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

In another place Ammianus says: 'The Persians opposed to us serried bands of mail-clad horsemen in such close order that the gleam of moving bodies covered with closely fitting plates of iron dazzled the eyes of those who looked upon them, while the whole throng of horses was protected by coverings of leather.' [19]

Thus very little can be seen of the king himself. Since the head and foreparts of his battle horse are also covered with armour, the figure forms in the main a powerful block, the menacing impression of which has been recorded by Ammianus. Our photograph shows the detail in the minute treatment of the surface, single links in the chain of the cuirass, the helmet circled by a diadem, the rosette at the centre of the radiating design on the shield, and the tassels in the harness of the horse.

The striking difference between the yellowish colour of the helmet and the bluish-grey eye of the night may have to be explained by the effect of lichen, mineral deposits and water upon the surface of the rock. The projecting arc of the knight's eyebrow seems to have prevented water from reaching his eye. [20] The figure of the horseman again recalls the knights of the Middle Ages of Europe. Despite the great difference in time this visual relationship is not entirely accidental, since medieval chivalry absorbed many Near Eastern traditions in the course of the Crusades. [p. 209]

Placing sculptures at the back of an iwan marks a change in the position of the reliefs. These were no longer carved on rocks in the open but were protected in the back of a vaulted hall. This change not only resulted in a diminution in the size of the reliefs but also probably brought about the application of paint to make the relevant parts stand out more clearly. Gradually the effect of such reliefs would become more closely related to painting than to sculpture.

The royal hunting reliefs on the side walls of the iwan at Taq-i Bustan certainly suggest an origin in wall-painting. The scene to the left of the entrance is a boar hunt in a swamp, more precisely, in a lake overgrown with rushes through which elephants drive a herd of boars to pass in solid formation before the royal huntsman's boat. In a dramatic move one of the boars breaks out of the herd and turns in the direction of the king. Perhaps it is meant to be the same gigantic animal which leaps toward the king's boat and, in what may be a third rendering, falls beside the boat, transfixed by the king's arrows. [21] Female musicians accompany the king in the midst of the hunt and also at the end where he is shown smaller, standing in the boat, holding in one hand his bow and grasping a staff or spear with the other. Bustling elephants are led by their drivers to pick up the dead game and carry it away.

Within the means at the disposition of the Sasanian artist, this hunting scene in a landscape presents a unified picture. Elephants and boars lead the eye of the viewer around the king and over the entire picture surface; reeds which are drawn across the bodies of the animals unite them with their surroundings. The king dominates the entire picture by his size and by the space which surrounds him like an aura. The smaller figure of the king is stressed by a halo around the head. Another means by which the figure of the king was probably differentiated from its surroundings was the use of colour. The patterns of his garments, for example, delicately carved dog-headed and peacock-tailed dragons called Senmurw, and also the plainer patterns in the robes of the other participants in the hunt, were all surely painted so as to be seen. Likewise the plants and other details were probably painted, perhaps even the background and all the figures. The picture is framed by the enclosing fence, camouflaged by reeds, and is seen from above as if it were folded out. On the right side, beside the fence, is a strip with elephants and boars, almost as if a piece of tapestry had been added to the principal section. Such an extensive rendering of hunts as is seen in the reliefs, however, probably far transcended the abilities of the textile-workers of the period, the carpet-and silk-weavers. It is more likely that there was a connection with multi-figured scenes in stucco, in which examples of hunting scenes are known. [22] Moreover, there are stucco plaques from Ctesiphon with renderings of boars, closely related to those seen in the relief of Taq-i Bustan. This and other relations between the reliefs of Taq-i Bustan and the stuccos of Ctesiphon, which Waschsmuth considered to be late Sasanian, led him to date Taq-i Bustan to the late sixth or early seventh century. This would mean a date in the reign of Khusraw II [590-628], to whom also Herzfeld and Ghirshman would ascribe the large iwan at Taq-i Bustan, whereas Erdmann thought that it represented the work of artists of the unfortunate King Peroz [457/59-484]. [23] The decoration on the outer wall of the iwan, especially the trees which flank the entrance, might give some indication of the date of the reliefs. In these trees the Graeco-Roman acanthus-leaf is combined with natural and imaginary blossoms to form a marvelous tree design in which perhaps even elements of Indian plant decoration can be found. Such fantastic tree designs must have influenced those [p. 210] of the early Islamic mosaics of the Dome of the Rock in Jerusalem. This relationship may point to a late origin of the reliefs on the exterior of the large iwan at Taq-i Bustan. Moreover, the relations here mentioned with works of art of distant countries illustrate the far-reaching influence of late Sasanian art, which has been recently illustrated extensively by Ghirshman. [24]

