A Forgotten Empire


February 24, 2007


Heritage | History | Iran

What has the Persian Empire done for us lately? It is the arrogance of the present to imagine that all of human history reaches its culmination, and unveils what was all along its hidden purpose, in the generation that happens to be breathing at this moment upon the surface of the earth. Those earlier nations, such as Greece and Rome, that are clearly causative of us are a source of obvious interest to us. Even civilizations such as ancient China and Japan, though they had no role to play in our causation, are thriving now and so they, too, engage our interest.

But no such claim can be made for the Persian Empire, or the Byzantine for that matter. And so we conjure ourselves into believing that, however important they might once have seemed, they were always on the wrong side of history, an eccentric sideshow to the main event.

In an attempt to redress that imbalance, the Asia Society has mounted a worthy exhibition of Sasanian civilization, specifically its visual culture. And yet, its title, “Glass, Gilding, and Grand Design,” is misleading. You would think that it was primarily devoted to crafts of the Sasanian period, but in fact it includes many more genres. Together with the Musée Cernuschi in Paris, where the show originated, the Asia Society has assembled silverware, mosaics, textiles, and sculpture made during the Sasanian dynasty, which ruled Persia between 224 and 642 C.E. Though the Sasanids are all but unknown to most of today’s museumgoers, any state that could withstand the enmity of Rome for four centuries deserves our respect

In an attempt to inject contemporary interest into this show, the curators have chosen as a subtitle “The Art of Sasanian Iran.” This is fair enough, since the Sasanians did indeed refer to themselves as Irya, from which the word Iran derives. They were among the progenitors of modern Iranians as well as the last non-Muslim group to rule the country. Furthermore, the influence of their art would have profound consequences for the visual culture of the region down to modern times.

If the art of the Sasanid dynasty was not, to judge by its remains, quite as glorious as that of the Acheaemenians, it far surpassed what remains from its immediate predecessors, the Parthians. One of the curious facts about the study of Sasanian artifacts is that most of what we have was discovered outside of Iran, in places as far afield as China, Japan, and France.

Because of the spotty nature of these survivals, however, it is difficult to pronounce with confidence any generalities about the complicated origins or the nature of Sasanian art. Like the late antique or early Christian art of the West, it took much of its inspiration from the Roman Empire and behind that from the empire of Alexander the Great. In “Glass, Gilding, and Grand Design,” that influence is especially evident in a charming mosaic plaque depicting a female harpist, as well as in a “Bowl With Portrait Medallion.” At the same time, there is a discernible trace of pre-Islamic Arab influence in the stucco “Bust of a King,” from the 5th century.

Much more typical of the Sasanian dynasty is a partial gilt plate depicting King Yazdegerd I killing a stag, or a silver bowl whose stippled surface depicts a lion and a bull in a fight to the death. What these two works exemplify is first of all a somewhat more schematic, but also rather more humanistic rendering of the observable world. The round-faced human figures seem kinder and more approachable than their counterparts in the art of, say, the Assyrians or Babylonians. Likewise, the depiction of combating animals has little of the rage or violence that this common theme carried in the reigns of those predecessors. It has been reduced to a decorative motif.

The influence of the Sasanians on the subsequent dynasties of Persia was to be immense, comparable to the influence of pagan and Arthurian legends upon the culture of the Christian Renaissance. For 1,000 years after the imposition of Islam, the deeds of the Zoroastrian Sasanids were celebrated, above all in Ferdowsi’s “Shâhnâmeh,” the Iranian national epic poem written in about 1000 C.E. The illustrations to that work, which occupied the most gifted miniaturists of the Safavid dynasty, display the same round and richly human faces of their pagan forbears in the Sasanian dynasty.

Though the Asia Society show does not give us a fully fleshed out vision of Sasanian culture, such an exposition would probably be impossible. Compared with the cultures of ancient Egypt, Greece, and China, what has survived from the Sasanians is simply too spotty and insufficient. You cannot connect the dots if there are not enough in existence. Even so, the attempt is worth the effort, and a show such as “Glass, Gilding, and Grand Design” is well worth a visit.

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Original article here