Pierced Jug with Harpies and Sphinxes,

With a carved and pierced outer shell that surrounds a solid inner container, this intricate feat of pottery emulates a metal object. The
openwork–featuring Harpies (mythical birdwomen), Sphinxes, quadrupeds (four-footed mammals), and scrolls–was first painted with
touches of black and cobalt blue. The entire jug was then covered in a transparent turquoise glaze. The Persian verses around the rim were written by the poet Rukn al-Din Qummi, and an anonymous love poem near the base includes the date of production.

On view at The Met Fifth Avenue in Gallery 453

Public Domain

Pierced Jug with Harpies and Sphinxes

Object Name: Ewer

Date: dated A.H. 612/ A.D. 1215–16

Geography: Attributed to Iran, Kashan

Medium: Stonepaste; openwork, underglaze-painted, glazed in transparent turquoise

Dimensions: H. 8 3/16 in. (20.8 cm)
Diam. 6 5/8 in. (16.8 cm)
Wt. 36.2 oz. (1026.4 g)

Classification: Ceramics

Credit Line: Fletcher Fund, 1932

Accession Number: 32.52.1


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Pierced Jug with Harpies and Sphinxes

By 1215–16, when this jug was made, the technical proficiency of Iranian potters had reached a pinnacle.[1] The jug consists of two layers, the interior vessel and the carved openwork on the neck and globular sides with black and blue underglaze painting under a transparent turquoise glaze. Along the rim of the mouth and above a band of waterweeds above the foot run two inscriptions. The lower one comprises verses by an anonymous poet together with the date. The upper inscription is a ruba‘i (quatrain) by Rukn al-Din Da‘vidar Qummi.[2]

The love poetry appears to have little direct relation to the imagery on the neck and body. Here spotted dogs, cheetahs, and hares bound through the foliage above and below pairs of winged sphinxes and harpies. Around the rim four deer lope across a ground of foliate scrolls. The sphinxes, dogs, and cheetahs all have slight smiles, which communicate a happier mood than the poetry. Standing confronted, separated by a stylized tree, the sphinxes can be interpreted as guarding the Tree of Life, a role they often fill on objects of this period.[3] Like sphinxes, harpies, here depicted addorsed with heads viewed frontally, were inherited from the classical world, but their meaning in the Seljuq context was associated with the zodiac, particularly the sign of Gemini.[4]

Although they came from distant, inaccessible lands, harpies could represent happiness and appeared often in courtly scenes.[5] In the absence of human figures on this jug, the real and imaginary beasts and their luxuriant natural setting suggest a paradisiacal theme only slightly diluted by the longing tone of the poetry.

Sheila R. Canby in [Canby, Beyazit, and Rugiadi 2016]


1. The full bibliography for this object is given in the website of The Metropolitan Museum of Art, http://www.metmuseum.org/collection/the-collection-online/search/448671?rpp=30&pg=1&ft= 32.52.1&pos=1&imgno=0& tabname=object-information (accessed January 6, 2016).

2. Mohaddith, Ali, ed. Diwan Rukn al-din Da‘vidar Qummi. Tehran, 1365 [1986], p. 217; Masterpieces from the Department of Islamic Art in The Metropolitan Museum of Art. Exh. cat., The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, 2011. Catalogue edited by Maryam D. Ekhtiar, Priscilla P. Soucek, Sheila R. Canby, and Navina Najat Haidar. New York, 2011, p. 115, no. 73.

3. Otto-Dorn, Katharina. “The Griffin-Sphinx Ensemble.” In Hillenbrand, Robert, ed. The Art of the Saljuqs in Iran and Anatolia: Proceedings of a Symposium Held in Edinburgh in 1982. Islamic Art and Architecture, 4. Costa Mesa, Calif., 1994, p. 303.

4. Hartner, Willy. “The Vaso Vescovali in the British Museum: A Study in Islamic Astrological Iconography.” Kunst des Orients 9, nos. 1–2 (1973–74), p. 124. They also appear as Sagittarius in cat. 121 in this volume (al-Sabah Collection, Kuwait LNS 275 MS a–b).

5. King, Helen. “Half-Human Creatures.” In Cherry, John, ed. Mythical Beasts. London, 1995, pp. 150–51.

Reticulated Jug

Fanciful winged griffins, human-headed harpies, and lithesome speckled quadrupeds leap and cavort within the tangle of vine scrolls on this finely worked reticulated jug. Its free-flowing, animated drawing in black slip against a vivid turquoise- and cobalt-glazed ground offers a striking combination of color and design. While its contrasting glazes and lively imagery are exceptional, it is the skillful execution of its delicate, weblike reticulation that ranks this piece among the finest of all surviving Persian ceramics.

A tour de force of construction and technique, it has a pierced double-walled structure that only an extremely skilled potter could have created. Considering the intricate and time-consuming nature of the production process, coupled with the difficulties involved in firing, this type of ceramic was undoubtedly extremely costly to make and thus available only to a wealthy clientele. Despite their fragility and the passing of centuries, a surprising number of reticulated ceramics of this type have survived.[3]

Given the challenging nature of producing such a vessel in clay, it is unlikely that the shape and construction embodied by this piece originated in the ceramic arts. Rather, this vessel type likely emulates metalwork forms, as a number of Persian metal jugs exhibiting this overall profile have survived.[4] Further underscoring its debt to a metal prototype, this jug retains the small knop at the top of its handle, common to many metalwork examples. A large number of these metal jugs display inscriptions, often in narrow bands among multiple registers of decoration. This ceramic piece exhibits similar inscriptional decoration—around the top rim and foot of the jug, executed in turquoise on a black ground. These inscriptions comprise two ruba‘is, or quatrains, both voicing a lover’s lament. At the end of one of the poems, near the base of the jug, the artist has included the date of A.H. 612/1215–16 A.D., enabling us to attribute this exceptional jug, and others of its type, securely to the early thirteenth century.

