The verses inscribed around this lamp stand embody spiritual metaphors comparing the beloved to a candle and the lover to a moth attracted to its light. The verse by an unidentified poet encircling the middle portion of the stand reads:
I said to the candle: "What is this moth around your face?"
It said: "I am the sultan of beauty—what is the desire of the moth?"
This artwork is meant to be viewed from right to left. Scroll left to view more.
Use your arrow keys to navigate the tabs below, and your tab key to choose an item
Title:Engraved Lamp Stand with Interlocking Circles
Date:probably 16th century
Geography:Attributed to Iran
Medium:Brass; cast, engraved, and inlaid with black compound
Dimensions:H. 11 7/8 in. (30.1 cm) Diam. of base: 7 1/4 in. (18.4 cm) Diam. of rim: 4 in. (10.2 cm)
Credit Line:Gift of Joseph W. Drexel, 1889
With a wide base and a slightly flared lip, the distinctive tall, cylindrical shape seen in these two examples (nos. 89.2.197 and 29.53) is characteristic of a group of Safavid lamp stands sharing a similar silhouette. After its emergence in the early sixteenth century, it became a recurring metalwork form, as evinced by numerous extant examples from the Safavid period. The rhythmic, repeating ornamentation adorning the surfaces of the present pieces includes interlaced vegetal scrollwork, geometric patterning, and calligraphic inscriptions—all closely related to contemporary manuscript illumination and tilework.
The calligraphic passages, executed in a nasta‘liq script, are taken from the works of classical and contemporary Persian poets, including Sa‘di, Amir Khusrau Dihlavi, and Muhtasham Kashani. Metaphors of lamps, candles, and light abound in these verses, which echo the nature of the objects they adorn. Favored lines appear again and again, sometimes repeated more than once on the same piece. While many of these verses extol physical attributes, Persian poetry typically embodies multivalent meanings. For example, the comparison of the beloved to a candle, and the lover to a moth enraptured by its light, may be understood as a spiritual metaphor in which the moth represents the human soul, longing to be reunited with its ultimate Beloved—God. Whether enjoyed simply as playful puns referring to the objects at hand, as lyric poems extolling the beauty of an earthly beloved, or as expressions of spiritual yearning, the verses on these lamp stands provide a glimpse into the sophisticated interactions between Persian poetry and the visual arts.
Such lamp stands were undoubtedly used within secular settings, but at least two examples displaying similar poetic content have inscriptions linking them to Shi‘i shrines. While such evidence is limited, other similarly shaped lamp stands may also have been destined for religious foundations and shrine complexes. Historical sources tell us that lighting fixtures were considered appropriate gifts to religious institutions, and many types of lamps may have been crafted for this purpose. Some remain within the holdings of such institutions.
Denise-Marie Teece in [Ekhtiar, Soucek, Canby, and Haidar 2011]
8. In the secondary literature, a number of different Persian terms have been used to refer to these lamp stands, including sham‘dan and mash‘al. For no. 89.2.197, see Schimmel 1992, pp. 41, 43; Berlin 1981, pp. 216–17; and Akbarnia and Leoni 2010, pp. 18–19, no. 4.
9. For a discussion of this form, see Melikian-Chirvani 1982, pp. 263ff., and p. 276 n. 20. See also Zebrowski 1997, p. 115, figs. 130–31. The Metropolitan Museum collection contains five lamp stands of this shape, including the two published here as well as acc. nos. 91.1.554a, 91.1.573, and 91.1.579. All are attributed to either the sixteenth or seventeenth century. Further examples are published in Melikian-Chirvani 1982 and Chefs-d’oeuvre islamiques de l’Aga Khan Museum. Exhibition, Musée du Louvre, Paris. Catalogue by Sophie Makariou and others. Paris and Milan, 2007.
10. Examples with poetic as well as dedicatory inscriptions connecting them with religious foundations are published in Melikian-Chirvani 2007, nos. 135, 136; see also Canby 2009, p. 86, no. 48.
