The most elaborate and luxurious manuscript of the Ilkhanid period is a fourteenth-century copy (now dispersed) of the Shahnama (Book of Kings), medic known today as the Great Mongol Shahnama. It exists today in the form of 57 illustrations and several text pages scattered among public and private collections. Extensive study of the manuscript has revealed that the original was probably two volumes of about 280 large folios and 190 illustrations.
In the early twentieth century, denture Paris dealer Georges Demotte took the manuscript apart, splitting some folios with illustrations on both sides and selling the resulting two leaves individually. He commissioned new text pages to paste on the backs of the undamaged split leaves; when these were damaged, the salvaged image was pasted onto a newly commissioned folio. As a result, some paintings are unrelated to the accompanying text, while others have incomplete text.
The pages of the Great Mongol Shahnama are large in format and most of the space is often entirely painted. The figures possess a monumental quality, and the use of such devices as the extension of trees and battle standards beyond the picture frame and the truncation of human and animal figures imparts a sense of barely contained energy. The frequent depiction of figures seen from behind pulls the viewer into the picture space, enhancing the drama. The innovative Ilkhanid artists combined the traditional style of Persian painting with elements borrowed from other traditions—costumes, rocks, trees, and clouds from Chinese art; compositions from Western painting—to produce a unique and unparalleled visual expression. The Shahnama, with its rich detailing of the largely lost material culture of the Mongol court, presents a view of the contemporary Ilkhanid world, transforming a popular text into a splendid visual document of the period.
Robert Hillenbrand has spent many years tracing the dispersed folios in order to bring them together to produce a facsimile of the original.