An inscribed ewer from Iran – from the object to the political ideology

Calligraphy is widespread in Islamic architecture of course, but it can be found also on a series of portable objects: woodwork, pottery and for course metalwork. In these cases the content of the inscription is strictly connected to the use of the object.

When the object is connected to the ruling class, decoration can in certain case be useful to understand the self-representation of the rulers. Let’s take, for example, a beautifully decorated ewer from 10th century Iran, made for a Buyid ruler, Izz al-Dawla Bakhtiyar ibn Mu’izz al-Dawla (r.967–978) .

Before looking the object: the Buyids and their ideas

The Buyids are a pretty interesting dynasty that ruled Iran for nearly 150 years, from the first half of the 10th to the second half of the 11th century, during the so-called Iranian Intermezzo. They came from the Iranian plateau and their dominion arrived to Iraq, bringing the ‘Abbasid caliphate itself under their domination (Busse 1975, p. 250).

What is particularly interesting is their self-representation: they linked themselves to the Sasanians. They inherited from the Sasanian the notion of the divine right of kingship and it is not a case that some Buyid inscriptions are to be found in Persepolis and their pottery is decorated with pseudo-Phalavi inscriptions (Blair – Bloom 2009, pp. 318-319).

The political/cultural ideology and self-representation influenced also their art, in this case metalwork: their bronze and silver wares were based on Sasanian prototypes or were so similar to Sasanian ones that they had often been labelled as post-Sasanian and displayed a “degenerate Sasanian iconography” (Blair – Bloom 2009,  p. 319).

The gold jug in the Freer Gallery of art

Gold Jug, The Freer Gallery – accession no. 43.1 © 2014 Smithsonian Institution

The decoration of the body is worked in relief and consists of three pairs of confronted sphinxes, peacocks and horned animals enclosed in medallions. One interesting feature in this piece is that the background is completely eliminated. This characteristic is at odd with contemporary vessels, whose decoration is usually confined to inscription bands or limited areas of the general surface. In this case it can be maintained that the exuberant decoration of the surface was introduced to emphasize the precious quality of the ewer.

Glenn Lowry divides the decoration of the jug into six registers, which are (from top):

  • an ornamental Kufic epigraphic band with the name of the owner of the jug and blessings: “Blessing, joy, and good fortune to Abū Manṣūr Baḫtiyār Ibn Muʿizz al-Dawla. May God prolong his days”;

  • decoration band with three pairs of facing birds holding in their mouths branches;

  • ornamental decoration with trefoil-shaped designs

  • ornamental decoration through a relief scalloping band

  • main decoration with three pairs of facing figures: two sphinxes (one at either side of the handle), two peacocks with ribbons in their mouths and two horned animals eating large plants;

  • inscription band with a less elaborated Kufic script than the upper one, containing blessings and good wishes: “Blessings, felicity, happiness, good health, everlasting good things, success, ease, and complete glory”.

Also, the base of the jug is adorned with an arabesque pattern of floral forms.

The decoration, with figural representation of animals, stems from pre-Islamic models and recalls the Sasanian imperial metalwork.

This can be considered to be intentional as the Buyid were consciously self-representating as Persian kings and claimed also a direct descendancy from the Sasanian dynasty.

Authenticity: a Buyid issue

The jug is now considered to be authentic, even if at first it was supposed to be a forgery. In fact, Buyid art has always been absorbed in a ‘climate of doubt’, as Glenn Lowry puts it).

Max von Berchem, anyhow, declared it authentic on epigraphical basis, comparing the inscriptions on the jug with those found in Persepolis. The jug is nowadays part of almost every survey concerning metalwork of the Buyid period, even though it was excluded from the catalogue of the Freer Gallery, as it was deemed at odd with the tradition and in need to further study.

Oleg Grabar, by the way, said that this jug can be linked to other pieces, in particular to the jug kept in Cleveland Museum of Art (accession number 66.22).

Gold Jug, Cleveland Museum of Art, accession number 66.22 - © Cleveland Museum of Art
Gold Jug, Cleveland Museum of Art, accession number 66.22 – © Cleveland Museum of Art

Bibliography and further reading

E. Atıl, W. T. Chase and P. Jett, Islamic Metalwork in the Freer Gallery of Art, Smithsonian Institution Press, Washington DC 1985.

E. Baer, Metalwork in Medieval Islamic Art, State University of New York Press, Albany 1983.

S. S. Blair and J. M. Bloom, “Buyid”, in S. S. Blair and J. M. Bloom, The Grove Encyclopedia of Islamic Art and Architecture, vol. I, Oxford University Press, Oxford 2009, pp. 318-320.

S. S. Blair and J. M. Bloom, “Metalwork”, in S. S. Blair and J. M. Bloom, The Grove Encyclopedia of Islamic Art and Architecture, vol. II, Oxford University Press, Oxford 2009, pp. 479-515.

S.S. Blair, J. M. Bloom and A. E. Wardwell, “Reevaluating the date of the “Buyid” Silks by epigraphic and radiocarbon analysis”, in Ars Orientalis 22 (1992), pp. 1-14. [fully availeble via jstor]

J. M. Bloom, “Facts and fantasy in Buyid art”, in Oriente Moderno 84 (2004), pp. 387-400. [fully availeble via jstor]

O. Grabar, “The visual arts”, in R. N. Frye (edited by), The Cambridge History of Iran, Vol. 4 – The period from the Arab invasion to the Saljuqs, Cambridge University Press, Cambridge 1975, pp. 329-363.

G. D. Lowry, “On the Gold Jug Inscribed to Abu Mansur al-Amir Bakhtiyar Ibn Mu’izz al-Dawlas in the Freer Gallery of Art”, Ars Orientalis 19 (1989), pp. 103-115. [fully availeble via jstor]

A. S. Melikian-Chirvani, Islamic Metalwork from the Iranian World 8-18th Centuries, Victoria and Albert Museum, London 1982.

R. Ward, Islamic Metalwork, British Museum Press, London 1993.


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