Notebook, 1993-

[From: Porada, Edith [With the collaboration of R. H. Dyson and contributions by C.K. Wilkinson]. The Art of Ancient Iran, Pre-Islamic Cultures. New York: Crown Publishers, Inc. Art of the World. 1962.}

Preface --- 1.Geography and Trade --- 2.Beginnings of Art --- 3.The Art of The Early Urban Civilization --- 4.The Art of the Akkad and Post-Akkad Periods in Western Iran; Contemporary Art Works of North-Eastern Iran --- 5.The Art of the Elamites --- 6.The Bronzes of Luristan --- 8.Finds of The Late Second and Early First Millennium B.C. at Sialk Near Kashan --- 9.The Finds of Hasanlu - The Art of the Manneans --- 10.The Treasure of Ziwiye --- 11.The Art of the Medes --- 12.The Art of the Achaemenids --- 13.The Art of The Seleucids --- 14.The Art of the Parthians --- 15.Sasanian Art

The Art of Ancient Iran, Pre-Islamic

Sasanian Art - Notes for this chapter

The Sasanian dynasty had its inception in a town situated near ancient Persepolis, Istakhr or Stakhr, the capital of the Persis. Little remains above ground of the buildings of Istakhr, which once included an important fire sanctuary of Anahita, the Iranian goddess of water and fertility, but also a goddess of war. [1] The office of chief priest of the sanctuary seems to have been linked with the secular administration of the region of Istakhr, and both functions seem to have been hereditary in a family which traced its origins to a legendary 'Sasan', a distant descendant of the Achaemenid dynasty. From this family came Ardashir, whose name is a Middle Persian version of the Old Persian name Artaxerxes. Ardashir defeated Artaban, the last Parthian king, in 224 and, in a reign which lasted until 241, firmly established the rule of the Sasanians by reorganizing the Persian empire and by associating with him in the latter part of this reign his vigorous and capable son Shapur. The origin of the dynasty determined its religious and conservative character and also expressed itself in a greater stress on links with Achaemenid tradition than seems to have been the case in the time of the Arsacids. Such evidence of connections with earlier periods of Iranian greatness could probably be used as a political asset in the contest with the Arsacids, whose origin in Central Asia, far from the Persian heartland of Fars, was probably not forgotten.

In contrast with the Arsacid empire, which had a loose structure, the Sassanians were able to establish a strong central power and thereby to control the unruly feudal aristocracy. In their well-trained army the Sasanians continued the effective units of heavy and light cavalry which had constituted the most powerful striking force of the Parthians. At the same time the Sasanian kings created an administration so efficient that it permitted them to carry out programmes of irrigation, town building and industrialization on a unprecedented scale.. [2] The wealth of Iran was probably never greater than in the time of the Sassanian power; it was the most formidable opponent of Rome, later of Byzantium.

In the first century of Sasanian rule, the empire was extended in the East at the expense of the Kushans of north-western India, whose power was already on the decline. In the West expansion was limited by Roman counter-measures so that the Sasanian frontiers never extended for long beyond the Euphrates. In the north Sasanian troops held the frontiers against the ever threatening incursions of nomads. The danger of invasion by hordes of barbarians from the steppes was so fully realized by Byzantine politicians that large sums of Byzantine coins were sent to Iran for support of the troops on the frontiers; ostensibly, these were contributions toward the extension and upkeep of the passes in the Caucasus.. [3] At other times the Sasanians were fighting the armies of Byzantium as a result of towns of northern Syria like Antioch, or over the wealthy kingdom of Armenia. In the east a dangerous element appeared in the reign of Shapur II [310-379] in the form of the White Huns, called Chionite-Hephthalites. Shapur warred against these Huns, perhaps with some success, because he obtained auxiliaries from them for his campaigns in the West. But they settled as 'confederates' in former Kushan territory and harassed the empire in the following centuries.