Denise-Marie Teece in [Ekhtiar, Soucek, Canby, and Haidar 2011]


3. For related pieces, see Grube 1994, p. 197, no. 212, with color plate on p. 196. Grube states, on p. 151, that at least twenty-one pieces utilizing this technique are known. See his n. 14, p. 153, for more bibliography on these other openwork pieces. The two that appear from published photos to be most closely related to our jug include one in the Khalili Collection, London; see Grube 1994, no. 212; and another formerly in the Mahboubian Collection, today in the Reza ‘Abbasi Museum, Tehran; see Austin 1970 Treasures of Persian Art after Islam: The Mahboubian Collection. Exhibition, University Art Museum of The University of Texas at Austin. Catalogue by Mehdi Mahboubian. Austin, 1970 , no. and pl. 211.

4. For a related profile, see also no. 91.1.607.
Inscription: On the rim a Persian ruba‘i (quatrain) by Rukn al-Din Da‘vidar Qummi:
من بی تو همان سر زده ام فارغ باش
همواره بهم بر زده ام فارغ باش
دست از تو بمهر دیگری از سر تو
بیزار شدم گر زده ام فارغ باش
Without you, I am depraved; Be free from care.
Ceaselessly, I am unsettled; Be free from care.
[Turning] from you, I reach for the kindness of another, because of you.
Although I have done so, I despised it; Be free from care.

(Diwan Rukn al-din Da‘vidar Qummi, ed Ali Mohaddith, Amir Kabir publication, Tehran, 1365/1986 p.)

Around the base an anonymous ruba‘i:
گفتم چو رسد بزلف دانی دستم
دل باز ستانم وز محنت رستم
یک لحظه چو در پیش رخش بنشتم
جان نیز چو دل در سر زلفش بستم
I said, “[Do] you know, if my hand reaches her tresses,
I [could] reclaim my heart and be free from suffering.”
One moment, while sitting face-to-face with her,
I tied my soul, like my heart, to the end of her curls.

In Arabic following the above, the date of manufacture:
في شهور سنة إثني عشر و ستمائة
In the months of the year A.H. 612 [A.D. 1215–16]
V. Everit Macy, New York (by 1923–d. 1930; his estate, 1930–32; sold to MMA)
New York. The Metropolitan Museum of Art. "Ceramic Art of the Near East," 1931, no. 94.

Asia Society. "Iranian Ceramics," May 3, 1963–September 12, 1963, no. 52.

The Metropolitan Museum of Art. "Court and Cosmos: The Great Age of the Seljuqs," April 25, 2016–July 24, 2016, no. 143.

Dimand, Maurice S. A Handbook of Mohammedan Decorative Arts. New York: The Metropolitan Museum of Art, 1930. p. 128.

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. 94, pp. 22--23, ill. pl. 94 (b/w).

Dimand, Maurice S. A Handbook of Muhammadan Art. 2nd rev. and enl. ed. New York: The Metropolitan Museum of Art, 1944. p. 180, ill. fig. 113 (b/w).

Lane, Arthur. "Mesopotamia, Egypt and Persia." In Early Islamic Pottery. Faber Monographs on Pottery and Porcelain. London: Faber and Faber, 1947. p. 45, ill. pl. 83B (b/w).

Wilkinson, Charles K. Iranian Ceramics. New York: Asia House Gallery, 1963. no. 52, pp. 7, 129, ill. pl. 52 (b/w).

The Metropolitan Museum of Art. Masterpieces of Fifty Centuries: the Metropolitan Museum of Art. New York: E. P. Dutton & Co., 1970. no. 163, p. 184, ill. (b/w).

Jenkins-Madina, Marilyn. "Islamic Pottery: A Brief History." Metropolitan Museum of Art Bulletin, New Series, vol. 40, no. 4 (Spring 1983). no. 24, pp. 22–23, ill. pl. 24 (color).

Ettinghausen, Richard, and Oleg Grabar. The Art and Architecture of Islam: 650–1250. Middlesex, England: Penguin Books, 1987. p. 347, ill. fig. 371 (b/w).

de Montebello, Philippe, and Kathleen Howard, ed. The Metropolitan Museum of Art Guide. 6th ed. New York: The Metropolitan Museum of Art, 1992. p. 317, ill. fig. 15 (color).

Yarshater, Ehsan, ed. Encyclopaedia Iranica vol. 5 (1992). p. 316, ill. pl. XXII (b/w).

Grube, Ernst J., and Manijeh Bayani. Cobalt and Lustre: the First Centuries of Islamic Pottery. The Nasser D. Khalili collection of Islamic Art, Vol. 9. London: Nour Foundation, 1994.

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. 177, ill. fig. 277 (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. New York: The Metropolitan Museum of Art, 2011. no. 73, pp. 115–16, ill. p. 115 (color).

Canby, Sheila R. "The Islamic Galleries at The Met." Arts of Asia, Arts of Asia, vol. 42 (September/October 2012). pp. 85–85, ill. fig. 8 (color).

The Metropolitan Museum of Art. The Metropolitan Museum of Art Guide. New York: The Metropolitan Museum of Art, 2012. p. 130, ill. (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. 143, p. 229, ill. (color).