Among the most distinctive products of Sasanian art are the plaques of moulded and carved stucco which covered the crude masonry of brick or rubble. However, excavations in villas surrounding the royal palace of Ctesiphon showed that rich stucco decoration was used only in the principal hall and perhaps in the room directly adjoining it, while other rooms had merely a covering of plain gypsum plaster. [25] Even in the representative rooms the use of stucco seems to have been concentrated in certain areas, especially in the iwans, where it was employed both in the vault and on the adjoining walls, which were lavishly decorated with a multitude of patterns. Rosettes of stucco like that in Figure 112 were used in a balustrade which may have crowned the roof of one of the palace buildings at Ctesiphon. These rosettes give an indication of the method of manufacture of the stucco decorations. They were composed of four pieces, each formed in a mould and then joined together with gypsum. A layer of finer gypsum probably covered most of the plaques but it is not known whether or not they were painted. So far, traces of paint have been found only on fragments of human figures and in the decoration of the vaulted hall at Bishapur. The rich and varied ornaments of the stucco plaques consisted of bands, disks and squares, usually combined in an unending rapport. Geometric patterns and plant motifs were used singly or combined. Also animal heads, entire animals and human busts were used in decorative panels. Even remains of a hunting scene with large figures were discovered on the faÙade of the same palace at Ctesiphon which yielded the rosettes.

Only a few examples can be given here. They show that the ornamental patterns, which are by far in the majority, are based on the circle, which is often inscribed in a square. Moreover, ornaments with circular motifs usually form the basis for unending rapports. The Sasanian ornaments thus have the character of an imaginative and pleasing combination of single independent elements in contrast to a uniform covering of the surface found in later Islamic ornament.

The stucco rosette from Ctesiphon serves as an example of the combination of palmettes, the most frequent element in Sasanian ornament, with the typically [p. 211] Sasanian heart shapes and the surrounding bead and reel which ultimately derives from classical Greek sources.

In a rosette from Bishapur which is inscribed in a square, palmettes alternate with blossoms which seem to be tilted with a double band or a ring. This last-mentioned element may go back to Achaemenid times. The garland of palmettes and bound blossoms is surrounded by a ring of pearls. In each corner of the square there is a palmette, the ends of which continue in half-palmettes. The grooved leaves of these palmettes are doubtless derived from the Western acanthus-leaves; similarly, the half-palmettes first occur in the Graeco-Roman sphere. The multitude of combinations, however, of these palmette forms was an achievement of the Sasanian stucco-workers.

Another decorative motif shows up right wings which frame a monogram-like combination of letters and which show below the rudiment of a tail. These wings should probably be traced back to the winged disk of the Achaemenids, but it is not impossible that their Sasanian shape, with long feathers that are rolled up at the end, and the almost circular coverts were influenced by Indian renderings of birds' wings.

Even battlements were formed in stucco, as shown by examples found in Bishapur. Within the merlon rises a palmette-tree which has in its middle part two pairs of wing-palmettes, one above the other. The wing-palmette is probably the noblest form among the Sasanian palmettes, which survived long after the fall of the empire. [26]

An even longer life in art was enjoyed by the battlements themselves, which probably formed the upper edge of many buildings of Sasanian times, as is suggested by the rock-cut crenellations above the iwans of Taq-i Bustan. The examples found at Bishapur already show the elegant decorative form of the early Islamic period, which recalls only distantly the protective crenellated parapet of Assyrian times from which these merlons were ultimately derived. The presence of battlements in the royal crowns, however, shows that they were [p. 212] still felt to be effective symbols of protective power. Perhaps the use of this motif is indicative of the meaning of other ornaments which may not only have been purely decorative but also protective and beneficial. Probably such a meaning also pertains to the figured motifs of Sasanian art. Thus the boar's head represents an incarnation of the god of war and victory, Verethraghna. The bristles which stand up on the forehead like a diadem, the powerful tusks, the eye in which a piercing glance is produced by a small cavity in the eyeball, are the simple means by which was created a convincing impression of an animal possessed of supernatural power.

