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The Sassanians

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Persian Art
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Sassanian sculpture affords an equally striking contrast to that of Greece and Rome. Some thirty rock sculptures survive, most of them located in Fars. Like those of the Achaemenian period they are carved in relief, often on remote and inaccessible rocks. Some are so deeply undercut as to be virtually freestanding; others are hardly more than graffiti. Their purpose is the glorification of the monarch.

The earliest known Sassanian rock carvings are those at Firuzabad, attributed to the beginning of Ardashir I's reign and still bound to the conventions of Parthian art. The relief itself is very low, the details are rendered by means of fine incisions, and the forms are heavy and massive, but not without a certain vigor. One relief, carved on a rock wall at the Tang-i-Ab gorge near the Firuzabad plain, consists of three separate dueling scenes that express vividly the Iranian concept of battle as a series of individual engagements.

Rock relief at Taq-i-Bustan

Rock relief at Taq-i-Bustan showing the investiture of the Sassanian king Ardashir II (AD 379-83). The king (centre), is given a royal crown by Ahuramazda, while Mithra stands behind the king in a supportive role

Rock relief at Naksh-i-Rustam

Beneath the tomb of Darius at Naksh-i-Rustam, this scene depicts the triumph of Shapur I over Philip the Arab (kneeling) and over the Roman emperor Valerian, who is handing over his arms to the conqueror mounted on horseback.

Many depict the investiture of the king by the god "Ahuramazda" with the emblems of sovereignty; others the triumph of the king over his enemies. They may have been inspired by Roman triumphal works, but the manner of treatment and presentation is very different. Roman reliefs are pictorial records always with an attempt at realism. The Sassanian sculptures commemorate an event by depicting symbolically the culminating incident: for instance in the sculpture at Naksh-i-Rustam (3rd c.) the Roman emperor Valerian hands over his arms to the victor Shapur I. Divine and royal personages are portrayed on a scale larger than that of inferior persons. Compositions are as a rule symmetrical. Human figures tend to be stiff and heavy and there is an awkwardness in the rendering of certain anatomical details such as the shoulders and torso.

Relief sculpture reached its zenith under Bahram I (273-76), the son of Shapur I, who was responsible for a fine ceremonial scene at Bishapur, in which the forms have lost all stiffness and the workmanship is both elaborate and vigorous.

Rock relief in main cave at Taq-i-Bustan

Detail of hunters mounted on elephants, from the decoration of the left-hand wall in the main cave at Taq-i-Bustan. The use of elephants is evidence of the close relationship between India and the Sassanians

Considering the entire collection of Sassanian rock sculptures, a certain stylistic rise and decline becomes apparent; from the flat forms of the early reliefs founded on Parathian tradition, the art turned to the more sophisticated and - owing to Western influence - more rounded forms then appeared during the period of Sapphire I, culminating in the dramatic ceremonial scene of Bahrain I at Bishapur, then retrogressing to uninspired and trite forms under Narsah, and finally returning to the non-classical style evident in the reliefs of Khosroe II.

There is no attempt at portraiture in Sassanian art, either in these sculptures or in the royal figures depicted on metal vessels or on their coins. Each emperor is distinguished merely by his own particular form of crown.

In the minor arts, unfortunately no paintings have survived, and the Sassanian period is best represented by its metal-work. A large number of metal vessels have been attributed to this period; many of these have been found in southern Russia. They have a variety of forms and reveal a high standard of technical skill with decoration executed either by hammering, beating, engraving or casting. The subjects most often portrayed on silver dishes included royal hunts, ceremonial scenes, the king enthroned or banqueting, dancers, and scenes of a religious character.

Silver gilt dish

Silver dish, partially gilded, showing a Sassanian king, probably Shapur II (AD 309-79) hunting stags.

Silver dish, partially gilded

Silver gilt dish showing a senmerw, the creature that appears on stucco plaques.

Vessels were decorated with designs executed in several techniques; parcel gilding, chasing or engraving, and cloisonné enameling. Motifs include religious figures, hunting scenes in which the king has the central place, and mythical animals like the winged griffin. These same designs occur in Sassanian textiles. Silk weaving was introduced into Persia by the Sassanian kings and Persian silk weaves even found a market in Europe.

Few Sassanian textiles are known today, apart from small fragments that have come from various European Abbeys and Cathedrals. Of the magnificent, heavily embroidered royal fabrics, studded with pearls and precious stones, nothing has survived; they are known only through various literary references and the ceremonial scene at the Taq-i-Bustan, in which Khosroe II is dressed in an imperial cloak that resembles the one described in legend, woven in gold thread and studded with pearls and rubies.

The same is true for the famous garden carpet, the "Spring time of Khosroe". Made during the reign of Khosroe I (531 - 579) the carpet was 90 ft. square. The Arab historians' description is as follows: "The border was a magnificent flower bed of blue, red, white, yellow and green stones; in the background the colour of the earth was imitated with gold; clear stones like crystals gave the illusion of water; the plants were in silk and the fruits were formed by colour stones" However, the Arabs cut this magnificent carpet into many pieces, which were then sold separately.

Perhaps the most distinctive feature of Sassanian art is its ornament, which was destined to have a profound influence on Islamic art. Designs tended to be symmetrical and much use was made of enclosing medallions. Animals and 'birds and even floral motifs were frequently presented 'heraldically', that is in pairs, either confronted or back to back. Some motifs, such as the Tree of Life, have an ancient history in the Near East; others, like the dragon and winged horse, reveal the constant love affair of Asiatic art with the mythical.

Sassanian art was carried over an immense territory stretching from the Far East to the shores of the Atlantic and played a foremost role in the formation of both European and Asiatic medieval art. Islamic art however, was the true heir to Sassanian art, whose concepts it was to assimilate while, at the same time instilling fresh life and renewed vigor into it.

Ornamentation in one of the caves at Taq-i-Bustan

Detail of the ornamentation on one of the pilasters in the larger of the two artificial caves of Taq-i-Bustan, dating from the 5th century. The same stylized floral elements are used in Islamic art.


Persian Art Through The Centuries

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Persian Art
Through The Centuries

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Persian History
The Sassanians

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