What is the history and characteristics of Persian art and culture? Information about Persian art periods and history.
PERSIAN ART, Persia has always been one of the major crossroads of world culture. On its soil, many foreign art trends have mixed with the indigenous strains. Its art shows influences not only of Mesopotamia, Armenia, and the steppe country, but also of much more distant regions such as Egypt, India, and China.
This period is characterized by unglazed painted pottery (jars, bowls, cups) decorated with animal, floral, and geometric symbols. A keen power of observation and stylization is evident in the portrayal of animals, among which the ibexes and birds are the most impressive. The outstanding artistic sites are Persepolis and Susa, but pottery has been found in many other places. The last phase is represented by the finds from Tepe Siyalk, which betray an imitation of metalwork. After the 10th century b.c., painted pottery was no longer made. Rock reliefs from the middle of the third millennium, e.g., at Sarpul and Kur-a.ngun, are a political and religious manifestation in a medium characteristic for Persian art throughout the ages. Seal-carving is another craft destined to continue through the whole gamut of history.
Bronze and Early Iron Age.
Outstanding in this period are the «Luristan bronzes» first found between 1930 and 1934 by natives digging in graves in the Luristan mountain valleys ir, western Iran. These objects are mostly chariot or harness fittings, especially horse-bits, often of large size, and rein rings. There are also many daggers with a blade and hilt made of one piece, axes with a curved blade and long protruding digits at the back, vessels, talismans, personal ornaments, and many other objects. These bronzes represent a long development, the original inspiration of which may often be traced to Mesopotamia. The outstanding decorative forms are animals in which the fantastic and the graceful are strangely combined. They are peculiarly stylized: certain parts of the body, like horns, eyes, or the upper thighs are stressed, while in later times certain parts of the body such as the necks are elongated and gracefully curved. Herzfeld dates these bronzes from about 1300 to after 1000 b.c., while Dus-saud assumes them to last until the Persian period (c.SSO b.c.).
The rule of the Achaemenid kings (S50-331 b.c.) is preceded by that of the closely related Medes, about whose art, which must have influenced that of the Achaemenid, we know very little. Achaemenid art is specifically a royal art connected with the courts of the capitals. The first royal residence, Pasargadae, was built by Cyrus between 559 and 550 and contained isolated palaces in gardens. Very little is preserved. The tomb of Cyrus (c.530) is a small gabled stone house on a high stepped base. The most famous capital, Persepolis, was started by Darius about 520 b.c. and completed by Artaxerxes I about 460. It was apparently used very little but was reserved for special ceremonies. Alexander the Great destroyed the palaces by fire, in 331. The site was excavated by the Oriental Institute of the University of Chicago (under E. Herzfeld and later E. F. Schmidt). Persepolis is a compound of closely set buildings on a fortified terrace at the foot of high mountains northeast of Shiraz. Its main access was through «the most perfect flight of stairs ever built,» usable even for horses, and through a monumental gateway. The palaces were not conceived as an organic whole, so that the buildings are now surrounded by a maze of courtyards with the various units on different levels. All palaces are a development of the Iranian hypostyle house, having a large central hall with many columns, surrounded by optional secondary rooms, and with an open columnar portico front reached by a staircase. The masonry consists of colossal blocks. The ceilings are supported by very slender, narrowly fluted stone columns imitating wooden ones. The columns are topped by large imposts consisting of the forequarters of animals used in pairs; the more important ones have, in addition, a composite capital between shaft and impost. Sculpture is used a great deal, but is always subordinated to architecture, the main art of the period. The Apadana was used as an audience hall for great state functions. It had two identical staircases displaying in three registers processions of 23 tribute-bearing nations under the supervision of guards and court dignitaries. They follow the Achaemenid custom of utilizing in the decoration such scenes as actually took place on the spot. The other great public structure was the Hall of One Hundred Columns, badly damaged by the fire of Alexander. Smaller palaces are the Trypilon, the Hadith of Xerxes, the Tachara of Darius, and the Harem building (now reconstructed).
