Mesopotamia and Persia
See also : Sculpture Ancient sculpture Islam Religious texts Manuscript Textiles Safavid carpets Animals Cats
Chronology : Origin 1400-1429 1530-1539 17th century 1600-1609 1650-1659
3000 BCE The Guennol Lioness
2007 SOLD for $ 57M by Sotheby's
This very finely chiseled stone figure 8.3 cm high has the head of a lioness on a human body. It certainly comes from the Iranian plateau and was sold in 1931 to a New York merchant. Its discovery thus precedes the excavations of Tell Agrab, begun in 1936 by a team from the University of Chicago appealed by other finds among the antique dealers of Baghdad.
Such hybrid representations between human and feline date back to prehistoric cultures. The ivory lion-man from the Hohlenstein-Stadel cave, dated ca 35,000 to 40,000 years ago by radiocarbon, is the oldest authenticated example of figurative art. The Chauvet cave, painted 30,000 years ago, also includes a lion-woman hybrid.
The Guennol Lioness was sculpted about 5,000 years ago. It belongs to the Proto-Elamite culture, characterized by the development of a proto-writing that has not been decrypted. It is several centuries earlier than the use of the sphinx as a necropolis guardian in Egypt.
It is one of a kind in the round, but is related to similar figures that raise mountains or huge trunks in two-dimensional sigillary iconography. These representations are therefore symbols of extreme power, confirmed in the Guennol Lioness by the hypertrophy of the muscles and the authoritarian position of the head. The head is pierced, allowing to hang it to the neck of a prominent character.
Its name and its exact role in the mythology of that time are not known. It must be analyzed alongside its male counterpart, a bull's head on a human body, of which a kneeling figure is kept at the Metropolitan Museum in New York. Unlike the Guennol Lioness whose hands are joined on the abdomen, this proto-Elamite hybrid holds a liturgical vessel.
Guennol is the pseudonym chosen by the couple of collectors who acquired it in 1948 and entrusted its exhibition for almost 60 years to the Brooklyn Museum of Art.
879 BCE Nimrud Palace Bas Relief
2018 SOLD for $ 31M by Christie's
Founded by Ashur-nasir-pal II over the ruins of a previous city at the time when the Assyrian empire claimed an ambition for a universal kingdom, Kalhu had been one of the greatest urban planning projects made in antiquity. The annual military campaigns of Ashurnasirpal were very efficient and the vanquished peoples supplied the work force for his constructions.
The 120 x 200 m palace excavated by Layard included many rooms separated from the inner courtyards by mud brick walls. About 400 shallow bas-reliefs in gypsum served as a base for these painted walls.
On October 31, 2018, Christie's sold a bas-relief 224 x 196 cm for $ 31M, as lot 101 . It is illustrated with a single full size standing figure in Egyptian profile, larger than life and complete. This winged bearded creature is busy anointing a tree of life. The piece includes a standard cuneiform inscription mingled in the image that recalls the achievements of the king supported by the gods.
Its mirror image is known. The pair served to flank a gateway for which our bearded deity was somehow the guardian angel.
Please watch the video shared by Christie's. A digital technology enables to reconstruct the original colors, known by traces of pigments on some of the reliefs.
Major consignment of ancient art: 3000-year-old Assyrian relief expected to raise over $10m at @ChristiesInc:https://t.co/0GZH2NTC1I pic.twitter.com/cGVQqtW7yk— AntiquesTradeGazette (@ATG_Editorial) September 17, 2018
1994 SOLD for £ 7.7M by Christie's
It displays a beardless eunuch and a winged bearded deity ready to serve the king, and has retained three-quarters of a standard cuneiform inscription recalling the achievements of the king supported by the gods.
Layard had been authorized by the Grand Vizier to export his discoveries.
1274 Mosul Candlestick
2021 SOLD for £ 6.6M by Sotheby's
This piece 26 cm high and 30 cm diameter on the base is facetted in nine parts. The slightly depressed concave body is decorated with a fully circular frieze of 27 standing soldiers and courtiers. At other places narrow friezes display seated musicians, running animals and foliage.