At the same time as the frontiers of the Sasanian empire were thus threatened and [p. 192] often embattled, men and goods must have passed across them, coming and going from the Sasanian centres to the kingdoms of Central Asia. There excavations of Palaces and castles have brought to light wall-paintings which indicate close relationship with Sassanian Iran in such portable commodities as textiles and other products of the luxury trade.. [4]

The greatest territorial extension of the Sasanian empire and the last apogee of its artistic activities were reached in the time of Khusraw II [591-628], a well known figure in the history and legend of the West, who had taken the Holy Cross from Jerusalem to his capital, Ctesiphon. The collapse of the empire began in Khusraw's own time as a result of the Byzantine counter-attack mounted by the Emperor Heraclius, who won back the western territories occupied by Khusraw and even besieged the latter in his capital, Ctesiphon, where he was murdered by his son. Shortly thereafter came the attack of the Arabs, who had only recently appeared as a redoubtable power in the Near east. Resistance of the Sasanians was broken in the battle of Nihavend in 642. Yezdegerd III, the last king, who had taken flight with his court towards the East, was murdered in the region of Merv in 651.

According to tradition the founding by the Sasanian Ardashir of a town which he called 'the glory of Ardashir' was considered by Ardavan, the last Arsacid, as an insufferable act of a vassal and to have provided the immediate cause for ArdavanĶs ill-fated military action against Ardashir. This tradition conveys something of the political significance which pertained to builders and buildings in this period.

The plan of Ardashir's town was circular, as were those of some Parthian towns. Aerial photographs taken of the fertile valley of Firuzbad. [5] show the former circumference traceable in decayed earth ramparts and in the wide fosse of a ruined circumvallation. Arab writers tell us that four gates gave access to the town; their position can still be recognized today. In the centre of the one-time city a tall block of masonry rises from an artificial platform, perhaps the remains of a fire tower.. [6]

The principal palace of Ardashir was situated outside the town beside an [p. 193] abundant spring, which yielded sufficient water not only for the requirements of a large court but also for the irrigation of gardens. Even today palaces and gardens are planned in relation to springs which assure a plentiful supply of water. There is a dramatic contrast between Persian gardens with their luxuriant shady trees and cool pools and the dry dusty ground that lies beyond their walls.

Spring, garden and palace of Firuzabad formed an entity more obviously protected against the summer heat and the outside world than later buildings of similar type. The walls of this structure, which measured 104 x 55 metres,. [7] were built of rubble with quick-setting mortar and were as much as 4 metres wide. The outer walls seem to have been slightly articulated by two rows of vertical niches [see the remaining wall fragment on the left in Figure 104]. This articulation, however, would not have detracted from the massive defensible appearance of the structure, to which the low heavy cupolas must have contributed. Originally the rubble walls were covered with stucco, which is still preserved in some places in the domed halls and in the court of the palace. [p. 194] Niches, with a semi-circular top, were set in rectangular frames and moulded in the stucco. The lintel of these niches was formed by a cavetto cornice of the type used on the lintels of windows and doors in the palaces of Persepolis from which those of Firuzabad were surely copied in a conscious imitation of Achaemenid architectural features. [8]. . . . Here, in Firuzabad, as in the Parthian palace of Ashur, the iwan was conbined with the ancient Near [p. 195] Eastern type of house in which the rooms open on an inner court to produce a complex which was well suited to the climate of these regions.

Later palaces show variations of the basic forms employed in the palace of Ardashir. Thus the palace of Imaret-i Khusraw at Kasr-i Shirin, built in the time of Khusraw II [591-628], is a gigantically extended complex of an iwan-shaped entrance hall, a square domed hall, side rooms and courts, as well as surrounding living quarters. The structure measured 250 metres in length and 190 metres in width, and rose on an artificial terrace 8 metres in height, in front of which extended a narrow water channel about 550 metres in length.

Equally gigantic proportions distinguished the palace of Ctesiphon the residence of the Sasanians after the overthrow of the Parthians. . . .Here another characteristic trait of Sasanian architecture manifests itself: it was not important that the faŁade should be structurally and logically articulated, as in buildings of classical antiquity, but rather that its should be richly . [9]decorated with a pattern which could be extended at will.

