Two House Models (MMA nos. 67.117 and 20.120.66)
These objects belong to a larger group of house models that provide a glimpse into vernacular Iranian practices and settings but whose original function or meaning has not yet been determined. Variably identified as hanging devices, children’s toys, and offerings to Buddhist temples, they are now more likely to be seen by scholars as representations of celebrations, such as marriages, Nawruz (the Persian
New Year), or festivities related to the end of the religious fast, on which occasions such objects could have been exchanged as gifts.
These examples show the two main types of house models, one displaying an open courtyard (no. 67.117) and the other with a figural
plaque for a roof (no. 20.120.66). Architectural elements such as the open courtyard with pierced balustrade and the corner roof projections in no. 67.117 suggest that such models represent vernacular buildings, as common houses excavated in Siraf, Nishapur, and Ghazni often feature an open courtyard. While the hoop-type balustrade is unknown from archaeological findings, institutional buildings were sometimes decorated with merlons per long-standing traditions dating from pre-Islamic times, from Central Asia to Mesopotamia. It is not unlikely that houses also had some kind of balustrade or rooftop decoration, possibly made of cheaper, widely employed materials such as bricks or rammed earth. Also plausible is the notion that decorative balustrades and roof posts symbolize, on the house models, embellishments fit for festive occasions.
The erotic imagery on the rooftop plaque in no. 20.120.66, in which a woman and a turbaned man lie together beneath a folded or striped coverlet, led to the association of this and other house models with marriage, and to the hypothesis that they were used as wedding gifts. The association may also be plausible for the open-courtyard type of model, which most often shows scenes of social gatherings calling to mind festive occasions, with seated personages holding cups or musical instruments, and with round trays and vases, presumably for food and drink, set at the center (see, for instance, Louvre Museum no. MAO 492). In the festive scene in no. 67.117, the individuals holding cups may be women, as they have long hair and wear what seem to be veils.
The complete scene represented in no. 67.117, however, is one of a kind. In addition to the usual cup-wielders, it shows a turbaned, bearded man standing on a high stepped stool, or kursi, facing two figures on a raised platform, or suffa. The man on the kursi leans on a stick and has the conventional traits of older, wise, educated, or religious men. One figure on the suffa lifts his left hand and holds a stick or tool in the other, while the second individual lifts both hands. Recent scholarship favors an interpretation of the scene as a matrimonial
ritual set in a domestic context, but a number of details remain enigmatic. For one, the wedded couple (if this is indeed the role of the two figures on the suffa) have exactly the same facial features, even though personages of opposite genders may be differentiated by the presence or absence of headdresses or veils (as in no. 20.120.66). The unglazed surface of the tops of their heads suggest the original presence of a separately applied headdress, as is the case with the turban of the figure on the kursi. Regardless of the shape of the missing headdresses, neither figure has the long hair of the veiled cupbearers or the beard of the figure on the kursi. They may represent young men. The meaning of the raised arms, traditionally described as those of an orante (in the attitude of prayer), is most likely associated with dance. Remarkably, the posture can also be found in a similarly mysterious and probably related group of unglazed, molded figurines also including musicians, of which Royal Ontario Museum no. 958.118.2 is an example.
Although the exact meaning of the scene escapes us, this house model suggests that such objects were related to the celebration or remembrance of ceremonies where food and drink were essential and which took place in embellished buildings. The mention in historical
texts of castles (qasr) in silver and gold and of “houses, gardens and other such things” in wax brought as gifts to rulers echoes a wide
tradition of gift giving of comparable objects. A revealing passage in Ibn Bibi (written before 1281) reveals that architectural models were
indeed also part of the traditional gifts given on the occasion of marriages in the medieval period: seven castles (qusur) in gold and silver
inlaid with precious stones were offered in 1227 on the occasion of the marriage of the Ayyubid princess Gaziya to the Rum Seljuq sultan
Kay Qubad I. Stonepaste house models may have been a much more affordable alternative to such princely gifts.
Martina Rugiadi in [Canby, Beyazit, and Rugiadi 2016]
2. For previous literature, see Graves, Margaret S. “Ceramic House Models from Medieval Persia: Domestic Architecture and Concealed Activities.” Iran 46 (2008), pp. 245–49, and Scerrato, Umberto. “Housemodell.” Quadernidi Vicino Oriente 7 (2014), pp. 18–24. According to al-Biruni, during the Zoroastrian festivities of Farwardijan, people drank on their roofs while their houses were fumigated and food was offered to the dead.
3. Graves 2008 (reference in note 2 above), pp. 240–41. For Ghazni, see Scerrato, Umberto. “Summary Report on the Italian Archaeological Mission in Afghanistan: The First Two Excavation Campaigns at Ghazni, 1957–1958.” East and West, n.s., 10, nos. 1–2 (March–June 1959), p. 45 and table II.