Another example of a symbolic representation may be the rendering of two ibexes and a tree--here a grape vine. The precise significance of this ancient motif may well have changed from period to period, but even in this late age it probably still represented a symbol of strength and fertility. In comparison with the severely symmetrical and sharply stylized rendering of the early cylinder in Plate 5, the Sasanian version of the theme shows a slight mitigation of the rigid symmetry of the motif by the lay of the animals' forelegs and the distribution of grapes and leaves. The horns bend backward in a graceful sweep with an attractive interplay of the ends, both of which come to touch the animalÍs back side by side. At first glance the rendering seems naturalistic, but in reality it is quite unnatural and is caused only by the artist's desire to create an attractive design. The rounded bodies of the animals are only slightly articulated and contrast with the sharply carved leaves, the grapes with globular berries, and the spirals which are meant to indicate water. These elements seem to form the background for the rampant and playful animals in front. In spite of the severity of the compositional motif and the schematic simplification of the forms, some suggestion of depth is given here and an impression of a natural scene is conveyed; we may feel the echo of the playful genre scenes of Graeco-Roman art.

At Ctesiphon were found stucco reliefs with Dionysiac dancers and other motifs [p. 213] strongly influenced by Hellenistic art. Probably this renewed influence from the West should be explained by the resettlement near Ctesiphon of the population of Antiochia by Khusraw I [531-578]. Also large fragments of a winged horse were found and the torso of an animal which may have been a lion. From the description one gathers that they were almost sculptured in the round and were probably gate figures such as those known in ancient Near Eastern Art.

A figure in stucco of a saint from a church at Ctesiphon, which belonged approximately to the fifth century, was made in a different style from that of the reliefs. [27] The crude rendering of naturalistically conceived drapery points to provincial Roman heritage. This single example, however, is not enough to suggest that this Western style was generally characteristic of Christian sculptures in the Sasanian empire.

The proverbial wealth of the Sasanian court is fully confirmed by the existence of more than one hundred examples of bowls or plates of precious metal known at present. One of the finest examples is the silver plate with partial gilding in the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York. The king, identified by his crown as Peroz [457/459-484], is hunting on horseback fleeing game: two Argali bucks or moufflons, which are represented in a second rendering where they appear already transfixed by the king's arrows, lying lifeless under the hooves of his horse. This alone indicates the symbolic character of the hunting scene, which is also stressed by the representation of the king in full regalia with the crown worn only on official occasions.

The composition is carefully balanced. The figure of the king marks approximately the middle of the upper half of the circular bowl. The ruler's bow, his crown, the fluttering ribbons of the diadem, the acorn-shaped tassels of the harness, the hind legs of the horse and the four moufflons fill the outer rim of the bowl in almost regular intervals. The stress on the circle, and also the imaginary axis which can be laid through the figure of the king, stabilize the movement of the hunt from left to right, expressed by the galloping horse and the fleeing moufflons; in fact the movement is transformed into a circular one. [28] The design of the thick single-shell plate was partly engraved, partly raised in slight relief from the bottom of the form, while the figures and details which are in high relief were hammered separately and then applied to the plate. They were fitted with their edges into a grove created by two ridges formed by pushing up the silver from either side. Subsequent smoothing, engraving, and mercury gilding hid the joins. [29] In addition, the gilding served to introduce colour effects by the lay of gold and silver. Thus the face of the king in grey silver and also his hand which spans the bow are clearly differentiated from the golden crown and the halo which frames and accentuates the king's head. Niello is used for details meant to be shown in black colour: the horns, hooves and tails of the moufflons, a pattern on the kingÍs quiver, and the middle part of his bow, perhaps meant to be made of horn. Such colour effects corresponds to the painterly tendency of Sasanian art in the fourth and fifth centuries.

The silver plate in the Metropolitan Museum belongs to a group of plates which show the king hunting, pursuing or killing game. These hunting plates belong to the fourth and partly to the fifth century. The figures are relatively small and numerous, the composition is free and assured. The relief of the applied figures is so high that they sometimes almost seem blown up from within.