Besides Persepolis, Susa was the most important capital; its palaces were also begun by Darius. The French excavations uncovered there one type of decoration not found in Persepolis: wall friezes of enameled bricks showing animals or the royal bodyguard. The inspiration for this work came from the Ishtar Gate in Babylon.
The custom of carving in the living rock was again followed during this period. The most famous relief, at Behistun, depicts Darius as victor over rebellious kings. A trilingual inscription at this scene led Rawlinson in 1837 to the deciphering of Persian cuneiform writing. The Achaemenid kings also had their tombs carved into two rock sites near Persepolis.
Decorative and glyptic arts are represented by metal objects such as bowls, jars, drinking horns, personal ornaments, parts of furniture, and seals. The most famous hoard of precious metal, the treasure of the Oxus, is now in the British Museum.
The art of the Achaemenids is eclectic. Its origins lie in the art of the Babylonian-Assyrians, of Asia Minor, Armenia, and even Egypt, though these elements were combined and developed in an Iranian manner. Individual objects have a certain dry and schematic appearance, with an unyielding hardness and no delicate personal touch. The general effect is always monumental and impressive, though many buildings must have presented a somewhat barbaric splendor in their day.
Seleucid and Arsacid Periods.
These periods (323 b.c-226 a.d.) are the «dark ages» of Persian art. Following the conquest of Alexander, a thorough Hellenization of Iran took place. Even the few preserved architectural remnants and pieces of sculpture reveal this. In 250 b.c. The Seleucid ruler was defeated by the nomadic tribe of the Parthians under Arsaces I. This led to a reassertion of Iranian ideas, although the country remained thoroughly under the Hellenistic spell. Classical types and motifs were modified, that is to say simplified, coarsened, and often misinterpreted. In many instances orientalized Hellenistic forms were used side by side with indigenous ones. The art of the Arsacides on the Iranian plateau is little known. We are more familiar with that of the more western regions, especially of Mesopotamia. Amongst these Hatra, Assur, and Dura-Europos (the latter excavated by Yale University in conjunction with the Louvre Museum in Paris) are the most important. In spite of its graceless and often uninviting character, the art of the Parthian period has been recognized as containing germs for many later developments in Sasanian and Islamic arts, and even of the arts of western Christendom.
The art of the Sasanian period (226-636 a.d.) represents the national reaction against Hellenistic art. As successors of the Achaemenid and as the inheritors of. Their glory, the all-powerful Sasanian «king of kings» re-established the role of the monarch as the main patron of all arts and as art’s main motif. However, even the Sassanians could not undo the thorough influence of Hellenistic art.
The architects now use rubble with mortar as building material even for palaces. Oblong rooms are barrel-vaulted; square rooms are domed with the help of squinches, an architectural device developed in this period in Iran (palaces at Firuzabad and Sarvistan). Barrel-vaulted halls (ivans), used for the palace entrance and the audience chamber, are outstanding features. In the ruins of the favorite capital, Ctesiphon on the Tigris (excavated by the Metropolitan Museum, New York, in conjunction with the State Museums of Berlin) the most famous ivaned hall, the Taq-i-Kisra, built by Shapur I (241-272), is still standing. Stucco decoration, frequently applied in square plaques with a repeat pattern pressed out of molds and then painted, is a typical method of surface ornamentation.
The Sassanians again used rock reliefs, many of them being carved for their glorification near Persepolis or near the new royal residence of Shapur in the same province. Most of the reliefs date from the first 150 years of the dynasty. One group shows the King in the act of being invested by the deity with the emblem of royalty. In these scenes a heraldic style was developed, in which the composition is strictly balanced. Other reliefs celebrate victories over enemies. The great defeat of Rome, the capture of the Emperor Valerian by Shapur I (about 260) is represented four times. Other reliefs show tribute-bearing nations or the submission of the heads of government to the King. The only late rock reliefs are in the grotto of Taq-i-Bustan near Kermanshah (period of Khosrau II, between 611 and 627).
