This cartouche‑shaped plaque was created from a single sheet of solid steel, whose wide, flat border encloses a hemistich referring to Fatima and her sons. The text is part of a versification of the names of the chahardah ma'sum, or the fourteen infallible ones (the Prophet, Fatima, and the twelve imams). Such plaques, which served both a decorative and invocative function, were often set in the doors of shrines, mosques, and theological schools.
Executed in polished steel, a bold calligraphic inscription courses across a field of swirling vine scrolls on this cartouche-shaped plaque. The effortless quality of the finely finished letters, suspended in a trellis of cutwork arabesques, belies the density of the material and the skill required to produce this masterful work. Similar gold and silver plaques are known from important Shi‘i shrines in Iran, where they served as inscriptions on entryway doors and on the grilles (zarih) surrounding the cenotaphs of important personages. The text and form indicate that this plaque may once have served a decorative and invocative function within a venerated tomb or other religious context.
The Metropolitan’s piece belongs to a group of eight related plaques, each containing a hemistich (misra‘) of an Arabic poem identified as a versification of the Chahardah Ma‘sum, written in praise of the Fourteen Infallibles, including Fatima, ‘Ali, and the Twelve Shi‘i Imams. The main text of the poem consists of four lines, comprising eight misra‘. It reads as follows:
بنبي عربي و رسول مدني
و اخيه اسد الله مسمي بعلي
و بزهراء بتول و باُم ولدتها
و بسبطيه هما نجل و زكي
و بالسجاد و بالباقر و الصادق حقاً
و بموسي و علي و تقي و نقي
و بذي العسكر الحجة القائم بالحق
الذي يضرب بالسيف بحكم ازلي
This plaque contains the third misra‘ of the poem, which refers to Fatima, daughter of the Prophet Muhammad, and to his wife Khadija, mother of Fatima. While none of the known plaques in this group bears the first and eighth misra‘ of the poem, the remaining portions appear in published examples. The duplication of the second and seventh misra‘ within the group suggests that at least two different sets of plaques of similar size and shape were produced.
These plaques may have once formed a broader program of architectural decoration, being displayed along with other pierced-steel plaques, of various shapes and sizes, containing other sacred texts. Some surviving examples display dates in the late sixteenth or early seventeenth century; at least one includes the signature of its calligrapher. While many of these plaques appear similar at first glance, subtle differences in the calligraphy, vine-scroll density, and border profiles make it likely that multiple sets of finely wrought steel plaques once adorned important shrines and royal tombs throughout Persia during the Safavid period.
Denise-Marie Teece (author) in [Ekhtiar, Soucek, Canby, and Haidar 2011]
1. A set of 166 pierced and inscribed gold plaques was ordered by Shah Tahmasp for the shrine of Imam Riza at Mashhad in 1550–51. Later, in 1606–7, another set of solid gold plaques was ordered by his grandson Shah ‘Abbas I. For more on these, see Canby 2007, esp. pp. 65–66; also London 2009, pp. 189–93; and London 1976c, p. 204, no 247. See also Samadi 1950 (three unnumbered plates). For the Shah ‘Abbas set, see Allan 1995. A somewhat similar set of plaques, executed in carved ivory, once adorned the cenotaph of Shah Isma‘il in Ardabil. See New York and Milan 2003–4, no. 8.26, and Hillenbrand, R. 2003 (thanks to Sheila Canby for this reference).
2. Melikian-Chirvani 1987b, p. 192, for discussion of its "history."See also Allan and Gilmour 2000, pp. 294ff., esp. p. 296 n. 61, and Welch, S.C. 1987.
3. An identification, transliteration, and rough translation of the text first appeared in the Sotheby’s London catalogue of April 16, 1986, lot 182, with a reference acknowledging Melikian-Chirvani’s forthcoming publication. See Melikian-Chirvani 1987b, pp. 190–91, for his transcription and English translation of the inscription as found on a tombstone in a mausoleum near Ardistan. Ghouchani has provided a transcription here of the poem that varies slightly from the one published by Melikian-Chirvani.