4. Examples include the saw-toothed stucco merlons with vegetal motifs excavated from the mosque at Siraf (9th–10th century) and similar ones, although in marble, found at Ghazni (attributed to the 11th or 12th century). In poems and historical texts of the eleventh and twelfth centuries (e.g., Farrukhi, Juzjani), merlons and rooftop decorations are mentioned in association with royal palaces; see Meisami, Julie Scott. “Palaces and Paradises: Palace Descriptions in Medieval Persian Poetry.” In Islamic Art and Literature, edited by Oleg Grabar and Cynthia Robinson, Princeton, N.J., 2001, p. 32, which translates kangura as “parapets”; and Flood, Finbarr B[arry]. Objects of Translation: Material Culture and Medieval “Hindu-Muslim” Encounter. Princeton, N.J., 2009, p. 129. Fatimid mosques in Cairo still show crenellated rooftops opening onto a courtyard.
5. For current examples in Yazd, see Graves 2008 (reference in note 2 above), pp. 240–41. Other current examples are in the domestic architecture of Yemen and Nablus; they underscore how much vernacular architecture depends on local traditions.
6. The first such hypothesis was in Grube, Ernst J. Islamic Pottery of the Eighth to the Fifteenth Century in the Keir Collection. The Keir Collection. London, 1976, p. 174. Other objects with the same scene are at the Museum für Islamische Kunst, Berlin (139/59; see
Graves 2008 [reference in note 2 above], fig. 20) and the Carnegie Museum of Art in Pittsburgh (76.61.4; see Grube, Ernst J. “An Unidentified Ceremony.” In Fontana, Maria Vittoria, and Bruno Genito, eds. Studi in onore di Umberto Scerrato per il suo settantacinquesimo compleanno. Università degli Studi di Napoli “L’Orientale,” Dipartimento di Studi Asiatici, Istituto Italiano per l’Africa e l’Oriente, Series minor, 65. Naples, 2003, vol. 2, pp. 457–63, pls. 74–77, n. 7). The turbaned man lies beneath the woman on a pillow.
7. For the interpretation of some of these vase-shaped elements as sugarloaves and their assocation with ceremonial occasions, see Scerrato 2014 (reference in note 2 above); see also cat. 43, note 3, in the present volume. For the long-standing iconography of the drinker and its meaning in the medieval period, see Graves 2008 (reference in note 2 above), pp. 243–45, 248, with previous bibliography.
8. The kursi on this piece has also been explained as a minbar or pulpit; see Grube 1976 (reference in note 6 above), p. 174 n. 3; Scerrato
2014 (reference in note 2 above), pp. 16, 30 and n. 31; and Grube 2003 (reference in note 6 above), pp. 460–61. House models are sometimes understood as representing mosques, but the cup-bearing figures in this scene, probably drinking wine, preclude the possibility of its portraying a religious ceremony; see Graves 2008 (reference in note 2 above), p. 247 n. 82; Grube 2003 (reference in note 6 above), p. 460.
9. Grube 2003 (reference in note 6 above), p. 461; Graves 2008 (reference in note 2 above) pp. 248–49; Scerrato 2014 (reference in note 2 above), pp. 23–33.
10. For a house model with figures wearing differentiated headgear, triangular caps, and veils, as well as those that are bareheaded, see Metropolitan Museum (20.120.234).
11. All the figures were either separately molded (the cupbearers) or modeled (the man on the kursi and the two on the suffa) and applied to the object before any part of it was glazed. The two figures on the suffa have incised eyes, noses, and mouths.
12. For examples excavated at Susa, see Joel, Guillermina, and Audrey Peli. Suse: Terres cuites islamiques, edited by Sophie Makariou, Musée du Louvre, Département des Arts de l’Islam. Ghent and Paris, 2005, pp. 198–200, nos. 265–68, suggesting the connection
to dance. See additional examples at the Musée du Louvre, Paris (MAO S.346, S.347, S.349, SB.8168). The personages on a house model in the Musée Ariana, Geneva (AR 12740), are represented with their hands joined, perhaps also as part of a dance scene; see Terres d’Islam: Les collections de céramique moyen-orientale de Musée Ariana à Genève. Exh. cat., Musée Ariana, Geneva, 2014. Catalogue by Anne-Claire Schumacher. Geneva, 2014, pp. 60–61, no. 37.
13. Al-Tabari (d. 923) describes a gift of two castles (qasrani) in gold and silver and other precious objects offered to the Umayyad governor of Khurasan, Asad b. ‘Abadallah b. Asad al-Qasri, in the mid-eighth century; see Scerrato 2014 (reference in note 2 above), p. 26 n. 24. The Dutchman Cornelis de Bruy, who traveled to Isfahan in the late seventeenth to early eighteenth century, commented on the wax objects as part of an observance probably connected to ‘Id al-Fitr, the feast day marking the end of Ramadan; see Graves 2008 (reference in note 2 above), pp. 247–48.
14. Scerrato 2014 (reference in note 2 above), pp. 27–28 and n. 27.