New Bodleian exhibition featuring rare Persian manuscripts

Love and Devotion: From Persia and Beyond 

3 December 2012

Poster-newsThe Bodleian Winter exhibition draws on the Library's enormously rich collection of Oriental material. Love and Devotion celebrates the beauty of Persian manuscripts and depicts the stories of human and divine love told through their lavishly-illustrated pages. 

The show will feature more than 60 rare Persian, Mughal Indian and Ottoman Turkish illustrated manuscripts spanning from the 13th to 18th century. These provide a rare overview of Persian calligraphy, illumination and miniature painting from one of the richest periods in the history of the book. 

Love and Devotion will show the many representations of human and divine love within the great narratives and poetry of Persian literature. Classic love stories by writers such as Nizami and Jami, as well as Firdawsi’s Shahnamah, or Book of Kings, Persia’s great literary epic, will be exhibited. Visitors will see works from the great Sufi poets such as ‘Attar, Rumi and Hafiz, which have been enormously popular in the West as well as the East.

The exhibition also reveals the extent to which Persian language and culture spread into neighbouring empires such as Mughal India and the Ottoman Empire. 

Persian tales illustrated in the exhibition: 
  • The Shahnamah (Book of Kings) is considered to be the longest poem ever written by a single person.  Comprising almost 60,000 couplets, it was completed a little more than 1000 years ago in the year 1010. The work recounts the entire history of humanity with Iran as its focus. 
  • The Persian version of the history of Iskandar, known in the European literature as Alexander the Great, written by the great poet Nizami (who lived in the 12th century).
  • The love story of the Sasanian King Khusraw II (r. 590–628 AD) and Shirin, the Christian princess from Armenia.
  • The Persian story of Laylá (Layli) and Majnun described by Lord Byron as the ‘Romeo and Juliet of the East’.
  • The archetypal story of Yusuf (Joseph) and Zulaykha, one of the greatest mystical love stories of the Islamic world, which is widely known as the tale in the Biblical book of Genesis in which Joseph is sold into slavery and firmly resists the approaches of the wife of his master, the Egyptian official Potiphar.

Alasdair Watson, Curator of Islamic Manuscripts at the Bodleian Library and exhibition curator, said: ‘These timeless epics, tales, and romances which transcend the bounds of language, culture, and religion, have all come down to us in the most beautiful of forms from a culture which really was a culture of the book.The shapeliness and beauty of the calligraphic script,the illuminations in gold and lapis-lazuli, the exquisite motifs of flora and fauna, and the delicately-painted images, not to mention the sublime artistry of the literature itself, are all testament to the love, care, dedication, and devotion of all those who were involved in their production. ’

The richness of the Bodleian Libraries’ collections of Oriental material owes much to the foresight of scholar-collectors. The Bodleian Library’s founding in 1602 coincided with a time of great interest in the East. When it opened, the Library already possessed a copy of the Qur’an and in that year acquired, by gift, a Persian and a Turkish language manuscript. Its oriental collections grew steadily over subsequent centuries with the acquisition of manuscript collections amassed by Oxford academics and Orientalists such as Archbishop William Laud, Edward Pococke and Archbishop Narcissus Marsh. In the 19th century, the Bodleian’s holdings of Persian manuscripts increased dramatically with the acquisition of Sir William Ouseley’s collection and remarkably through the donation of J.B. Elliott, a Bengal civil servant, Sir William’s collection was soon reunited with that of his brother, Sir Gore Ouseley, whose collection Elliott had previously acquired.  

Developed in partnership with the State Library of Victoria, Melbourne Australia Love and Devotion: From Persia and Beyond is based on an exhibition curated by Susan Scollay and Clare Williamson. The Bodleian exhibition is curated by Alasdair Watson, Curator of Islamic Manuscripts at the Bodleian Library. 

Love and Devotion: From Persia and Beyond

29 November 2012 – 29 April 2013
Exhibition Room, Bodleian Library, Old Schools Quad, Catte Street, Oxford
Opening Hours: Monday to Friday 9am – 5pm
Saturday 9am – 4.30pm
Sunday 11am – 5pm
Closed : 24 December – 2 January  




A lavishly illustrated companion volume, Love and Devotion: from Persia and beyond, by Susan Scollay will also be available.

Susan Scollay is an art historian specializing in the Islamic world. She is guest co-curator of the 'Love and Devotion: From Persia and Beyond' exhibition.

The book can be purchased in the Bodleian Shop or online at Hardback, 240 pp, 135 colour illustrations, ISBN: 9781851242788, £40


A program of lunchtime lectures will support the exhibition. For full details and how to book, please visit our Forthcoming Events page. 
Back to top