After the Mongol conquest of Persia in the thirteenth century, an extensive trade network opened from China to the Mediterranean, allowing goods to move more freely than in prior centuries. As the objects in this case demonstrate, Ilkhanid period artists readily adopted imagery from Chinese iconography, including lotus flowers, deer, dragons and other mythical creatures. This image of a soaring phoenix with crested head and elaborate trailing plumage is exemplifies the adaptation of Chinese imagery by Persian artists.
This image of a soaring phoenix with crested head and elaborate plumage, surrounded by swirling clouds, is a striking example of the adaptation of Chinese imagery by Persian artists.
With ancestry that included Genghis Khan and the Great Khans of China, the Mongol Ilkhanid rulers had strong ties with eastern Asia, facilitating the movement of people and goods across the continent. As a result, Persian art produced under Ilkhanid rule exhibits an infusion of new motifs — including depictions of the feng (phoenix) and long (dragon), both traditional Chinese symbols of imperial sovereignty. The affinity between this new Persian iconography and that of contemporary Yuan China strongly suggests that Ilkhanid artists were aware of Chinese models.
Excavation evidence indicates that this tile once graced the walls of a late thirteenth-century Ilkhanid palace known as Takht-i Sulaiman, located in a mountainous region southeast of Tabriz. Built on the shores of a small lake during the reign of Abaqa (d. 1282), the palace served as a seasonal camp, its location and elevation allowing the ruler and his court to escape the summer heat. Many of its rooms were lavishly decorated with stuccowork and ceramic tiles in a rich variety of techniques, including the combination of cobalt and luster glazes seen on this molded tile.
The appearance of motifs such as the dragon and phoenix within the context of this Ilkhanid royal palace may reflect a dual iconographic system. As traditional Chinese symbols of royalty, these images were well understood by the recently arrived Mongol Ilkhanid rulers and their court. At the same time, Persian artists began to adopt Chinese feng imagery as a way to visualize the Persian mythical bird known as the simurgh. The possibility of two simultaneous readings for this tile’s iconography underscores the cosmopolitan and hybrid nature of the arts produced for the Ilkhanid court.
Denise-Marie Teece in [Ekhtiar, Soucek, Canby, and Haidar 2011]
1. Masuya 1997; see pp. 564ff. for her discussion of these motifs and their associated meanings. Also see Masuya, Tomoko. "Ilkhanid Courtly Life." In Carboni and Komaroff 2002, pp. 74–103, esp. pp. 96–97.
2. Masuya 1997, p. 577, states "Characteristics shared by the feng motifs during the Yuan period and the phoenixes on the Takht-i Sulaiman tiles include the pair of long crests flowing from its forehead, a long comb under its beak, long hair-like feathers flowing from the neck, zigzag patterns in the body feathers, and long tail feathers." For more on the relationship between Persian and Chinese arts in this period, see Soucek, Priscilla [P]. "Ceramic Production as Exemplar of Yuan-Ilkhanid Relations." RES: Anthropology and Aesthetics, no. 35 [Intercultural China] (Spring 1999), pp. 125–41..
3. Masuya 2002, pp. 84ff. (reference in footnote 1)
4. Ibid., p. 96, and Masuya 1997, pp. 128–34, 577, 597, and 621. See ibid., pp. 514ff., for a description of tile type 6-2-2-b, findspots in the excavation, further references, and comparanda. Also see Masuya 2002, p. 89, for a plan of the palace complex. (reference in footnote 1)
5. See Masuya 1997, pp. 580–81. She states that as early as the 1290s the simurgh began to be depicted by Persian artists using the Chinese feng iconography.
6. As Masuya points out, however, it is unclear if the image of the feng would have been immediately recognized by the local population as representative of the simurgh. See ibid., p. 578. For another theory of how such imagery may have been perceived, see Melikian-Chirvani, A[ssadullah] S[ouren]. "Le Shahname: La Gnose soufie et le Pouvoir mongol." Journal asiatique 277, no. 3–4 (1984), pp. 249 – 337, especially his discussion of the simurgh motif at Takht-i Sulaiman beginning on p. 317. See also Melikian-Chirvani, A[ssadullah] S[ouren]. "Le livre des rois, miroir du destin." Studia Iranica 20, no. 1 (1991), pp. 33–148, pls. 1–16 esp. pp. 102ff.
[ Indjoudjian Frères, Paris, until 1912; sold to MMA]
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