11. See Melikian-Chirvani, A[ssadullah] S[ouren]. "The Lights of Sufi Shrines." Islamic Art 2 (1987), pp. 117–47, pls. 6–8, esp. pp. 118ff., for a discussion of historical sources and descriptions of lamp stands with dedications to religious foundations.
12. For example, see the lamp stand described in Melikian-Chirvani 1982, pp. 236ff., and p. 276 n. 20; an oil lamp published in Zebrowski 1997, p. 110, fig. 120; and a hanging lamp published in Canby 2009, no. 88.
Torch Stand (Mash'al) with Mystical Verses
Fire, another form of light, carries its own mystical associations in the Islamic world, with a symbolism rooted in the concept of absolute love and union with the Divine. Love is a flame that burns all but the Beloved, who is God; thus, the lover or believer experiences self-annihilation (fana' in order to achieve oneness with God (tawhid). This pillar candlestick or torch stand (mash'al) would have provided light from below for a religious or courtly setting and once included a torch or lamp situated on top of the shaft. Its inscriptions—appearing in three bands in Persian nasta'liq script—would have reminded the reader of the mystical associations of the beloved with God and the necessity of self-annihilation to achieve union with the Divine.
The topmost verses have been identified as those of the fifteenth-centuryTimurid poet Ahli-yi Turshizi and refer to light that emanates from and illuminates all who surround the Beloved:
The light of the people of heart is illuminated by your face
All those with hearts, I can see them turn their faces of their hearts towards you;
You, O Sultan of the World, may not even a single hair from your head fall
As I see that the world is but a speck upon one strand upon your head.
The first couplet, in particular, alludes to the twelfth century Iranian mystic Suhravardi's belief that God is the source of constant illumination, which brings all things into existence and from which all things are derived. The remaining two quatrains (ruba'iyat) refer to the well-known anecdote of the moth and the flame and the necessity or inevitability of the fana' stage before the believer can begin to approach tawhid—an appropriate subject for inscription on a candlestick. The first is unidentified, but the second was composed by the sixteenth-century Safavid poet Muhtasham Kashani:
I said to the candle, what is this moth around your face?
It said, I am the sultan of beauty—what is the goal of the moth?
May there be happiness and fortune and opportunity
O God, make the end praiseworthy.
Her face is a candle, its smoke her ambergris tresses
What a strange candle, whose smoke travels down from above
The lovebird is like a sparrow in the hand of a cruel child
Who first holds it dearer than me, but soon kills it.
Representing the light of the Beloved (God) in which the moth (the believer) immolates itself, the candle served as an endless source of inspiration for mystical poetry.
Ladan Akbarnia in [Akbarnia and Leoni 2010]
16. See, for example, a similar torch stand retaining the torch element, published in Melikian-Chirvani, A.S., Islamic Metalwork from the Iranian World. London: Victoria and Albert Museum, 1982, pp. 314–15, cat. no. 141.
17. Translated by the author. Similar verses appear on a torch stand in the Victoria and Albert Museum, attributed to western Iran in the early 17th century by A.S. Melikian-Chirvani, (ibid., p. 327, cat. no. 148).
18. I am grateful to Abdullah Ghouchani for identifying this with Muhtasham Kashani; translations are the author's own, with thanks to Sunil Sharma for his assistance with the Kashani .
Inscription: Persian inscriptions in nasta‘liq script: In cartouches around top (verses from Ahli Turshizi): چراغ اهل دل را روشن از روی تو می بینم همه صاحبدلان را روی دل سوی تو می بینم توئی سلطان عالم کم مبادا از سرت موئی ک ه عالم طفیل یک سر موی تو می بینم I see the lamp of the true believers is illuminated by your presence; All the true believers, I see them turn their hearts toward you; You, O Sultan of the World, may not even a single hair fall from your head; [For] I see that the world [is but] a speck, upon one strand of your hair.
In cartouches around middle (a rhyming couplet from an unidentified Persian poet): شمعی را بگفتم به گرد رخت پروانه چیست گفت من سلطان حسنم مراد پروانه چیست I said to the candle: what is this moth around your face? It said: I am the sultan of beauty — what is the desire of the moth?