Inscriptions on the shoulder and upper and lower bands of the body appeal in an anthropomorphic script to "Perpetual Glory and Safe Life and Increasing Prosperity and Perfect Good-fortune", including further details of that wish.
It has obviously been commissioned by a high ranked courtier to do homage to a powerful ruler. The use was to kiss the ground and withdraw after the present. Thousands of beeswax candles were lit in the candlesticks in full night palace pageants that included dancing.
Mosul had been the foremost center for inlaid metalwork. The iconography of the candlestick is comparable to a basin signed by one al-Mawsili and dated 673 AH matching 1274 CE while the city was under Ilkhan rule. The candlestick is certainly from that period because the detailed style of such images was soon stylized and weakened. Both are great examples of a revival of Islamic craft under the Mongols.
A candlestick of similar shape and use inscribed to a Mamluk Emir in the period 741-746 AH matching 1340-1345 AD was sold for £ 4.5M by Sotheby's on April 6, 2011.
This sumptuous gold & silver-inlaid candlestick dates all the way back to circa 1275. The body features a stately parade of courtiers and musicians with the decorations embodying the ceremonies of the period.— Sotheby's (@Sothebys) October 4, 2021
Read more here: https://t.co/9cQoEEVoAa#SothebysMiddleEast pic.twitter.com/lXMc1EvOxZ
> 1417 Persian Manuscripts on Chinese Paper
2020 SOLD for £ 7M by Christie's
The Timurid empire broke out after his death. His son Shahrukh reigned over Persia and transferred the capital from Samarkand to Herat. He re-established relations with China through the silk road and became immensely wealthy. He did not seek conquests, took the title of sultan and protected Islam.
This political lull occured during the reign of Yongle of the Ming. A first Chinese embassy reaches Herat in 815 AH (1412 CE). China produces porcelain decorated in Muslim taste to serve as a diplomatic gift. The second embassy in 820 AH brought many gifts including porcelain but also silks, brocades, velvets and paper. This embassy is probably the terminus post quem of the Persian books on Chinese paper.
The Chinese luxury paper is thick, and designed to be extremely soft and silky to the touch. The Chinese workshops prepare the folio on a monochrome background in various hues of blue, pink, lavender, yellow and green. They then add an illustration in gold, with speckled patterns and sometimes figurative drawings, without human representation in conformance with the iconographic principles of Islam. The Persian workshops add their text on this preparation.
A dozen Persian manuscripts on Chinese paper are known, including four Qur'ans. One of these Qur'ans, recently discovered, consists of 534 folios 23 x 16 cm, 29 of which have been replaced. The text in Naskh script is written on each page in a 14 x 9.4 cm frame. The binding is Safavid. This book was sold for £ 7M from a lower estimate of £ 600K by Christie's on June 25, 2020, lot 29.
The Persian poet Firdausi wrote the Shahnameh 1,000 years ago. This Book of Kings collects in 30,000 couplets the epic and heroic stories of his country since the creation of the world until the advent of Islam.
He was misunderstood in his lifetime, like all geniuses, but the Persian kings appreciated later that this text could be used as an apologia for royal power. Shah Isma'il, founder of the Safavid dynasty, commissioned ca 1522 CE the leading artists of his court to illustrate the Shahnameh. That illuminated manuscript was created from 1525 to 1540 in the early reign of his son and successor Shah Tahmasp. That fully completed project includes 258 miniatures skillfully composed with combinations of bright colors..
This magnificent manuscript has been dismantled in the 1970s. One can, or even have to, regret it but the corollary is that each folio coming on the market is considered as a work of art in its own right. The format of the folios is 47 x 32 cm. Panels of text are inserted in columns in the pictures.
1530s Folio 295 attributed to Mirza 'Ali
2022 SOLD for £ 8.1M by Sotheby's
This picture is attributed to Mirza 'Ali in the Royal atelier in Tabriz. Turning 20 years old in the early 1530s, Mirza 'Ali, the son of a leading artist of Shah Tahmasp's Shanameh, contributed to that project for about six illustrations. By his skills for details and psychology, he will be arguably the greatest illustrator of the Safavid dynasty.
