The Shahnama, often called the "national epic" of Iran, was completed around the year 1010 by the Persian poet Abu'l Qasim Firdawsi. A vast and complex poem, it opens with the creation of the world and concludes with the Muslim conquest of Iran in the mid-seventh century, thus comprising myth, legend, and history. Some 45,000 lines are filled with a rich panoply of characters—kings, queens, princes, princesses, heroes, lovers, warriors, villains, and magical creatures. Copied and illustrated countless times over the centuries, the Shahnama's immense popularity and influence extend well beyond the borders of Iran.
The MFA, along with companion exhibitions at the Harvard Art Museum and the Houghton Library beginning in June 2010, marks a millennium of Shahnama inspiration by looking at different aspects of the poem. The MFA’s exhibition explores the theme of women in the Shahnama. Although in Firdawsi's text stories about male heroes vastly outnumber those concerning women, tales about women are some of the poem's most famous and popular. The paintings selected for this exhibition illuminate the stories of a number of resourceful and colorful female characters.