Some Issues About The Royal Images On The Sassanian Silverworks

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Nino Silagadze


Silverworks, especially splendid tableware of gilded silver, is one of the most typical features of old Iranian culture (maybe together with world famous Iranian jugs and carpets). Bowls, cups, plates etc. with different images, particularly the masterpieces of Sassanian art, are kept in many celebrated museums worldwide. They can be divided into several types, according to decoration: tableware with purely ornamental design, animal figures – real and fantastic ones, or objects with complicated figurative compositions like hunting and battle scenes, scenes of court life, feast, enthronement etc.

We are focused on the special type of Sassanian silver: these cups and bowls have as a major element in their design human busts, both male and female, enclosed in the round frame. These are the portraits of Iranian noblemen, high officials of the Sassanian Empire or King himself. Portrait medallions of tableware are closely linked to the images on the Sassanian gemstones and coins. According to the most important scholarly studies in this field, the portrait medallions appear on Sassanian silver from the midst of the 3rd c. up to the midst of the 4th c. Actually, only 7 vessels with portrait enclosed in the round frame are known from different museum collections.

The earliest one of these 7 vessels was found in Georgia and labeled as Sargveshi cup after the place of discovery. It is also the earliest silver vessel with the image of the Sassanian king. Therefore, it serves as a fixed chorological starting point to arrange the other patterns. Four medallions on the Sargveshi cup show the portraits of King Warahran-Bahram II (276-293), his queen and royal prince. The persons are identified by the coin of Bahram II. The royal family is presented in the same way, bearing the same symbols of power – royal crown, the horse-headed headdress of the queen, the laurel wreath etc. The closest parallel of Sargveshi cup is the bowl from Metropolitan Museum with female busts, dated by the 3rd-4th cc.

The second type of Sassanian tableware with portrait medallions, again according to the most important scholarly researches, consists of 5 objects – vessels with only one portrait on the inner surface put in the center. The oldest one, cup of pitiaxes Papak (second half of the 3rd c.), was also discovered in Georgia, Mtskheta, ancient capital of Kartli/Iberia. The other 4 vessels, one from Tehran Bastan Museum with female portrait, the three others kept in different museums of the USA with male images, are from one archaeological site in Iran. All of them present anonymous Iranian nobles and belong to the period of 3rd-4th cc.

To the small group of these silverworks we want to add one more piece, which is less studied by the scholars. It is a bowl from Miho Museum, Japan, of uncertain provenience. According to P. Harper, “the portrait of ruler as a bust, enclosed in medallion, occurs only in Sargveshi cup, of the late third century. At present, there is no evidence to suggest, that the medallion portrait continued after this period, to be a form in which royal figures were represented on Sassanian silver plates”. This idea needs to be checked, because the figure on Miho Museum cup wears royal crown. This crown looks more like the crown of Peroz I (459–484) or Kavad I (488–497, 499–531). One more parallel is the silver vessel with king’s hunting scene (Metropolitan Museum), identified again as Peroz I or Kavad I.

The exterior surface of Miho Museum cup is decorated by fluted lines, which are rare in Sassanian silverworks design. But fluting line-decoration is very common on pre-Christian toreutics, found in Georgia. According to Georgia’s K. Machabeli, prominent field-specialist, the objects with fluting lines form the particular group of silver vessels, all of them having images in round frame in the center of inner surface. The vessels of such type never appear somewhere outside of Georgia. The objects are so similar from the point of view of technical or stylistic peculiarities, that they may be considered as the production of one local artistic center, even of one workshop, probably in ancient Iberia.

We suggest the cup from Miho Museum could be produced in Iberia after 523, when the country came under the direct control of Sassanian Empire and was ruled by Iranian viceroy. This situation continued till the end of the 6th c., when Kartli/Iberia/ became independent again. So, if the Sassanian king on the Miho Museum cup is Kavad I, the date of the object corresponds to 523-531.


Published: Aug 25, 2021

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