Bahram Gur, challenged by his concubine Azada in a series of dares to show his mastery in archery, here pins together with a single arrow the ear and hoof of a gazelle, while Azada plays the harp. The tragic epilogue of this story from the Persian epic Shahnama, in which a camel tramples Azada after she disparages the prince for his cruel feats, is portrayed at the bottom of the bowl. This popular episode was depicted on ceramics and metalware.
The scene on this bowl represents a famous episode from the Shahnama, the Persian epic passed down orally for centuries until preserved in writing by the poet Firdawsi (d. 1020). The story tells of a hunting expedition of Bahram Gur and his concubine Azada, depicted here on the back of his camel. While the prince shows his mastery in archery, Azada plays the harp—an evocation of the paired royal pursuits of bazm and razm, or feasting and fighting. Bahram Gur, challenged by Azada to transform a male gazelle into a female, a female into a male, and to pin together with a single arrow the ear and hoof of another gazelle, is shown succeeding in the third dare, which he accomplishes after throwing a stone onto the ear of the animal, causing it to lift its hoof. The epilogue of the story, in which the camel tramples Azada on Bahram Gur’s order after she disparages the prince for his cruel feats, is portrayed at the bottom of the dish.
This episode occurs on several mina’i bowls and less frequently in metalwork. The general scheme—Bahram Gur and Azada on camelback—is maintained, while the narrative is depicted with variations. These range from simpler representations of the two lovers before the dare takes place to more complex arrangements such as the one shown here, in which Bahram Gur’s feats and Azada’s tragic demise are both included. Such variations attest to the popularity of the story, intelligible to the viewer with even the sparest of iconographic clues, as well as to the creativity of the craftsman. A demand for personalization has also been suggested. In any case, mina’i bowls with narrative and literary scenes tend to be of higher quality than those bearing paintings of other subjects, a difference that speaks to a differentiated market. The presence of scenes from the Shahnama in both royal and non-elite contexts reveals the popularity and diffusion of these epic tales, in both their written and oral tellings, and suggests the adaptability of ubiquitous royal iconography.
Martina Rugiadi in [Canby, Beyazit, and Rugiadi 2016]
Among the most technically complex and luxurious glazed wares produced in the Seljuq period was a type known as mina’i (the Persian word for enamel). Incorporating a range of colors and intricate compositions and renditions, much of the painting found on mina’i wares recalls manuscript illustrations. As with Seljuq lusterware, many of these vessels portray visual and poetic themes derived from Persian literature, such as the Shahnama (Book of Kings), depicting heroes, warriors, lovers, and fantastic beasts. Kashan, also the site of production of lusterwares, appears to have been the main production center for mina’i ceramics, providing vessels in an array of forms such as bowls, ewers, and flasks.
This bowl is a fine example of mina’i and depicts one of the cherished tales from the Shahnama of Firdausi — that of Bahram Gur and Azada mounted on a camel, hunting. The story is as follows: Azada, Bahram Gur’s concubine, entertains the ruler by playing a harp, and challenges him to a hunting feat. When he succeeds, however, she pities the slain animal and reproaches him for being coldhearted and vain. In anger, he tramples her under the camel’s feet. Here, two moments in the story are conflated into one scene, both rendered with extraordinary charm and immediacy.
This tale has great longevity and dates back to the pre-Islamic period. A number of Sasanian silver plates, including one in the Metropolitan Museum, illustrate the same story, although in most of those examples the hunting couple are mounted on a horse rather than a camel. The inscriptions around the rim on the exterior of the bowl contain messages of good fortune and well-being to the owner.
Maryam Ekhtiar in [Ekhtiar, Soucek, Canby, and Haidar 2011]
1. Metropolitan Museum (acc. no. 1994.402), formerly in the Guennol Collection. See also Harper et al 1978, p. 48.
Inscription: In Persian; on exterior, below rim. "Good wishes to the owner".
Outside in Arabic language and Kufic scrip:
العز و الاقبال و الدولة ... و الدولة و السلامة و السعادة و السلامة ... و البقاء لصاحبه العز ...
Inside in Kufic script the word الدو repeated many times.
Mortimer L. Schiff, New York (until d. 1931); his son, John M. Schiff(1931–57; sold and gifted to MMA)
New York. The Metropolitan Museum of Art. "Ceramic Art of the Near East," 1931, no. 59.
London. Burlington House. "International Exhibition of Persian Art," January 7, 1931–February 28, 1931, no. 104C.
The Iranian Institute. "Exhibition of Persian Art," 1940, Gal. I, no. 24E.
The Metropolitan Museum of Art. "Court and Cosmos: The Great Age of the Seljuqs," April 25, 2016–July 24, 2016, no. 83.
Dimand, Maurice S. "The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, May 12 to June 28, 1931." In Loan Exhibition of Ceramic Art of the Near East. New York, 1931. no. 59, p. 15.
Wilson, Arnold T. "7th January to 28th February, 1931." In Catalogue of the International Exhibition of Persian Art. 3rd. ed. London: Royal Academy of Arts, 1931. no. 104C, p. 66.
"7th January to 28th February, 1931, Royal Academy of Arts, London." In Catalogue of the International Exhibition of Persian Art. 3rd edition ed. London: Royal Academy of Arts, 1931. no. case 104 C.
"Mémoires." In IIIe Congrès International d'Art et d'Archéologie Iraniens. Moscow and Leningrad: Academie des Sciences de l'URSS, 1935. ill. pl. LXXXI.
Harari, Ralph, and Richard Ettinghausen. A Survey of Persian Art from Prehistoric Times to the Present, edited by Arthur Upham Pope. Vol. I-VI. London and New York: Oxford University Press, 1938. vol. II, p. 1602, ill. vol. V, pl. 672, (color).
Ackerman, Phyllis. "The Iranian Institute, New York." In Guide to the Exhibition of Persian Art. 2nd. ed. New York: The Iranian Institute, 1940. no. Gallery I, case 24E, p. 22.
Dimand, Maurice S. "New Accessions of Islamic Art." Metropolitan Museum of Art Bulletin vol. 16 (April 1958). pp. 228, 234, ill. p. 234 (b/w).
Harper, Prudence Oliver, Jens Kröger, Carol Manson Bier, and Martha L. Carter. The Royal Hunter: Art of the Sasanian Empire. New York: John Weatherhill, Inc., 1978.
Hillenbrand, Robert, ed. "The Visual Language of the Persian Book of Kings." In Shahnama. VARIE occasonal papers; 2. Burlington, VT: Ashgate, 2004. p. 124, Related reference.
Roxburgh, David J. "From Dispersal to Collection." In The Persian Album, 1400-1600. New Haven & London: Yale University Press, 2005. p. 5, ill. fig. 4 (b/w).
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. 72, pp. 114-115, ill. p. 114 (color).
Canby, Sheila R., Deniz Beyazit, and Martina Rugiadi. "The Great Age of the Seljuqs." In Court and Cosmos. New York: The Metropolitan Museum of Art, 2016. no. 83, p. 153, ill. (color).