The Artistic Cultures of Asia and Africa

Persian and Islamic Art


The artistic tradition of Persia (modern Iran) dates from ancient times and continued
throughout the Medieval period. During these centuries, Islamic art reached its peak,
spreading throughout the Mediterranean, Asia, and parts of Africa, and employing
various regional languages to express a unique aesthetic culture.


The Persian region exemplifies a culture that was already mature in the ancient Achaemenid age (the dynasty of Persian kings from 559 to 331bc), and it shares certain features with the Seleucid civilization. This dynasty brought about the fall of the Achaemenid empire, but was in turn conquered by the Parthians, or Arsacids, in the mid-second century BC The Arsacids and Sassanids, both ruling nomadic tribes of the region, reinforced and evolved their separate identities before dispersing their most enduring art forms throughout the Islamic world.


Coins from Sassanid Persia. Cabinet des Medailles, Bibliotheque Nationale, Paris.
From left to right, the coins show the following kings:
Ardashir I, BahramII, Shapur I, Bahram III, Bahram I, Narsete, Ardashir III, and Kosroe I.




One of the oldest buildings of the Sassanid era is the Atishqadeh, the garden palace commissioned by King Ardashir at Firuzabad in about ad224; an imposing two-storey structure of freestone cemented with lime. The front part of the palace was a public and official thoroughfare that faced a pool fed by a natural spring, which at one time presumably watered the entire garden. It consisted of a spacious iwan hall flanked by two small rooms opening into three larger domed rooms. These in turn led to the rear of the palace, comprising numerous private apartments arranged around a central courtyard in the typical, traditional style of a Persian residence. This palace is regarded as particularly important in the history of Persian architecture because it is one of the oldest, if not the oldest, in which the problem of building a circular dome over a square or rectangular structure was resolved by forming a transition with pendentives (small triangular segments of vaulting that fill the empty areas between the base and the roof). This system later became widespread throughout the Muslim world and also in Europe. In terms of decoration, the palace shows several significant innovations compared with the opulent architectural ornamentation of the late Parthian age. While the exterior owed its only decorative effect to the interplay of light and shade created by the regular series of buttresses, the interior reveals a covering in plaster with niches surmounted by "Egyptian-style" curved moulding motifs. These are reminiscent of the Achaemenid palaces of Persepolis.

Interior of Ardashir's
palace at Firuzabad,
southern Iran.

The ruins of the palace of Atishqadeh, built in about ad224 by the Sassanid king Ardashir.


Parthian warrior, first century ad. Archaeological Museum, Tehran.

Arsacid Persia

After the Parthian conquest of Seleucid Persia (250bc), there were major changes in artistic production. The Parthians, or Arsacids (their empire was named after its founder, Arsaces), were a nomadic people from the eastern steppes. Since the reign of Mithridates II (123-87bc), they had blended their ancient traditions with the Hellenistic conventions that had permeated Persian art after the conquest of Alexander the Great, eventually combining them in an original, artistic language of their own. The territory influenced by the Parthians was vast and extended from Mesopotamia and the Iranian plateau to the Punjab and northern areas of Afghanistan. Most of the artworks that have survived from this region are essentially monuments and statues. Coins displaying various monarchs provide vital information as to dates and, in some cases, are a key to other contemporary art products. An original feature of Arsacid architecture was the introduction of the iwan, a hall generally covered by a vault, enclosed on three sides by walls and open on the fourth. The iwan was to become an important element in the centuries to come, particularly in the Islamic period. In the applied arts, the aspect that most notably distinguished the Parthian from the classical Hellenistic style was the treatment of the human figure. The Arsacid artist revived the ancient, indigenous tradition of the frontal pose, both in painting and in the plastic arts. The portrait was of great importance, the definition of detail (both of the face and the body) being characteristic of a form of artistic realism far removed from the Hellenistic spirit of idealizing the individual represented. Details of clothing and hairstyle reveal the social status of the subject portrayed and often incorporate ornate architectonic motifs (swastikas and merlons). These were frequently executed in stucco, an easily moulded material ideally suited to the sometimes dense and exuberant style typical of the Parthian decorative repertory. It is hard to establish whether these new orientations were a deliberate attempt to differentiate cultures or merely a signal of a change in tastes, but certainly it would not be inaccurate to define the Arsacid period as a turning point in the history of Persian art.





The practice of rock carving as a form of artistic expression, already known in ancient Persia, found a new and splendid lease of life during the Sassanid period. These carvings are notable not only for their great number but also for their enormous dimensions and compositional excellence. The most popular themes, found in almost all the images, were those associated with the sovereign, principally scenes of investiture or victory. A famous example is the rock monument of Naqsh-i Rustam that glorifies King Shapur's victories over the Roman emperors Philip the Arabian and Philip the Valerian. The carvings can be accurately dated and identified, and are of great iconographic and historical importance because some of them bear inscriptions with
the name of the king, sometimes written in three languages. Details of the individual's clothing, headgear, and hairstyle provide valuable information concerning many aspects of court life, such as the use of weapons and musical instruments. Furthermore, they constitute an invaluable source of reference for the study and analysis of the iconographic motifs of Sassanid art.