Today only the left side of the faŁade of the palace of Ctesiphon remains standing. . . . [p. 196] On the same axis as the great hall of the 'Taq', but facing in the opposite direction, was a second hall only slightly shorter than the first and doubtless covered in similar manner by a barrel-vault. Communication between the two halls could not be established by the excavators, nor could any substantial suggestions be made to explain their function. In general scholars are inclined to accept the traditional interpretation of the extant standing hall as the great throne-hall of the palace, though its crude walls, built of lightly baked brick set in gypsum mortar, retain none of the former magnificence. To get an idea of the original appearance of the building we have to turn to the Arab historians who tell of pictorial representations in the throne-hall, along which was one of Khusraw I at the battle of Antioch. It is also from Arab sources that we obtain a description of the silk carpet representing a garden, embroidered with gold thread and sewn with pearls, called Spring of Khusraw, said to have been in the throne hall of Ctesiphon when the city was sacked by the Arabs. Other indications of the rich ornamentation of the palace came from the German excavations, which yielded from the entire palace area mosaic glass cubes, many of them covered with gold. These point to the presence of mosaics on the upper part of the walls, perhaps even in the barrel-vaults, whereas the lower walls appear to have been covered with slabs of multi-coloured marble, of which fragments were found. Lastly the outside as well as the inside of the palace of Ctesiphon, like other Sasanian palaces, had extensive stucco decoration, of which fragments were found in the vicinity of the great hall.

Further indications as to the appearance of the interior of Sasanian palaces can be gained from the excavations of the palace of Bishapur, situated in western Fars, near Kazerun. There the cross-shaped throne-hall had a cupola and sixty-four niches, the stucco frames of which were decorated with meanders, acanthus-leaves and palmettres, all painted in vivid red, yellow and black, like the acanthus-leaves covering the vaulting. The decoration of this hall was strongly influenced by Graeco-Roman prototypes. Such Western influence penetrated Sasanian art in the time of Shapur I [241-272], who brought back seventy thousand Roman prisoners as a result of his campaigns in Syria and of his victory over the Roman emperor Valerian at Edessa. A large number of these prisoners were settled in Iran and furnished the empire with architects, engineers and technicians who were employed in the great undertakings of the Sasanian government, in the building of bridges, dams and roads. One may also assume that the great architectural activity of Shapur attracted artists and craftsmen from the West to seek employment in Iran.

Before the throne-hall other structures had been erected at Bishapur; a court with mosaics of Graeco-Roman derivation and a fire temple. The latter recalls in its plan earlier fire temples, especially the one at Hatra. It consisted of a square main room measuring 14 metres on each side. The room had four doors and was surrounded by corridors in which Ghirshman, the excavator, noted 'an elaborate system of small water conduits.'. [10] Another interesting feature of this temple described by Ghirshman were the bull foreparts of stone with originally supported the wooden beams of the roof. In somewhat cruder form these bull protomes recall the Achaemenid capitals of Persepolis and Susa. They illustrate another conscious reminiscence of earlier prototypes such as we [ p. 197] observed repeatedly in Sasanian art. Temples such as the one discovered by Ghirshman at Bishapur represent a less frequent type of structure associated with the cult of fire than those in which the sacred fire was open to general worship. Such structures consisted merely of an altar over which rose a cupola on four arches. A number of them, called Tchahar Taq, were known even before Vanden Berghe conducted a highly successful investigation of Sasanian fire sanctuaries in the course of which he examined a complex of buildings not far distant from Firuzabad. Here he identified not only the Tchahar Taq, the emplacement of the open public fire, but also the close chamber where the principal fire was preserved, hidden from the eyes of the common worshipper and accessible only to the priests.. [11]

