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11th - 13th Century

Persian Art
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The Seljuk period in the history of art and architecture extends for approximately two centuries from the Seljuk conquest in the second quarter of 11th century to the establishment of the Ilkhan dynasty in the second quarter of the 13th century. During this period, the centre of power within the Islamic world shifted from the Arab territories to Anatolia and Iran, with the traditional centres now residing in the Seljuk capitals - Merv, Nishapur, Rayy and Isfahan.

In spite of the Turkish invaders, this era of Persian revival, beginning with the publication of Firdawsi's "Shah-namah", constitutes for Persia a period of intensively creative artistic development. The sheer productivity of these centuries in the visual arts, in comparison with the art from earlier centuries represents a quantum leap forward.

The importance of Seljuk art is that it established a dominant position in Iran and determined the future development of art in the Iranian world for centuries. The stylistic innovations introduced by the Iranian architects of this period were, in fact to have vast repercussions, from India to Asia Minor. However, there is a strong overlap between Seljuk art and the stylistic groupings of the Buwayhids, Ghaznavids, etc.

In many cases the artists of the Seljuk period consolidated, and indeed at times perfected, forms and ideas that had long been known. It must be remembered that the picture is not as clear as it should be, with the massive scale of illegal excavations in Iran over the past hundred years

Seljuk minaret of the mosque at Damghan, Iran

Seljuk minaret of the mosque at Damghan, Iran. The decorative effect achieved by the use of recessed bricks, forming highly original rhythms and geometric patterns, is characteristic of this 11th century Persian art.

The characteristic feature of the buildings of this period, is the decorative use of un-plastered bricks. The earlier use of stucco facings on the outer walls, as well as on the inside (to conceal the inferiority of the building material) was discontinued, although it reappeared later.

Stucco relief from Rayy; late 12th century

Pomp and circumstance, Turkish style. Stucco relief from Rayy; late 12th century. It depicts the enthroned Seljuk sultan Tughril II (1194) surrounded by his officers. Beneath his feet is written: "the victotious, just king" and in the panel above are his titles.

With the establishment of the Seljuk Turks (1055-1256) a distinctive form of mosque was introduced. Its most striking feature is the vaulted niche or iwan which, had figured prominently in the Sassanian palaces and had been known even in the Parthian period. In this so-called 'cruciform' mosque plan, an iwan is introduced into each of the four enclosing walls of the court (See Ghaznavid Art). Such a plan was adopted for the rebuilding of the Great Mosque of Isfahan in 1121 and was widely used in Persia until recent times. A notable example is the Masjid-i-shah or Royal Mosque founded by Shah Abbas at Isfahan in 1612 and completed in 1630.

Figure decoration appeared on Seljuk pottery from the mid 12th century onwards. At first the decoration was carved or moulded while the glaze was monochrome, though on the lakabi (painting) carved wares several colours were used. Sometimes decoration was applied onto the pot, painted in black slip under a clear or coloured glaze to create a silhouette effect. Large birds, animals and fabulous creatures form the bulk of the imagery, though on the silhouette ware human figures appear. The silhouette figures often stand-alone though it is usual for human and animal forms, whenever they occur, to be superimposed on a foliage background.

Ceramic bowl of the minai type from Kashan, Iran, dated 1187

Moulded lustre plate made in 1210

Ceramic bowl of the minai type from Kashan, Iran, dated 1187. Polychrome pottery such as this became very popular in Iran during the 12th and early 13th centuries. As on much pottery of this type, the drawing is rapidly executed but extremely accomplished. The subject is not clear, though winged genii are usually shown in the company of royal personages.

A clue to lost Seljuk book painting. Moulded lustre plate made in 1210 by Sayyid Shams al-Din al-Hassani for a military commander. A royal groom sleeps by a pool oblivious of the monarch's entourage, and dreams of a water sprite. The fish, water, woman and horse all relate to Sufi mystical metaphors.

The last quarter of the 12th century saw the creation of the splendid and elaborate minai(enamel) ceramics, produced by means of a double-firing technique to set the varnish over the enamel. This type of ware, which originated in Rayy, Kashan and perhaps Saveh displays ornamental detail similar to luster-painted ware of Kashan. Some compositions depict battle scenes or episodes drawn from the Shah-namah.

Seljuk miniatures, of which few traces remain, because of the widespread destruction by the Mongol invasions, must also have been extremely ornate, like other art forms of the period, and certainly must have displayed features similar to pottery painting. The principle centre for book painting in the 12th and 13th centuries was Iraq, but this painting had a marked Iranian influence. Several fine examples of Seljuk Korans have survived, and they are notable for their magnificent painting on the cover often of pronounced geometric character, with the Kufic script taking the prime role.

Koran, Iran 11th -12th century

Koran, Iran 11th -12th century.
This type of script is usually associated with the Seljuks of Iran and is almost invariably written over a composite foliate background. The diacritical points appear as block dots and the vowels are indicated in red. In some manuscripts, green dots indicate primary variant readings while yellow and blue ones represent specific orthographic elements or sounds or secondary or tertiary variants of the text.
This example illustrated one of the most important advantages of the Arabic script: letters can be extended vertically or horizontally without the overall balance being impaired.

During the Seljuk period metalwork was particularly widespread with extremely high levels of workmanship. Bronze was by far the most widely used metal during the 11th and 12th centuries (brass being a later addition). Artifacts were cast, engraved, sometimes inlaid with silver or copper or executed in openwork, and in some cases even graced with enamel decorations. In the 12th century the techniques of repousse and engraving was added to that of inlaying bronze or brass with gold, silver, copper, and niello.

A remarkable example is the bronze bucket inlaid with silver and copper now preserved in the Hermitage Museum, Leningrad. According to its inscription it was made at Herat in 1163.

Bronze bucket or kettle, Herat, Iran, dated 1163

Silver rose-water sprinkler with cap

Bronze bucket or kettle, Herat, Iran, dated 1163. Height 17.5 in. The bronze surface is richly inlaid with figurative imagery in gold, silver and copper. The importance of representational art in this period is indicated by its intrusion into the calligraphy in the upper and lower registers. Although the theme of the figure decorations are entirely courtly, the bucket was made for a merchant.

Luxury tableware. Silver rose-water sprinkler with cap; repousse and chased, with niello decoration and guilding. The very few pieces of Seljuk metalwork in silver point to a serious shortage of that metal.

A wide range of objects were produced at the time such as; perfume burners usually in the shape of animals, mirrors, candlesticks, etc and it seems likely that some of the best craftsmen travelled widely to execute commissions with fine pieces shipped over long distances.

The Seljuk period was undoubtedly one of the most intensively creative periods in the history of the Islamic world. It displayed splendid achievements in every artistic field, with subtle differences from one region to the next.


Persian Art Through The Centuries

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