Followed by a line, written in prose: سعادت باد و دولت باد و فرصت باد الهی عاقبت محمود گردان May there be happiness and [good] fortune and opportunity. O God, make the end praiseworthy.
In cartouches around bottom (two rhyming couplets by Muhtasham Kashani): رخش شمعیست دود آن کمند عنبر آلودش عجب شمعی که ز بالا بپائین میرود دودش چو گنجش یکست مرغ دل بدست طفل خونخواری که پیش من عزیزش دارد اما می کشد زودش His face is a candle, its smoke that ambergris-soaked lasso [of curls]. What a candle! [That] its smoke flows from above to below . . . The heart is like a sparrow in the hand of a cruel-hearted child Who appears to me [at first] to treasure it, but [then] soon kills it.
On base, in cartouche: حسن علي بن علي معصوم Hasan ‘Ali, son of ‘Ali-i Ma‘sum
(Translations from "Masterpieces from the Department of Islamic Art in the Metropolitan Museum of Art," 2011, pp. 237–38).
Joseph W. Drexel, New York (until d. 1888); his widow, Lucy Wharton Drexel(1888–89; gifted to Museum in Joseph Drexel's name)
New York. Brooklyn Museum. "Light of the Sufis : an introduction to the mystical arts of Islam," June 5, 2009–September 6, 2009, no. 4.
Museum of Fine Arts, Houston. "Light of the Sufis : an introduction to the mystical arts of Islam," May 16, 2010–August 8, 2010, no. 4.
Allemagne, Henry-Rene d'. "Trois Mois de Voyage en Perse." In Du Khorassan au Pays des Backhtiaris. Vol. I-IV. Paris: Hachette et cie, 1911. ill. pp. 53–55 (related).
"Masterpieces from The Metropolitan Museum of Art New York." In The Arts of Islam. Berlin, 1981. no. 89, pp. 216–17, ill. p. 217 (b/w).
Melikian-Chirvani, A. S. Islamic Metalwork from the Iranian World 8th–18th Centuries. London, 1982. pp. 236ff, 276, no. 20.
Schimmel, Annemarie. "Islamic Calligraphy." Metropolitan Museum of Art Bulletin, n.s., vol. 50, no. 1 (Summer 1992). pp. 41, 43, ill. fig. 52 (b/w).
Melikian-Chirvani, Assadullah. "L'Art de l' Iran Safavide 1501–1736." In Le Chant du Monde. Paris: Musée du Louvre, 2007. nos 135, 136, ill. (related).
Canby, Sheila R. Shah 'Abbas: The Remaking of Iran. London: British Museum Press, 2009. no. 48, p. 86, ill. (related).
Akbarnia, Ladan, and Francesca Leoni. "The Mystical Arts of Islam." In Light of the Sufis. Houston: Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, 2010. no. 4, pp. 18–19, ill. p. 19 (color).
Ekhtiar, Maryam, Priscilla P. Soucek, Sheila R. Canby, and Navina Haidar, ed. Masterpieces from the Department of Islamic Art in The Metropolitan Museum of Art. 1st ed. New York: The Metropolitan Museum of Art, 2011. no. 163, pp. 237–39, ill. p. 239 (color).
"Inscriptions on Architecture in Early Safavid Paintings of the Metropolitan Museum." Metropolitan Museum Journal vol. 53 (2018). p. 41, ill. fig. 15b (color).
The Met Collection API is where all makers, creators, researchers, and dreamers can connect to the most up-to-date data and public domain images for The Met collection. Open Access data and public domain images are available for unrestricted commercial and noncommercial use without permission or fee.
We continue to research and examine historical and cultural context for objects in The Met collection. If you have comments or questions about this object record, please complete and submit this form. The Museum looks forward to receiving your comments.
The Met's collection of Islamic art is one of the most comprehensive in the world and ranges in date from the seventh to the twenty-first century. Its more than 15,000 objects reflect the great diversity and range of the cultural traditions from Spain to Indonesia.