4. See Allan 2004, pp. 296–97 and n. 61, and the following enumeration of eight closely related pieces: Misra‘ 2: London (Victoria and Albert Museum, no. M 5.1919; in London 1976c, p. 199, no. 234); and Copenhagen (David Collection, no. 25 /1994; in Copenhagen 1996, no. 265). Misra‘ 3: New York (Metropolitan Museum, acc. no. 1987.14; in Sotheby’s London, October 12, 1982, lot 71, and Riyadh 1985, no. 96). Misra‘ 4: location unknown (Riyadh 1985, no. 96). Misra‘ 5: location unknown (Sotheby’s London, April 16, 1986, lot 181). Misra‘ 6: location unknown (Sotheby’s London, October 15, 1985, lot 218). Misra‘ 7: Malaysian collection (Sotheby’s London, April 16, 1986, lot 182; Geneva and other cities 1988 – 89, no. 25); another in the Freer and Sackler Galleries, Washington, D.C. (no. 1997.21).
5. In addition to variations in calligraphic composition and the thickness of their borders, the spirals are more tightly drawn on the David Collection piece than on the Victoria and Albert example. Comparable differences are seen between the Freer and Malaysian pieces.
6. Allan and Gilmour 2000, pp. 294ff.
7. Paris 2007–8, p. 421, no. 166, for the British Museum vertical oval plaque dated A.H. 1105 /1693–94 A.D. (no. OA + 368). In the same catalogue, see the previously unpublished plaque no. 61, dated A.H. 972/1564–65 A.D. See also the horizontal oval plaque sold at Sotheby’s London, April 1, 2009, lot 111, and again at Christie’s, April 23, 1996, lot 224 (with restoration) signed "written by Muhammad Riza." He has been identified with the seventeenth-century calligrapher Muhammad Riza al-Imami. For more on this calligrapher, see Pickett 1984 and London 2009, p. 235, no. 114.
Inscription: Inscription in Arabic in thuluth script:
و بزهراء بتول و باُم ولدتها
And by Zahra’ the Immaculate One and the Mother who bore her
بنبي عربي و رسول مدني و اخيه اسد الله مسمي بعلي
و بزهراء بتول و باُم ولدتها و بسبطيه هما نجل و زكي
و بالسجاد و بالباقر و الصادق حقاً و بموسي و علي و تقي و نقي
و بذي العسكر الحجة القائم بالحق الذي يضرب بالسيف بحكم ازلي
Sir Charles Marling, England (early 1900s–at least 1931); Marling family, England, by descent (until 1987); [ Ahuan U.K., Ltd., 1987; sold to MMA]
London. Burlington House. "International Exhibition of Persian Art," January 7, 1931–February 28, 1931, nos. 317, 318.
New York. The Metropolitan Museum of Art. "Balcony Calligraphy Exhibition," June 1, 2009–October 26, 2009, no catalogue.
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. nos. 317, 318, p. 178.
The Arts of Islam. London, 1976. no. 247, p. 204.
Allan, James. Persian Steel: The Tanavoli Collection. Oxford, 2000. pp. 294ff.
Allan, James. Persian Steel: Masterpieces of Iranian Art. London, 2004. pp. 296–97.
Metropolitan Museum of Art Bulletin vol. 44 (1986–1987). p. 11, ill. (b/w).
Schimmel, Annemarie. "Islamic Calligraphy." Metropolitan Museum of Art Bulletin, n.s., vol. 50, no. 1 (Summer 1992). pp. 44, 46, ill. fig. 55 (b/w).
Canby, Sheila R., ed. Shah 'Abbas: The Remaking of Iran. London: British Museum, 2009. pp. 189–93.
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. 166, pp. 241-242, ill. p. 241 (color).