fountain in the foreground, and a ground composed of green tiled bricks. A grey feline is sprawled across the foreground of both paintings. The placement of the tree in the background, as well as the rather regal bird perched on the wall behind the couple also bears close resemblance.
It is likely therefore that our painting was done either during the reign of Baysunghur or somewhat later but based on a Baysunghuri example. Ernst Grube writes that there is no question that the Herat painters of this period [1460-1500] considered the Baysunghur style ‘the absolute measure of excellence and made every effort to recapture it as closely as possible’ (Ernst J. Grube, The Classical Style in Islamic Painting, Germany, 1968, p.29). Lentz and Lowry write that the knowledge of individual images which could be borrowed was made possible by the Timurid kitabkhana system, which preserved the visual and literary records of the past and provided artists with a wealth of information that allowed them to borrow freely from earlier moments in the dynasty’s artistic history (Thomas W. Lentz and Glenn D. Lowry, Timur and the Princely Vision. Persian Art and Culture in the Fifteenth Century, exhibition catalogue, Washington D.C., 1989, p.274).
Full-page Timurid painting of this type is extremely rare. A full-page Timurid painting of the Court of Pir Budaq, attributable to Shiraz, circa 1455-60 sold in these Rooms, 25 April 2013, lot 5.