Iran was on the trade route for silks from China, and herself produced fine fabrics. They are known to us from preserved specimens (often found in church treasuries) and from representations in rock reliefs. Heraldically stylized animals—of which the fantastic peacock dragon is the best known—prevail. The silks exercised great influence on other media (metal, ceramics, stucco tiles). They were also appreciated outside the country ; Byzantium, Egypt, and even the Far East imitated them or used them as a source of inspiration. Metal was another favorite medium of the period, silver being especially popular. Many platters, bowls, ewers, and vases of gold, silver, and bronze have come down to us, found for the most part in Russia and now in Russian museums. The main subject matter of the silver vessels are royal hunting scenes, in which each king can be recognized by his special crown. Others show the King enthroned or feasting, or represent stylized animals. Seals were widely used. The most celebrated gem, now in the Bibliotheque Nationale in Paris, is a rock crystal representing Khosrau I (531-579) enthroned, set in the center of a gold bowl which is also decorated with colored glass inlays. Few pieces of ceramics have artistic merit. They are important principally as the starting point for the tremendous development of pottery in the succeeding period.
The art of the Sasanian period, like that of the Achaemenid, is again one of the court and therefore strictly official and nonpersonal in character. It is also highly eclectic, as in its old Oriental, classical, and occasionally Indian ideas mingle. These are often of various strains; for instance, the classical motifs may have been transmitted directly from the West through Roman prisoners, or from the East through the Hellenized kingdom of Bactria (now Balkh). The influence of Sasanian art is due to its heraldic style, which reached near perfection and standardization and was easily disseminated through the silks. Many motifs came to final fruition in the Islamic period.
The Mohammedan (or Islamic) period, from 636 on, has the richest development. Four subdivisions suggest themselves readily:
In the transitional period (636-c.820) the country and its artists tried to adapt themselves to Islam, the new way of life brought by the Arabs. Politically and spiritually, Iran was dependent on the caliphs of Damascus and Baghdad or their representatives. But even then the artistic influence of Iran was felt in the capital, especially at the court of the Abbassides (from 750 on). For the first mosque type the Persians used the Arab or hypostyle mosque, in which the sanctuary, having a roof resting on rows of columns, was placed at one side of a large courtyard, which on the other three sides was surrounded by simple arcades (Tarik Khaneh, Damghan, c.775). In the decorative arts, forms, techniques, and decorations changed slowly, especially as for a long time pockets of Zoroastrian resistance survived in the less accessible parts of the country. In metal work and textiles old patterns were often retained, but a tendency toward greater abstraction and flatness is noticeable. The potters were strongly influenced by wares imported from Mesopotamia and China.
With the rise of semi-independent Iranian rulers in the 9th century, Persian political power reasserted itself and led to the period of Persian renascence (c.820-1220). The first flowering of the arts is to be found at the court of the Samanids in Transoxania and eastern Iran (10th century). The earliest surviving monument of this period is the domed mausoleum of Shah Ismail, the Samanid, in Bukhara, built like a fire temple and remarkable for its use of brick bonding (c.907). Perhaps the noblest building is the high, tapering, buttressed tomb tower of Qabus in Gurgaon (1006). In the Samanid domain, purely Islamic pottery uses colored slips for geometric patterns and inscriptions. In other regions the sgraffito technique is used for designs derived from metal prototypes. The progressive tendency towards abstraction is demonstrated in a textile with confronted elephants in the Louvre. Kufic writing and the arabesque, a newly developed abstract floral pattern, are now to be found everywhere.
