This ewer comes from a group of silver-inlaid brass vessels of similar shape and size decorated with a variety of imagery. While most of the examples have fluted sides and repoussé lions on their neck, the crowned harpies on the shoulder of this piece and the astrological imagery on its body heighten the auspiciousness of its ornament. Set in medallions of twisting vines terminating in rabbits’ heads, each zodiac sign appears with its ruling planet, enhancing its cosmic message.
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Detail of Aries sign
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Geography:Attributed to Iran or Afghanistan, Khurasan or Herat
Medium:Brass; raised, repoussé, inlaid with silver and a black compound
Dimensions:H. 15 3/4 in. (40 cm) Diam. 7 1/2 in. (19.1 cm)
Credit Line:Rogers Fund, 1944
At the time that this ewer and the group of long-necked ewers to which it relates were produced, Herat was under the control of the Ghurids, not the Seljuqs, but evidence strongly suggests that these pieces were exported to centers in Seljuq Iran and elsewhere. Most of the extant examples are between 14 7⁄8 and 15 3/4 inches (38 and 40 cm) high and share such characteristics as a neck decorated with a repoussé lion on either side of the spout, the top of which is also adorned with a repoussé lion. While the number, width, and shape of the flutes vary from ewer to ewer, the shoulder of all examples is generally flat and the foot curves outward. The diagnostic piece in the group (cat. 85 in this volume: Georgian National Museum, Simon Janashia Museum of Georgia, Tbilisi [19-2008:32]), dated 1181–82, is inscribed with Arabic poetry and interlace decoration on its flutes. It is debatable whether the simplicity of the ornament—in contrast to this ewer’s complex decoration of pairs of repoussé addorsed, crowned harpies below the shoulder and birds at the bottom of each flute—indicates a stylistic development or a range of tastes and budgets among the metalworkers’ clients. Additionally, the amount of silver and copper inlay varied on pieces, indicating different levels of luxury in the group.
Like an even more ornate ewer in the British Museum, London (1848,0805.2), the center of each flute on this one is decorated with a sign of the zodiac enclosed in a medallion whose border is formed of vines terminating in rabbits’ heads. Each sign is combined with its planet lord. Starting from the left of the bottom of the handle and moving clockwise, the signs are Aries, the ram, ridden by Mars holding a severed head; Taurus, the bull, mounted by Venus playing a lute; Gemini as two standing figures separated by a head on a stick, which should refer to Mercury but may represent the pseudo-planet al-Jawzahr; Cancer, the crab, with the moon above it; Leo, the lion, with a tail ending in a dragon and a full sun above its back; Virgo, a kneeling figure holding a sheaf of corn, resembling leaves, in each hand; Libra, the scales, with Venus playing a lute; Scorpio with a figure of Mars holding a rod and standing between two large scorpions; Sagittarius, the centaur, turning back to shoot a leonine dragon; Capricorn, the goat, with bearded Saturn astride it; and Aquarius, the water carrier at the well. Pisces, the fish, should have appeared between Aquarius and Aries, but it is covered by the lower part of the handle. With its many human-headed benedictory inscriptions, lions and harpies, astrological imagery, and abundant inhabited vines, this ewer would have embodied the protective qualities desired in so many Seljuq objects.
Sheila R. Canby in [Canby, Beyazit, and Rugiadi 2016]
1. Related examples include ewers in the Gallerie Estinsi, Modena (6921) and the Georgian National Museum, Simon Janashia Museum of Georgia, Tbilisi (19-2008:32), Metropolitan Museum (08.138.1); British Museum, London (1848,0805.1, .2); and Victoria and Albert Museum, London (592-1898). Further examples are in the Keir Collection of Islamic Art (see Fehérvári, Géza. Islamic Metalwork of the Eighth to the Fifteenth Century in the Keir Collection. The Keir Collection. London, 1976, pl. 16, no. 53) and the National Museum of Afghanistan, Kabul (see Melikian-Chirvani, Assadullah Souren. Islamic Metalwork from the Iranian World, 8th–18th Centuries. Victoria and Albert Museum Catalogue. London, 1982, p. 118, no. 45A).
2. Ward, Rachel [M]. Islamic Metalwork. London, 1993, p. 78, pl. 56.
3. Following the Stars: Images of the Zodiac in Islamic Art. Exh. cat., The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, 1997. Catalogue by Stefano Carboni. New York, 1997, p. 24, notes that the maker mistakenly represented the planet lord of Virgo as the bearded Saturn instead of Mercury.
This ewer and a small number of others of identical shape and size are among the most spectacular ever achieved by eastern Iranian metalworkers. The construction of this object was an accomplishment in itself: The body was made from a single sheet of brass, which was hammered to obtain thirteen large flutes; the confronted harpies, as well as the other birds—possibly owls—were worked in repoussé, in high relief; the heads of the harpies, which protrude from the shoulder, are three dimensional and must have been formed from inside. All the other parts of this splendid vessel were made from additional individual sheets of brass soldered to the body.
The ewer is lavishly decorated, with no empty spaces anywhere on its surface. Inscriptions inlaid in silver in the so-called "human-headed" naskh script include blessings to the owner. Besides the harpies, birds, and lions in high relief, described earlier, the surface is inlaid with quadrupeds, eagles attacking ducks, and fish. In addition, vegetal scrolls ending in all types of animals' heads (the so-called waqwaq-tree motif) are found in each of the remaining empty spaces on the ewer's body and neck. The rays of the sun are also depicted in two inlaid bands around the foot. This imagery provides the ewer with a complex symbology that includes the power of the lion; the light and strength of the sun; the source of life of water, which is symbolized by the fish and by the function of the ewer itself; the good fortune denoted by the harpies and the owls, and by the content of the inscriptions; and the talismanic meaning inherent in the waqwaq-tree motif.