In addition to these sanctuaries of the Zoroastrian religion [which has rightly been termed anti-architectural, since it produced little more than the cupola on arches and the square chamber surrounded by a corridor, there were also churches built in the Sasanian empire. While we cannot discuss these structures here, they should nevertheless be mentioned since the mere fact of the existence of a church, with possible and probable links with the West, may point toward an explanation of many Sasanian elements in later European art and architecture.. [12] [p. 198]

Of all the material remains of the Sasanian period only the coins constitute a continuous chronological sequence throughout the whole period of the dynasty, comparable to the unbroken sequence of Parthian coins. These Sasanian coins have the name of the king for whom they were struck inscribed in Pehlevi, that is Middle Persian, which permits scholars to date them quite closely. In turn the coins themselves form a basis for dating larger works of art. Occasionally stylistic parallels can be observed between the development of Sasanian art as a whole and the style of the coins, particularly at the beginning of the dynasty. As shown by our small selection of coins reproduced on page 177, the development begins with a rather stiff image of the founder of the dynasty, Ardashir I [224-241], which was in itself the final result of an evolution within the reign of that king. A more plastic rendering of the portrait prevailed in the time of Ardashir's successor Shapur I [241-272], and under his successors the relief was flattened out; it became prominent again in the time of Shapur II [310-379], of whom we do not show a coin here. With higher relief, however, was combined a cruder handing of the features in the royal portraits. Later the actual design of the coins was once more carefully executed, but the one-time portrait head had given way to a patterned design in which the greatest stress was placed on rich ornamentation. . . . .

On the obverse the Sasanian coins displayed the bust of the reigning monarch; occasionally a king associated his son or wife, or both, with him on the coins, thereby following Roman practice, presumably for dynastic reasons. The reverse side of the coins does not show the image of the ancestor as did the Parthian coins but, in conformity with the religious devotion of the Sasanian dynasty, an alter with the sacred fire whose hereditary guardians had been the ancestors of their royal family. The coins of Ardashir show a table with lions' feet on top of which burns the sacred fire. It is supported in the centre by a column, and the feet also are placed on low supports. Perhaps there was a difference in meaning between this rendering of the fire altar and the one found on the coins of Shapur I where only a column supports the plinth on which the fire burns, and where the fire altar is flanked by two attendants, each of whom grasps with one hand a spear and rests the other hand on the pommel of his sword. The figures wear battlemented crowns but lack the orb of curls on top of the head which distinguished the Sasanian kings, hence they were probably priestly rather than royal guardians. Later a king and a priest were pictured and finally, from the time of Khusraw I [531-579] onward, two royal figures shown full face in conformity with the stylistic development of the period which favoured a directionless rigid frontality. Rare examples show on the reverse of the coins a scene of investiture, such as a coin of Bahram II [276-293], which shows the king facing the goddess Anahita with eagle or falcon cap. [13] . . . .[p. 199]

The most impressive and best-known works of Sasanian art are the rock reliefs, of which about thirty are known from the first two centuries of Sasanian rule. The largest number is in Fars, in the majestic silent valley of Naqsh-i Rustem, in the small bay of rocks at Naqsh-i Rajab, and on the steep inclines of the gorge at Bishapur. Reliefs were also cut singly into the surface of a rock incline, but so far only one has been discovered outside the province of Fars. It is in Azerbaijan and is thought to represent Ardashir I and his son Shapur receiving the homage of the Armenians.. [14]

Only a few of these reliefs have inscriptions; their identification with a specific king must therefore be based on the shape of the crown as distinguished in the coins discussed in the preceding pages, beginning on page 199.

