This dado panel was excavated from a room in the Tepe Madrasa area of Nishapur that once had a lively scheme of painted decoration. The upper section of the wall was colored a deep red, followed by a short horizontal frieze of hexagons and diamonds underneath, and then this four-foot high dado with a frieze of alternating square and rectangular panels. Each panel in the dado was framed with blue, red, and white lines; the rectangular panels were filled with a pattern akin to quartersawn marble, and the square panels had a variety of feathery shapes, scale-covered elements, and interlaced ribbons ending in stylized eyes and hands. This symbolism has no known parallels outside Nishapur, although amulets in the shape of eyes and hands were used to ward off the evil eye. It seems unlikely, however, that this basic interpretation encompasses the whole meaning of the present work.
The room in Nishapur, Iran, from which this dado panel was excavated once had a lively scheme of painted decoration. The upper section of the wall was colored a deep red, beneath which was a short horizontal frieze of hexagons and diamonds, and a four-foot-high dado with alternating rectangular and square panels. Each dado panel was framed with red, blue, and white lines; the rectangular panels contained a diamond or lozenge-shaped pattern filled with a design akin to quarter-sawn marble or fish scales, and the square panels featured a motif composed of a variety of feathery shapes, scale-covered elements, and interlaced ribbons ending in stylized eyes and hands. These patterns were executed in shades of blue, red, yellow, and brown.
The section of Nishapur where this panel was found was known locally as Tepe Madrasa; judging from its modern name, the Metropolitan Museum’s archaeologists had hoped to find one of Nishapur’s famed institutions of learning, or madrasas. During the excavations of 1938–40, they instead uncovered a large residential area with a mosque that had been developed and rebuilt in several phases between the ninth and twelfth centuries. It is within one of the residences in this area that this panel was discovered, inside a room measuring approximately sixteen by nineteen feet (roughly five by six meters).
The excavators later determined that the building from which the painted dadoes were extracted dated to the ninth century, and suggested that the room was once part of the Tahirid-period palaces mentioned in historical sources. The panel here and the numerous other examples found at Nishapur, all in different styles, are the earliest known examples of wall painting from the Islamic period in Iran.
While the meaning of this panel’s decoration remains an enigma, most scholars believe that its imagery had an apotropaic function. One hypothesis is that the eye and hand symbols derived from representations of the "hand of God," but it has also been argued that the iconography should be linked to pre-Islamic bird-snake motifs that were believed to represent the souls of the deceased. Either of these interpretations makes it unlikely that the room containing these panels was part of a palace, although so far there are no other indications of its function, as the excavators suggested.
Marika Sardar in [Ekhtiar, Soucek, Canby, and Haidar 2011]
1. Of the dado surface that the excavators uncovered, it was possible to preserve only two square and two rectangular panels; one set went to the Iran Bastan Museum, Tehran, and one set came to the Metropolitan Museum. See Wilkinson 1986, pp. 159–84. The structure where these panels were found is labeled "W20."
2. For an evolving discussion and identification of the site, see Hauser and Wilkinson 1942, pp. 97–100; Bulliet 1976, p. 75; Wilkinson 1986, p. 181; and Sims et al 2002, p. 28.
3. Wilkinson 1986, p. 173; and Rührdanz, Karin. "Zur Ikonographie der Wandmalereien in Tepe Madraseh (Nishapur)." In Proceedings of the Second European Conference of Iranian Studies held in Bamberg, 30th September to 4th October 1991, by the Societas Iranologica Europaea, edited by Bert G. Fragner, pp. 589–95. Serie orientale Roma, 73. Rome, 1995 , p. 593.
1939, excavated at Tepe Madrasa in Nishapur, Iran by the Metropolitan Museum of Art's expedition; 1940, acquired by the Museum in the division of finds
"The Museum's Excavations at Nishapur." Metropolitan Museum of Art Bulletin vol. 37, no. 4 (1942). p. 104, ill. fig. 28 (b/w).
McAllister, Hannah, Maurice S. Dimand, Charles K. Wilkinson, and Walter Hauser. "Excavations of the Iranian Expedition in the Kanat Teppeh, Nishapur." Metropolitan Museum of Art Bulletin, old series, vol. 37 (1942). pp. 99-100, 104, ill. fig 28 (b/w).
Dimand, Maurice S. A Handbook of Muhammadan Art. 2nd rev. and enl. ed. New York: The Metropolitan Museum of Art, 1944. p. 22, ill. fig. 11 (b/w).
Dimand, Maurice S. A Handbook of Muhammadan Art. Publications, 36.. Lahore: The Panjabi Adabi Academy, 1964. p. 22, ill. fig. 11 (b/w).
Wilkinson, Charles K. Nishapur: Some Early Islamic Buildings and their Decoration. New York: The Metropolitan Museum of Art, 1986. pp. 20, 168, ill. fig. 6 (color), fig. 1.201 (b/w).
Ettinghausen, Richard, and Oleg Grabar. The Art and Architecture of Islam: 650–1250. Middlesex, England: Penguin Books, 1987. p. 249, ill. fig. 264 (b/w).
Ettinghausen, Richard, Oleg Grabar, and Marilyn Jenkins-Madina. Islamic Art and Architecture 650–1250. 2nd ed. New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 2001. p. 114, ill. fig. 178 (color).
Sims, Eleanor, B. Marshak, and Ernst J. Grube. "Persian Painting and its Sources." In Peerless Images. New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 2002. pp. 28-29, ill. fig. 37 (color).
Ekhtiar, Maryam, Sheila R. Canby, Navina Haidar, and Priscilla P. Soucek, ed. Masterpieces from the Department of Islamic Art in The Metropolitan Museum of Art. 1st ed. ed. New York: The Metropolitan Museum of Art, 2011. no. 60, pp. 7, 87, 100-101, ill. p. 100 (color).