An earlier group is represented by a plate in the Hermitage which shows a royal hero with ram's horns on his helmet. The representation is quite dramatic: in [p. 214] the boar the king fights a dangerous opponent at close quarters and runs his sword into the animal's back in an assured and elegant gesture. The figures are large, and the principal figure is calm in contrast to the violent movement of the animals. The composition favours acute angles formed by the lines of action. The figures remain mostly within the plane of the plate, and only single parts are applied in low relief. [30]

Until now the heroic huntsman of the bowl was considered to be a successor to the throne, judging by the ram-horned helmet thought to characterize the wearer as the prince of the Kushan territories, the Kushanshah. More specifically he was thought to be Bahram I [272/3] or Bahram II [233-276], but this is not quite certain. [31]

A slight shift in the dates of this plate, however, would not influence the relative stylistic sequence of these hunting plates, which leads from designs with large figures to others with small and numerous ones.

The third and latest group of hunting plates originated in the fifth century. In these plates separate parts are no longer applied but the whole plate is cast and subsequently finished by chasing and engraving. This technique was used for [p. 216] the hunting plate in the Bibliothèque Nationale, one of the best-known works of Sasanian art. Because of the exceptionally free composition of the herd of game animals in this plate and because of unusual details in the attire of the king and in the harness of the horse, which indicate a misunderstanding of the conventions followed by the artists of the Sasanian court, this plate has been assigned to a late Sasanian workshop located somewhere outside the great centres of Iran. [32]

A few silver plates show the king in scenes other than the hunt. An example is a plate in the Hermitage which shows in the main part a ruler surrounded by his dignitaries while in the small segment below a king, seated on his horse in the posture for the 'Parthian Shot', aims at fleeing Argali rams. The crown of the king in the hunting scene probably shows a simplified version of the one worn by the enthroned king in the principal section of the bowl, a figure identified with Khusraw I [531-578]. [33] The rigid frontality here observed in the rendering of this ruler is also seen in the gold bowl of Khusraw in the Bibliothèque Nationale in Paris, where it is preserved under the traditional name of 'la tasse de Solomon' which it bore when it belonged to the treasure of Saint-Denis. [34]

The rendering has become so schematic and flattened that the king with his [p. 217] sword between his legs seems to stand before the throne instead of sitting upon it. His throne is a bench which rests on winged horses that turn their heads toward the monarch like the dignitaries who surround the king in the plate. The manner in which these dignitaries reverently cross their arms over the chest and hide their hands in their sleeves surely renders a fairly accurate picture of the strict ceremonial at the Sasanian court.

Religious themes are rarely represented on the metal plates. One of the few examples dating from the end of the fifth or from the early sixth century is a plate from Cherdynye which shows a bird that gently supports a nude female with his claws. [35] In Sasanian times the motif of eagle and woman--first seen on the gold bowl of Hasanlu--may have been connected with the cult of the goddess Anahita, whose association with a bird of prey is manifested in the headgear which she wears on coins [see above, p. 199].

One group of plates and ewers made of precious metal or bronze is mainly decorated with figures of animals and monsters. A silver plate of the fifth to sixth century is particularly charming. [36] In the central medallion a cock or pheasant holds the royal necklace with ribbons, probably a symbol of the kings' auspicious radiance. This central medallion is surrounded by a vine from which branch off eight ancillary vines, each of them rolled up to form a circular space filled by a leaf, a flower, or a bird with a small leaf or flower. A wreath of small heart-shaped forms separates the central medallion from the vines. The composition of the design, which is based on the circle, the favourite form of Sasanian artists, is rhythmically organized, but the variety in the imaginary blossoms prevents any impression of monotony.