The ancient Iranian tradition of including natural reliefs in an historical or religious context was revived by the Achaemenids and reached its apogee under the Sasanian rulers. Ardashir I initially placed the rendering of his investiture by the god Ahura Mazda in Naqsh-i Rustem, at the entrance of a valley, the sanctity of which was stressed in Achaemenid times by the sacred tower and the tombs of the first Achaemenid rulers. Surely the site had been chosen by Ardashir to unite the divine beneficial radiance, the xvarnah of the Achaemenids, with his own person and with his family.. [15] [p. 202]

In Ardashir's relief of his investiture, god and king are both on horseback and are of equal size; the orb of curls or korymbos of the king is even higher than the crenellated crown of the god. Only the fact that the god holds the diadem and that the king reaches out for it indicates the dependence of the mortal king on favours from the highest god. The emblem of the god is the barsom bundle which Ahura Mazda holds in his right hand. He wears a long beard cut off horizontally at the bottom and resembling the beards of the Achaemenid kings. The beard of the Sasanian king is either pulled through a ring or tied by a ribbon; it therefore appears pointed and shorter. Both figures wear long loose garments, of which the upper one lies like a cape in thin folds over a garment with long sleeves. The lower part falls in thin curves over the leg and hangs down beside it in slightly broadening folds. Both figures have their legs stretched toward the ground so that they seem to stand rather than to sit, which adds to their apparent height. Moreover, the unnaturally small size of the horses further enhances the size of the human figures. Pictorial stress on the principal figures by gradation of size according to their importance can frequently be noted in Sasanian art, which is more concerned with expression than with the [p. 203] rendering of natural forms and proportions. Thus the horses bend their necks as in the Achaemenid reliefs of Persepolis, although the loose reins in the present rendering show that this is merely one part of a pictorial formula. The second part is provided by the curve formed by the raised leg of the horse, the hoof of which rests here on the head of a fallen enemy. The two enemies are Ahriman, the personification of evil, and Ardavan, the last Arsacid king and representative of all the military opponents of the Sasanians. The heads of the enemies are worked in high relief, whereas the bodies are indicated by flat silhouettes behind the horses. Ahriman's curls look like bodies of snakes, but only in the front is a snake head clearly recognizable, indicating the sculptor's intent. Ardavan wears a helmet with what was probably a dynastic emblem of the Arsacids.

Behind Ardashir stands a page holding a fly-whisk and slightly disturbing the symmetry of the composition. Only the principal actions of investiture and triumph are related to an imaginary axis of symmetry. This closed directionless composition, a heritage of ancient Near Eastern art, expresses the irrevocability and permanent effect of the event. Erdmann pointed out correctly, however, that the apparent calm is effectively mitigated by the fluttering mantle at the back of the god, the pleated bands of the diadems, and the large tassels swinging from the harness of the horses.

The relief is high and the hind legs of the horses are worked out almost fully in the round; the treatment of the surface, however, is restrained and limited to a number of delicate linear patterns, as seen in the pleats of the bands or in the folds of the garments, which curve in different directions. Other reliefs with representations of the investiture of Ardashir at Firuzabad and Naqsh-i Rajab show god and king standing, not on horseback, but Ardashir's successors mostly chose the mounted scheme for the rendering of the investiture. The finest of these is a relief of Bahram I [273-276]. Ancient Near Eastern tradition is here successfully combined with Roman influence, which had penetrated Sasanian relief sculpture in the time of Shapur I [241-272]. Dictates of ancient Near Eastern schemes can be observed in the limitation of the scene to the two principal figures and in their traditional heraldic arrangement. The influence of the artistic principles of classic antiquity is visible in the structure and modelling of the bodies, the logical and varied rendering of the drapery, and the psychologically convincing and expressive gestures of the figures.

Roman influence can be recognized after Shapur's successes in the West, especially with his victory over the Roman emperor Valerian. Perhaps the first relief in which Shapur's triumph was represented is the one carved in the rock at Naqsh-i Rustem, opposite the sacred Achaemenid tower on the socle of which appears an account of Shapur's deeds and military successes.

