Sasanian Silver Plates

The Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York has several Sasanian silver vessels, including royal plates. These can be compared with the David Plates made during the reign of the Byzantine emperor Heraclius.

 

Historical Background

Around 224 A.D., Ardashir I, a descendant of Sasan who gave his name to the new Sasanian dynasty, defeated the Parthians. The Sasanians saw themselves as the successors of the Achaemenid Persians. One of the most energetic and able Sasanian rulers was Shapur I (r. 241–72 A.D.). During his reign, the central government was strengthened, the coinage was reformed, and Zoroastrianism was made the state religion. The expansion of Sasanian power in the west brought conflict with Rome. In 260 A.D., Shapur took prisoner the emperor Valerian in a battle near Edessa. Thereafter the defense of Rome's eastern frontier was left to the ruler of Palmyra, a caravan city in Syria. By the end of Shapur I’s reign, the Sasanian empire stretched from the River Euphrates to the River Indus and included modern-day Armenia and Georgia. After a short period during which much territory was lost, Sasanian fortunes were restored during the long reign of Shapur II (r. 310–79 A.D.). He reestablished control over the Kushans in the east and campaigned in the desert against the Arabs. Conflict with Rome resulted once again in Sasanian control of northern Mesopotamia and Armenia. During the fifth century, tribal movements in Central Asia resulted in Hephthalite Huns creating an extensive empire centered on Afghanistan. After a disastrous campaign, the Sasanians were forced to pay tribute to their new eastern neighbors. Iran recovered her glory during the reign of Khosrow I (r. 531–79 A.D), who defeated the Hephthalites. However, in the years following Khosrow's death, there were internal revolts and wars with the Byzantine empire. This weakened Iran, and Arab forces, united under Islam, defeated the Sasanian armies in 642. The last Sasanian ruler, Yazdegerd III, died in 651.
 

Sasanian Plates in the Metropolitan Museum of Art:

  • Plate with a Hunting Scene from the Tale of Bahram Gur and Azadeh

  • Plate with a King Hunting Four Rams

  • Plate of King Yazdgard I Slaying a Stag

  • Plate with Youths and Winged Horses

 

Other Sasanian Silver Vessels in the Metropolitan Museum of Art:

  • Head of a king

  • Ewer with dancing females within arcades

  • Bowl with female busts in medallions

  • Bowl with a male bust within a medallion

Plate of King Yazdgard I, slaying a stag

Sasanian (Iran), c. 399–420 AD

Silver, mercury gilding; Diam. 23.3-23.4 cm

Bowl with female busts in medallions

Sasanian (Iran), c. 3rd–4th century AD

Silver; Diam. 23.6-24.1 cm

Hunting scene from the tale of Bahram Gur and Azadeh


Sasanian (Iran), 5th century
Silver, mercury gilding; Diam. 20.1 cm

 

 

The great Iranian epic the Shahnama, or Book of Kings, as recorded by Firdausi in the late tenth to early eleventh century, includes a tale of the Sasanian king Bahram V (r. 420–38), who was challenged to feats of archery by his favorite lyre player, Azadeh. With great skill, Bahram "Gur" (Wild Ass) shot an arrow that removed the horns of a male gazelle, transforming his appearance into that of a female, and shot two arrows into the head of a female gazelle, transforming her appearance into that of a male. The story became a favorite theme in the arts of Islam but was unknown on works of Sasanian date until the appearance of this gilt-silver plate.
 

Plate with king hunting rams

 

Sasanian (Iran), late 5th–early 6th century
Silver, mercury gilding, niello inlay; Diam. 21.9 cm
 

 

The king as hunter becomes a standard motif on royal Sasanian silver plates during the reign of Shapur II (309–79). The theme symbolized the invincibility and the prowess of Sasanian rulers and dominated the royal plates, which may have been used as gifts to neighboring courts. The king has various royal attributes: a crown and fillet, covered globe, nimbus with beaded border, and beaded chest halter with fluttering ribbons. The identity of the Sasanian king on this plate is uncertain. His crown identifies him as either Peroz (r. 459–84) or Kavad I (r. 488–97, 499–531).

Plate with youths and winged horses

Sasanian (Iran), c. 5th–6th century AD

Silver, mercury gilding; Diam. 21 cm

Head of a King


Sasanian (Iran), 4th century

Gilded silver; H. 40 cm


Dating from the fourth century A.D., this silver head of a Sasanian king is an exquisite example of Sasanian metalwork. It is raised from a single piece of silver with chased and repoussé details. The king wears simple ovoid earrings and a beaded necklace of Sasanian fashion. His powerful stare and characteristic arched nose seem to suggest that the artist was attempting to convey a sense of majesty rather than an individual likeness. The identity of the subject of such representations, in relief or in the round, can often be determined by comparison of facial features and details of the crown with those of kings portrayed on Sasanian coins of the period. In this case, however, the crescent that decorates the crenellated crown and the striated orb that rises above it have no exact parallel. A combination of stylistic details suggests that it was made sometime in the fourth century, perhaps during the reign of Shapur II (310–379 AD). The lower section of this head has been cut away, so there is no way of knowing whether it was originally part of a larger sculpture composed of several pieces or a decorative bust intended to be seen alone.

Ewer with dancing females within arcades

 

Sasanian (Iran), 6th century

Silver, mercury gilding; H. (a) 34 cm

 

Late Sasanian silver vessels, particularly bottles and ewers, often were decorated with female figures holding a variety of festal objects. The appearance of these motifs attests to the continuing influence of Greek imagery associated with the wine god Dionysus. On this silver-gilt vessel, floral arches, supported by low pilasters, frame four dancing female figures. Each holds a ceremonial object in either hand: grape and leaf branches, a vessel, a heart-shaped flower. Beneath one arcade, birds peck at fruit, and beneath another a tiny panther drinks from a ewer. Both the females and their decorative motifs recall representations of the maenads, attendants of Dionysus. However, it has been suggested that these figures have been adapted to the cult of the Iranian goddess Anahita. No texts survive to explain the appearance or function of these female figures, but it seems likely that vessels decorated with motifs such as these would have been intended to hold wine for court celebrations or religious festivals.

Bowl with a male bust within a medallion

Sasanian (Iran), c. early 4th century AD

Silver, Diam. 23.3-23.6 cm

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The Byzantine Legacy
Created by David Hendrix Copyright 2016