Tuesday, 24 September 2013

A Treat for Tuesday

Safavid Glazed Bowl - AMD.183

Origin: Central Asia
Circa: 1501 AD to 1722 AD 
Dimensions: 5.3" (13.5cm) high x 14.5" (36.8cm) wide 
Collection: Islamic Art
Medium: Fritware
Condition: Very Fine

The origins of the Safavid Dynasty can be traced back to the Safaviyeh Sufi order founded in the early 14th century in the city of Ardabil. From this base in northwestern Iran, the Safavids would go on to become the first native Persian dynasty to exert control over all of Iran since the fall of the Sassanids. Much like the ethnically diverse country they would rule, the Safavids were of mixed ancestry, including Kurdish, Greek, Azerbaijani, and Georgian lines. Although their religious roots were aligned with the Sunni Sufi order, by the early days of the 15th century, the Safavids switched sects, establishing the Twelver branch of Shiism as the official religion of the empire. The adoption of the Shia faith would have a profound impact on the future of Iran while bringing them into conflict with their Sunni neighbors, the Ottomans to the west and the Uzbeks to the northeast.

The Safavid Dynasty was officially founded by Shah Ismail I around 1501 when he declared himself Shah of Azerbaijan. A mere decade later, Ismail I had reunited all of Persia, bringing an end to nearly a century of conflicts and squabbles between rival political factions and small independent kingdoms that followed in the wake of the Mongol onslaught. The Safavids reached their apex under their greatest monarch, Shah Abbas I who ruled from 1587-1629. Having lost territory to the Ottomans and the Uzbeks, Abbas I sued for peace and set about reorganizing the army along the lines of the European model. These reforms proved highly successful as the Safavids soon went onto recapture lost territories from the Ottomans and the Uzbeks, while also forcing the Portuguese out of Bahrain and the English navy from Hormuz. Despite these conflicts with the West, Shah Abbas established commercial links with the British and the Dutch, taking advantage of Persia’s geographic situation between the wealth of India and the European markets and the revival of the ancient Silk Road trade route that passed through their northern territory.

The Safavid period was a golden age of Persian culture. The Safavids inherited the best calligraphers, painters and bookbinders from the Timurids. Safavid art was strongly influenced by Turkmen culture as well as Chinese, Ottoman and Western cultures. Developments were made in the fields of miniature painting and tile making. Poetry and literature flourished. Some of the most spectacular architectural monuments in Iran were constructed during this era, including the magnificent buildings that front Naghsh-I Jahan Square in their opulent capital of Isfahan. Carpet making evolved from a regional industry into an international luxury item as demand soared in Europe, especially among the Dutch and English. However, this golden age was short lived. During the 17th Century, the Safavids had to contend with the rise of two more hostile neighbors, Russian Muscovy and the Mughals in India, in addition to their perennial enemies the Ottomans and the Uzbeks. As well, commerce began to decline as international trade routes between East and West began to shift increasingly away from Iran. With their military and economic power declining, a failed campaign to convert Sunni Afghan tribes to the east to Shiism backfired as Afghan armies marched across eastern Iran, sacking Isfahan and marking the end of the Safavid Dynasty in 1722.

In general, the décor of Safavid ceramics tend to imitate those of Chinese porcelain, with the production of blue and white pieces with Chinese form and motifs. In any case, the Persian blue is distinguished from the Chinese blue by its more numerous and subtle nuances. Often, quatrains by Persian poets, sometimes related to the destination of the piece occur in the scroll patters. One can also notice a completely different type of décor, much more rare which carries iconography very specific to Islam and seems influenced by the Ottoman world, as is evidence by feather-edged anthemions (honeysuckle ornaments) widely used in Turkey.
The Chinese elements are very strong on this bowl: the peonies, the border patterns, the blue and white colour scheme and the shape, all derive from fourteenth century imports.

This bowl is a fine example of Safavid blue and white wares. A similar dish can be seen at the Boston Museum of Art.

Thursday, 19 September 2013

In Vino Veritas

Apulian Red-Figure Bell Krater - AM.0022

Origin: Mediterranean
Circa: 400 BC to 300 BC
Dimensions: 12.3" (31.2cm) high
Collection: Classical
Medium: Terracotta

An essential vessel for anyone wishing to partake in the Bacchic pastime of wine-drinking, this wide-mouthed bell krater was specifically designed for holding large quantities of liquid; as it was considered barbaric for wine to be drunk neat (and a privilege only enjoyed by Bacchus/Dionysus and his entourage who could handle such a level of intoxication) wine would be mixed with water, usually 1 part to 3. As such, craters provided an ideal large surface area for decoration, and as wine was of utmost importance to the Symposium, kraters would usually take centre place, and as such, the decoration of such vessels were geared towards such gatherings and attempted to provide subject matter for philosophical debate, or more usually, for titillation. 

The obverse of the krater depicts a draped female resting her weight on her left leg before a naked seated male, possibly a young Dionysius, for he holds a thyrsus, an attribute of the god. She carries a thyrsus in her left hand also, and a tambourine in her right. This is suggestive of her providing entertainment for the seated male, while also providing entertainment for those viewing the krater. The male holds a phiale in his right hand ready for wine to be poured in (the decoration here echoing what would have been going on while wine was being mixed in the krater) and a thrysus in his left. His curly black hair is arranged beneath a fillet. 

It could be that this is a mythological scene, for instead of being depicted in the usual setting of a Symposium, inside the men’s room at a private residence, sat upon couches, the small white dots painted beneath the female’s foot and also beneath the male figure are the subtle representations of rocks, thus placing this scene in an outside setting.
The figures are flanked by a palmette design beneath each handles and a meander motif encircles the base while a laurel motif runs beneath the rim. 

The reverse shows two young draped males facing one another, each holding a staff before them. There is a four-quarter disc in the field behind the figures’ heads, possibly representing a shield. It could be that these figures are returning warriors, for they wear the traveller’s cloak and hold staffs that usually symbolise such an activity.

The condition and preservation of this vessel is particularly good. As illustrated in the photographs, there has been an “invisible” repair made to the rim, as there has been to the foot. Both handles are preserved, which is rare, and there are no chips to the main body.

The quality of the decoration is also very fine, especially the drapery of the figures. The painter shows his skilled use of the thin brush used for such details. His care can also be seen for the meander boarder around the base of the vessel, for it is even and exhibits very straight lines.

The use of white paint on the obverse of the vessel for additional details, such as the jewelry of the woman, and as added highlights to the scenery is indicative of this vessel having been painted in Greek occupied South Italy (Magna Graecia.) The artist’s skill can especially be seen on these two figures, the rendering of the male’s anatomy is particularly striking for he has depicted his torso as in contraposto, and has taken note of how the muscles react to such a position.

This vessel is a beautiful example of a krater from this period, and to have it in such a well preserved condition is extremely rare.