A different type of metal vessel with figured decoration comprises tall ewers with flattened body and projecting narrow spout. This form may be related to Graeco-Roman prototypes. An interesting motif can be seen on such an ewer in the Biblioth¶que Nationale: two pairs of lions with crossed bodies on either side of a flowering tree. The design of the tree is somewhat reminiscent of the trees on the pillars of the main iwan at Taq-i Bustan and even recalls--very distantly--the elaborate palmette-tree of some of the ivories from Ziwiye. The lions have an eight-pointed star on the shoulder and manifest a relation with even earlier works of Iranian art, the gold bowls of Hasanlu and Kalardasht [Figs. 61, 63, 64]. Once again one is made aware of the extraordinary continuity of some of the motifs in Iranian art. In the Sasanian period the art of cutting seal-stones flourished, as did all the other arts. The shape most frequently used was still the three-quarter hemisphere with flat base created in Parthian times. The distinctive form with flattened sides, oval base and large perforation, however, may have been a creation of the Sasanian seal-cutters, as well as the facets and curving lines [p. 218] precisely and beautifully carved into the surface of the seal-stones. All hemispherical seals are perforated to receive the metal loop by which they were attached as a pendant, since they could have hardly been worn in rings. Those which were worn in rings are flat bezels with a convex, concave or flat sealing surface, most frequently made of carnelian or sard. The fact that often the engraving of these stones is most effective if viewed against the light suggests that they should have been mounted on a movable setting. However, no such setting is preserved and the only extant rings with Sasanian seal-stones have the bezel solidly set into the metal. In addition to the red sard and carnelian, translucent chalcedonies and agates were most frequently employed for seal-stones. For the globular unfaceted seals, however, dark green jasper, flecked with red, and jasper breccia were also favoured. These colourful stones were highly polished and were in themselves lovely ornaments. Some connection may have existed between the shape of the seal-stone and the device of the engraving. This is especially true of the faceted and decoratively cut seals which frequently have a design of lilies on the base. The carving was done with much use of a mechanical drill, which produced globular forms. Details are usually indicated by lines which vary little in width and are judiciously applied to stress the main characterizing features.

The resulting globular appearance of the figures seems to have pleased Sasanian taste, since it conforms to a stylistic feature noted throughout the art of the period from reliefs to silver bowls. There is much variety in Sasanian seals, some of which are carefully engraved, others cursorily done; but the spacing is usually good and a certain assurance in the engraving differentiates the genuine seals from modern forgeries. The style may have originated in the eastern part of the empire, but at present it is difficult to speculate about a chronological and topographical classification of the material because the impressions of seals found in excavations have not yet been published. Most of these seals on clay bullae [37] [p. 220] occur in groups centering around the large imprint of the seal of an official. Such official seals must have played an important role. According to Arab Writers Khusraw II [590-628] had nine seals of state, and guarding the seals was an important office. From the impressions and extant seals we learn that some of the dignitaries merely had inscriptions engraved on their seals but others had busts, presumably of themselves and carved according to fixed conventions: the nose is indicated by a straight line and the nostril by a sharp curve, two pointed ovals form the lips, a long thin curving line renders the moustache, and short curving lines indicate the outline of the pointed beard and the hair, although this may also be shown by more rounded incisions. The eye is shown by a small ball set between the acute angle of the lids, over which arches the strong curve of the eyebrow. Usually the high officials who are portrayed by these busts also wear necklaces and ear-rings, the latter indicated by a minute globular pendant. Such carefully cut heads, however, are in the minority among the large number of those which are rendered in a very cursory manner.

Equally frequent as human heads or busts or palmettes are representations of animals. Of these the most common is perhaps the winged horse, seen in the same pose as the horses on the relief of Ardashir, with the neck bent in a semi-circular curve and one leg raised in a complementary curve. Even more than the human heads these horses are rendered according to a fixed scheme. Other animals often shown are stag, bull and ram, the latter wearing a necklace with the pleated ribbons of the royal diadem. The meaning of such renderings of a ram was probably connected with the auspicious royal radiance [xvarnah] mentioned above on page 202.

Another frequent group of designs shows either a female figure holding blossoms, a hand holding blossoms, or only one or more blossoms. The clue for the interpretation of all these seals is given by a more extensive scene in which a small female worshipper stands in adoration before a large female figure holding [p. 221] blossoms, surely the Persian goddess Anahita. [38] We may therefore conclude that the hand holding blossoms, or blossoms alone, can stand for the same goddess and that part of her features and symbols can represent the whole deity.

Unfortunately there are very few such carefully engraved scenes which would permit us to identify with certainty other gods and their symbols, the great variety of which cannot be adequately exemplified here.


[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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