In the relief two Roman emperors, probably Philip the Arab and Valerian, look entreatingly toward the powerful Sasanian ruler. This identification of one Roman emperor is of recent date.. [16] It is based in part on the resemblance of coin portraits of Philip the Arab to the profile of the kneeling emperor in another version of Shapur's triumph, carved in the rocks near Bishapur. The inscription of Naqsh-i Rustem proudly mentions that Philip the Arab had to pay five hundred thousand dirhams [that is, drachmas] to Shapur. If the kneeling figure is Philip, the standing one toward whom Shapur extends his hand can be only Valerian, whom the Persian king made a prisoner at Edessa in A.D. 260.

The figure of the Romans together with the mounted king from a triangle whose apex is the korymbos of Shapur, which breaks through the upper edge of the [p. 204] relief. This increases the size and majesty of the Persian king. The free composition of the relief, the vigorous modeling of the figures, the relatively free treatment of the king's drapery and of the mantles worn by the Romans, show some influence of Roman style. Yet this influence is limited to a fairly superficial imitation of Roman characteristics. Closer examination of the costume of the Roman emperors, for example, shows that the folds of the dress are greatly patternized and do not contribute toward the visual understanding of the bodies which they are supposed to cover. One would therefore hesitate to ascribe such reliefs even to a Roman artist of the eastern provinces and would rather assume the hand of an Iranian sculptor who had merely seen Roman works of art. Such an indigenous artist could well have been responsible for the posture of the king, which combines the frontality of the thorax with the profile view of head and legs. This combined view is used to best advantage in the present relief, in which the king's broad chest conveys the impression of great power. A Roman artist of the period would have scarcely employed this ancient Near Eastern posture so successfully. Other reliefs which represent the triumph of Shapur show more direct Roman influence and may partly be the work of sculptors from the Romanized region of northern Syria.

The scenes of investiture and triumph so far discussed, which show high relief and little action, may be viewed as a further development of Achaemenid sculpture. The rock-carving of Darius at Bisutun especially is in high relief and may also be considered iconographically to belong to the scenes of triumph. In contrast to this type of relief those of the Parthian period are flat and probably show the transposition of wall-paintings into rock reliefs. From this tradition seems to derive a relief of Ardashir I [224-241] in Firuzabad which represents an equestrian battle. This work. [17] [not reproduced here] depicts in three single contests of increasing fury Ardashir's victory over Ardavan. The relief is flat and seems close to wall-painting in the successful linear design and in the indication of evident pleasure with which ornamental details of armour and harness are drawn.

The theme of an equestrian battle occurs again on high relief at Naqsh-i Rustem, a work ascribed to Bahram II [276-293] on the basis of the shape of the crown. The king who charges his opponent with couched spear, galloping over a fallen enemy, resembles in his posture the figure of Ardashir in the relief of Firuzabad. The Roman opponent, however, differs from the sad rider who tumbles from his toppling horse in the relief of Ardashir. Instead he maintains himself on his horse and, though mortally wounded, points his spear at the approaching king. Thus the rendering of the battle scene is far more dramatic than in the earlier relief, in which the enemy no longer offered any resistance. In the lower half of Bahram's relief an unidentified Persian opposes a Roman horseman. The battle is as yet undecided. These equestrian battles of Sasanian times seem like illustrations of tournaments long before the age of chivalry in the West.

Bahram II represented the greatest variety of subjects in his reliefs. One of them, also at Naqsh-i Rustem, was partly carved into an Elamite relief which was thereby mostly destroyed. The Sasanian relief renders the king in strictly frontal pose, his hands on the grip of his sword, which stresses the vertical axis of the scene. On either side of the king appear members of his family and his courtiers, as if seen behind a parapet, carved only as half-figures, down to the waist. Another unusual relief shows the king fighting lions to protect his consort and his son. This king also had himself portrayed on coins together with his wife and [p. 206] son. This may have been due to personal preference, to the influence of Roman coinage or to Elamite reliefs, of which one also shows a family group. [18]


[Porada, Edith [With the collaboration of R. H. Dyson and contributions by C.K. Wilkinson]. The Art of Ancient Iran, Pre-Islamic Cultures. New York: Crown Publishers, Inc. Art of the World. 1962.]



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