Bas-relief depicting the investiture of Ardashir I (AD224-41),
valley of Naqsh-i Rustam. Ardashir, who founded the Sassanid dynasty,
was of Persian stock and a follower of the Zoroastrian religion.











Remains of the small palace of Bahram V (ad420-40), Sarvestan. Although not as well known as some of the larger palaces, this monument still displays all the typical features of Sassanid architecture.

Sassanid Persia

Bas-relief portraying Shapur I (ad24 1-72)
being escorted by noblemen and soldiers at Naqsh-i Radjab.
This king defeated and captured the Roman emperor Valerian.

When the Sassanid prince Ardashir defeated the last Arsacid king in about ad224, he became lord of an empire that controlled an immense territory, the frontiers of which, though not precisely defined, extended from China to Byzantium.
The size of the territory and the duration of the dynasty, which ended only with the Muslim conquest of ad636, make it difficult to trace the history of Sassanid art. However, coins (providing precise and accurate dates) and rock carvings are of some assistance. Some experts have chosen to define the body of Sassanid work as a new form of Persian art, in which Achaemenid and Parthian styles are merged with elements of Hellenistic and Roman traditions. One example to support this theory is the new manner of representing divinity: the god, in accordance with the tenets of Western classical tradition, is depicted as human. His size, demeanour, mount, and clothing are not substantially different from those of the king, alongside whom he stands in the scenes of investiture. Similarly, the palace of Bishapur, although typically Persian in design (a square central courtyard surmounted by a dome and enclosed by four iwan halls) is decorated in a recognizably Western style. Fretwork, vine shoots, and painted acanthus leaves adorn the rooms, while brightly coloured mosaics showing court scenes decorate a number of the floors. Sassanid architecture develops themes already tested in Parthian iwan halls, vaults, and cupolas. At Ctesiphon, capital of the Parthians and then of the Sassanids, there are the ruins of a large iwan that formed part of the palace of Taq-i Kisra, dating to the second half of the third century ad. Once a building of impressive dimensions, a large part of it has sadly since been lost. The decorative material most frequently used in Sassanid architecture was stucco, a material that was widely used from the fifth century onwards. Both the arches and walls of iwan halls were ornamented in stucco, but, in contrast to Parthian and later Muslim techniques, Sassanid stucco was moulded rather than carved. This enabled the artist to produce panels similar to tiles for decorating surfaces of almost any breadth and height. The motifs were often derived from nature: vine-shoots, flowers, leaves, and fruit. There were also a few animal figures, sometimes set in circular medallions. Typical of Sassanid art, although ofcourse inherited from a very ancient tradition, were the rock carvings, invaluable works of art excavated both in the province of Fars during the first hundred years of Sassanid rule and, towards the fourth century, from the Taq-i Bustan site near the city of Kirmanshah. Textile manufacture and gold work were also significant features of the decorative arts of the period. Sassanid textile production, much appreciated in Europe, was closely linked with, and owed its success to, the silk trade between China and the West. Part of the trappings of king and court were the elaborate and refined jewels, also apparent from the figures depicted in rock carvings. The celebrated Kosroe bowl, dating from the sixth century ad and now in the Biblio-theque Nationale, Paris, is a work of great value that apparently arrived in Europe in the eighth century ad as a gift from the caliph Harun Al-Rashid to the emperor Charlemagne. The image of King Kosroe, inlaid in a rock crystal medallion, is framed in coloured glass. However, this was an uncommon technique,
as the medium most frequently used by the Sassanids was silver with gold reliefs. Glass production was widespread, especially in the workshops of Susa. Enamels were also produced, perhaps influenced by Chinese enamelling, earthenware, and engraved gems. Sassanid art was therefore codified, characterized by a clear and definite language that was applicable to any type of material within the vast territory of the empire. Evident traces of it remain not only in the repertory of Islamic art, at least of the earliest period, but also in the styles of certain works of medieval Europe and central Asia.


Kosroe bowl. Cabinet des Medailles, Bibliotheque Nationate, Paris.




Some of the most attractive pieces of Sassanid decorative art are the beautiful objects of silverware, many of which can be seen in museums and private collections all over the world. Used as luxury tableware at the Persian court, they were also given as expensive diplomatic gifts or exchanged as items of barter. This is probably why they have been so widely found. Many items have been recovered from excavation sites in certain parts of Russia, a country that frequently supplied the Sassanid empire with precious stones and furs. The most important collection of these silver objects is housed in the State Hermitage Museum in St Petersburg.
Silverware production reached its peak around the fourth century ad, although later imitations and copies also exist. The classic forms are trays, cups, semicircular or boat-shaped bowls, and jugs. The most common decorative motif is the portrayal - and the glorification - of the monarch, where he is shown hunting, in battle, or simply in scenes of everyday life. The technique consisted of working the individual parts of the ornamentation before gilding and welding them onto the object. Only in a few instances were the products embossed and incised, and it is only in the later silverware that the decoration was simply engraved onto the item.

Sassanid silver-gilt plate featuring a
mounted huntsman with bow and arrow and sword.
The State Hermitage Museum, St Petersburg.

Sassanid silver-gilt plate portraying Bahran Gur with Azade.
The State Hermitage Museum, St Petersburg.
In poorer condition than the one on the left.


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