A great impulse to this development was given by the Seljuk Turks, who made Persia their base of operations. Under the nominal overlordship of the caliphs in Baghdad they created a new integrated state which was most beneficial to the arts. Even after the main line of the Great Seljuks (1037-1157) had died out and the state was split up under the rule of minor heirs and atabegs (tutors of princes), the arts continued to prosper until the Mongol invasion (c.1220). In the Seljuk period the Persian or four-iwan mosque type was developed. A wide and high-vaulted hall (ivan) was placed in the middle of the sanctuary and similar halls in the center of the three other court arcades; the one opposite the sanctuary ivan was used as the entrance hall. The prototype for this development was the Iranian peasant house (which had already influenced the Sasanian palace) ; the intermediary stages between the simple house with two confronting ivans were the caravansary (highway rest house), with a large courtyard and rooms for storage and stables on the side of the ivans, and the madrasah (medrese), the religious college for the education of judges and civil servants, in which the ivans serve as prayer and lecture halls and the spaces between them as cells for the students. Another development of the Seljuk mosque was the placing of a huge dome on squinches over the sanctuary ivan, thus stressing the most important part of the building. The minaret, which is not yet integrated with the building and usually stands by itself, is a tapering tower which often has below its top a projecting cornice to support a platform for the muezzin. It usually has a well-planned brick decoration. The mosque itself has no decoration on the outside walls; only on the court facade and especially within the building one finds elaborate revetments of brick, terracotta, stucco, and glazed tile. The outstanding example of a Seljuk mosque is the Masjid-i-Jami in Isfahan (Ispahan), built from the 9th to the 19th century, but with its main sections dating from about 1080. Other examples are the mosques in Golpayegan, Kazvin, and Ardistan. In addition to a series of tomb towers, the huge mausoleum of Sultan Sanjar, the last Great Seljuk, in Merv (c.1157) is one of the finest funerary monuments of the period.
In the field of decorative arts a revival of Sasanian ideas took place, now modified by a more refined taste. Potters successfully explored all technical possibilities, even some which were never, or not yet, used by the Chinese masters (monochrome and polychrome glazed, sgraffito decorated, underglaze painted and molded wares, and wares with d jour pattern, with luster and/or polychrome enamel decoration on the glaze). The main production centers were Rayy, Kashan, and Saveh. Architectural ceramists produced monochrome glazed and lustered tiles and began their first experiments with faience mosaic in the early 12th century. Until the middle of the 12th century, metalwork was either molded or engraved; after that the fashion changed to inlay work of silver and copper set into bronze or brass, with the copper soon replaced by gold. The first center of inlay work was in Khurasan (Herat), but later on the leading school was in Mosul. In textiles, many of the designs follow Sassanian prototypes, but they are more varied and more intricate. There are now new ways of pattern alignment, and epigraphy becomes an important part of the design. Almost nothing of wall or miniature painting has been preserved, but painting on pottery gives some clues to its character. Persian calligraphers developed a beautiful variety of the Arabic Kufic script, especially used for the paper Korans illuminated in gold. A cursive type of writing, Neskhi, came into use in this period for manuscripts and for building inscriptions.
Mongol- Timurid Period (c.1220-c.1500).
The destructive Mongol invasion under Ghengis Khan and his lieutenants brought Persian art to a standstill until the end of the 13th century. With the Islamization of the Mongols, the development of the arts was resumed. Far Eastern strains became assimilated to the ancient heritage of artistic ideas. This development continued under the art-loving descendants of the other great conqueror of the period, the Turk Tamerlane (Timur), who died in 1405.
The main architectural types of the Seljuk period continue. Minarets are used in pairs, especially to flank the sanctuary ivan. Bright faience mosaic is applied to cover whole surfaces, then whole buildings, and eventually becomes the characteristic Persian architectural decoration. Many fine mosques and madrasas of the period are preserved (in Veramin, Yezd, Meshed, and Tabriz) ; others were redecorated with faience mosaics. The outstanding mausoleums are those of the Mongol Oljeitu in Sultaniye (c.1310), and of Tamerlane in Samarkand.
Chinese influence is strongly felt in the decorative arts, especially through the introduction of Chinese motifs such as the lotus, the dragon, the phoenix, and cloud symbols. In spite of this and the introduction of new types, pottery declined and was never to recover. Inlaid metal-work maintained its high level until shortly after the beginning of the 14th century, when it started to decline and came to a near stop about 1400. The strongest Chinese influence was shown in the textiles. Toward the middle of the 14th century, Persian miniature painting was born out of the final amalgamation of Persian, Mesopotamian, and Chinese elements. It soon found perfect though sometimes stilted expression in the volumes turned out for the Timurids by the court ateliers in Shiraz and Herat. Painting culminated at the end of the 15th century in the person of Bihzad, the best known Persian miniature painter. The miniatures usually illustrate epic or romantic poems. They use bright opaque colors in small units which cover the whole picture area and often part of the margin. On account of the perspective the scenes appear to be observed from a high point, and with the horizon toward the extreme upper edge of the picture. The figures are diminutive, puppet-like, and without three-dimensional quality. Manuscripts usually have elaborately decorated frontispieces in which gold and blue derived from lapis lazuli are the main colors. About 1400, a new exquisitely fine «hanging» script (nastaliq) was developed, in which from that time on poetical manuscripts were written.