The action features Rustam, dressed in a leopard skin, recovering the horse Rakhsh from the herd of his arch-enemy in a lush surrounding of trees inhabited with various species of birds including partridges. Another bearded character marks his astonishment by putting a finger in his mouth. Rakhsh means lightning.
The verso has an illuminated 20 line text in black in four columns in the same gold frame as the recto.
This folio was sold for £ 8.1M from a lower estimate of £ 4M by Sotheby's on October 26, 2022, lot 49. The image is shared by Wikimedia. Please watch the video shared by rhe auction house.
1525-1535 Folio 42
2011 SOLD for £ 7.4M by Sotheby's
The miniature is a 30 x 29 cm gouache heightened with gold, made in Tabriz between 1525 and 1535 CE. It is attributable to Aqa Mirak who was one of the leading masters of the project. The reverse has a text in four columns and two headings. The image overlaps the irregular gold margin on its right side.
It pictures the king Faridun who disguises himself as a fierce dragon to test the courage and loyalty of his three sons. He could rejoice in the result and particularly appreciate the haughty answer made by the youngest: Go your way, dragon, we are the sons of the powerful Faridun.
Celebrating 40 years of pioneering #IslamicArt at Sotheby’s https://t.co/wwDYNq8T6E pic.twitter.com/n8SIMLwc8s— Sotheby's (@Sothebys) February 18, 2016
1530 Folio 451
2022 SOLD for £ 4.8M by Christie's
It pictures Rustam kicking away the boulder pushed by Bahman. This story is not rare in Persian iconography. Closely following the text, the challenging hero is performing a Cossack dance while handling a cup of wine and roasting his onager.
This folio was sold for £ 4.8M from a lower estimate of £ 2.5M by Christie's on March 31, 2022, lot 41.
Christie's is delighted to announce that a rare court painting from the Shahnama of Shah Tahmasp (c.1530) and The Adolphe von Rothschild silk and metal-thread Polonaise carpet will lead the Art of the Islamic and Indian Worlds including Oriental Rugs and Carpets sale on 31 March. pic.twitter.com/kv7GtgQmxc— Christie's (@ChristiesInc) February 22, 2022
Beauty and durability result from a high technical complexity whose climax is reached at Kirman. The weavers use wool and cotton in the same pieces with a wide range of dyes. The colors are dazzling and the themes with flowers, leaves and birds are charming.
The most complex weaving technique uses no less than three weft passes per knot. It is named Vase on a proposal by May Beattie in 1976.
The Carpet of Senator Clark
2013 SOLD for $ 34M by Sotheby's
Its red background is rare and perhaps unique in its class, the sickle-leaf pattern variant of the 'Vase' technique. Its fine floral motifs and its palmettes make it a vibrant and sumptuous artwork in 267 x 196 cm size.
It is always difficult to date and locate an old carpet, if not by considerations of its technical characteristics. The Clark carpet is Safavid and probably Kirman. It is comparable to the best pieces woven during the reign of Shah Abbas 400 years ago.
Please watch the video shared by Sotheby's. The image is shared by Wikimedia.
The Béhague Carpet
2010 SOLD for £ 6.2M by Christie's
This wool carpet is knotted using the intricate Vase technique, suggesting that it was woven in the royal workshops of the Safavid dynasty. It measures 339 x 153 cm and is in outstanding condition except for a few tiny repairs and some corrosion of the black threads. It had been commented in 1938 by an expert who stated for its provenance the prestigious collection of the comtesse de Béhague.
The golden age of Kirman carpets is the reign of Abbas I, who died in 1629 CE. The Béhague carpet is characterized by a very elegant simplification of shapes that Christie's positions around the mid-17th century.
In a magnificent geometric regularity, parallel stems support several pairs of leaves. From top to bottom, the leaves of one stem alternate with the leaves from the adjacent stem. Tiny flowers are inserted into the spaces between the leaves. This decoration anticipates the repetition of flowers and leaves in the highly popular Herati pattern and may evoke some figures from the Iznik ceramics.