The leading dynasty of the last Persian period (c.1500 on) was that of the Safawids (1502-1736). Their greatest King, Shah Abbas I (c.1586-1628) used an ambitious scheme of city planning in his capital, Isfahan, by further developing the idea of the four-ivaned courtyard. The city centers around the great square and pologround, with four major buildings in the middle of the four arcaded sides containing shops: the royal mosque, the shrine of Ni’mat Allah, the entrance building to the bazaars, and the gate pavilion to the palace grounds. The scheme furthermore embraced wide avenues and bridges over the river. The best of the later buildings in the traditional style is the Madrasah Madar-i-Shah in Isfahan (1714). In modern times there is, of course, Western influence, but also a revival of Achaemenid architectural forms for public buildings.
The outstanding medium of the decorative arts in this period is carpet weaving. Only a few fragmentary rugs from earlier times are known, though we are familiar with their appearance from paintings. Now through the efforts of the Safawid kings, carpet weaving rose from a house or small workshop industry to become a major manifestation of Persian art. Famous painters and illuminators designed carpets for the court, the mosques, the shrines, and as royal gifts to foreign rulers. A great variety of types, often of large size and in pairs, were executed in wool or silk, mostly in pile technique, but also as tapestries. Some have a centralized design with a medallion in the center; others have an all-over pattern. Trees, flowers, real and fantastic animals, arabesques, cloud bands, spirals, writing, and more rarely human and supernatural beings, populate these carpets, of which the most common subject matter is gardens or woods, either earthly or heavenly. The main weaving centers were Tabriz, Kashan, Isfahan, Jawshaqan Qali, Yezd, Kerman, and Herat.
The Safawids tried to revive the ceramic art and metalwork. Some respectable achievements can be recorded, though much pottery is only a free adaptation of Chinese prototypes. Silk weaving of the 16th and 17th centuries was strongly influenced by paintings, some of which seem to have been transformed into repeat patterns. Later a few designs like a flowering shrub or a rose with a nightingale or a butterfly became perennial favorites and recur again and again. From the late 17th century on, glass, especially bottles, often of bizarre shape, was manufactured in Shiraz. Miniature painting kept on a high level until the end of the reign of Shah Abbas. Realistic scenes and detached paintings with one or two figures became the fashion. The rich coloristic style deteriorated from the middle of the 16th century on, and the best artists work now in a style, in which only the main figure is coloristically treated or in a pure linear style of calligraphic quality.
Reflecting the political situation, all arts suffered a continuous decline from about 1700 on. Nowadays artists try to emulate the glories of past ages by imitating their arts, especially that of the 16th and 17th centuries. Present-day art industries include carpet weaving, pottery making, wood intarsia, silverwork, and the painting of wood, ivory, and of manuscripts.
The best collections of Persian art in the Near East are in the museums of Teheran, Istanbul, and Cairo; in Europe, in the British and the Victoria and Albert museums and the A. Chester Beatty collection in London; in the Louvre, Musee des Arts Decoratifs, and the Bibliothèque Nationale in Paris ; in the Islamische Abteilung and Schlossmuseum of the State Museums in Berlin; in the Hermitage and Public Library in Leningrad and the Museum of Asiatic Art in Moscow ; and in the United States, in the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the Morgan Library, and the Iranian Institute in New York ; the Boston Museum of Fine Aits; the Walters Art Gallery, Baltimore; the Freer Gallery of Art and the Textile Museum of the District of Columbia in Washington ; the Philadelphia Museum and the University Museum in Philadelphia; the Art Institute of Chicago ; and the Museums in Detroit, Cleveland, Toledo, Kansas City, Minneapolis, and St. Louis.