The zodiacal cycle was planned before the vessel's construction, when the metalworker hammered the thirteen flutes for each of the twelve signs of the Zodiac and the one on which to nail the handle to the body without concealing any of the signs. Therefore, the main symbolism is astrological and cosmological and encompasses all the others mentioned above. The twelve signs are shown in detail, from right to left—beginning with Aries at the immediate left of the handle—against an elaborate background of vegetal scrollwork. The iconography of the signs is traditional, but the inlayer made an apparently unusual mistake when he depicted the bearded and half-naked Saturn (in place of Mercury) as the Lord of Virgo. Since such inaccuracies are very rare, especially in the medieval period, when this symbolism held so much power and meaning, it is also possible that Saturn's presence in Virgo might have been intentional and perhaps was related to the horoscope of the ewer's anonymous dedicatee.
Among the most important examples of ewers with depictions of the planets and the Zodiac is one in the Georgian National Museum, Simon Janashia Museum of Georgia, Tbilisi (19-2008:32), which contains poetic verses. It was made in Herat (in present-day western Afghanistan) and is dated 1181/82, thus providing vital information for the dating of a whole group of related objects.
Inscription: On the neck: Arabic inscription in naskh script: العز والاقبال والدولة والبقا دائم لصاحبه Glory, prosperity, dominion, and perpetual life to its owner
On the upper neck and shoulder in anthropomorphic naskh script: العز والاقبال والدولة والنامية ]. . .[ والسعادة والبقا // العز والاقبا ل والدولة والسعادة والسلامة والعافية والنعمة والشاكرة والبقا دائم Glory, prosperity, dominion, growth [. . .] happiness, and long life // Glory, prosperity, dominion, happiness, prosperity, health, prosperity, praise, and long life
On the bottom band in kufic script: باليمن والبركة والدولة والبركة والراحة والبقا With felicitation and blessing, dominion, blessing, comfort, and long life
On the handle: العز و الاقبال Glory and prosperity.
On the bottom: صاحبه فولاد بن میرک Its owner (is) Fulad b. Mirak.
(A. Ghouchani, 2012)
The inscription was also read by Yassir al-Tabba (1978) as:
Neck, top: العز و الاقبال و الدولظ و ... و السعادة و البقا
Neck, middle: العز و الاقبال و الدولة و السعادة لصاحبه
Neck, bottom: بالیمن و البرکة و الدولة و البرکة و الراحة و البقا
Shoulder: العز و الاقبال و الدولظ و السعادظ و السلامة و العافیة و النعمة و الشاکر(؟) و البقا[ء] و العمر
J. Pierpont Morgan (American), New York (until d. 1913; his estate, 1913–44; sold to MMA)
New York. The Metropolitan Museum of Art. "Masterpieces of Fifty Centuries," November 14, 1970–June 1, 1971, no. 162.
New York. The Hagop Kevorkian Special Exhibitions Gallery, The Metropolitan Museum of Art. "Following the Stars: Images of the Zodiac in Islamic Art," February 4–August 31, 1997, no. 9.
New York. The Metropolitan Museum of Art. "Rumi and the Sufi Tradition," October 23, 2007–February 3, 2008, no catalogue.
New York. The Metropolitan Museum of Art. "Balcony Calligraphy Exhibition," June 1–October 26, 2009, no catalogue.
New York. The Metropolitan Museum of Art. "Court and Cosmos: The Great Age of the Seljuqs," April 25–July 24, 2016, no. 118.
Dimand, Maurice S. A Handbook of Muhammadan Art. 2nd rev. and enl. ed. New York: The Metropolitan Museum of Art, 1944. p. 139, ill. fig. 81 (b/w).
"Seljuk Bronzes from Khurasan." Metropolitan Museum of Art Bulletin vol. 4 (November 1945). pp. 87–92, ill. pp. 88–89 (b/w).
The Metropolitan Museum of Art. Masterpieces of Fifty Centuries: the Metropolitan Museum of Art. New York: E. P. Dutton & Co., 1970. no. 162, p. 183, ill. (b/w).
Ettinghausen, Richard. "Islamic Art." Metropolitan Museum of Art Bulletin vol. 33, no. 1 (Spring 1975). ill. p. 19 (b/w).
Baer, Eva. Metalwork in Medieval Islamic Art. Albany, NY: State University of New York Press, 1983. pp. 97, 100, ill. fig. 74 (b/w).
Tabbaa, Yasser. "Bronze Shapes in Iranian Ceramics of the Twelfth and Thirteenth Centuries." Muqarnas vol. 4 (1987). pp. 101, 103, ill. fig.12 (b/w).
Welch, Stuart Cary. The Islamic World. vol. 11. New York: The Metropolitan Museum of Art, 1987. pp. 42–43, ill. fig. 29 (color).
de Montebello, Philippe, and Kathleen Howard, ed. The Metropolitan Museum of Art Guide. 6th ed. New York: The Metropolitan Museum of Art, 1992. p. 316, ill. fig. 12 (color).
Schimmel, Annemarie. "Islamic Calligraphy." Metropolitan Museum of Art Bulletin, n.s., vol. 50, no. 1 (Summer 1992). p. 55, ill. fig. 65 (color).
Burn, Barbara, ed. Masterpieces of the Metropolitan Museum of Art. New York; Boston: The Metropolitan Museum of Art, 1993. p. 80, ill. (color).
Carboni, Stefano. Following the Stars: Images of the Zodiac in Islamic Art. New York: The Metropolitan Museum of Art, 1997. no. 9, pp. 24–25, ill. (b/w).
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. 118, pp. 200–1, ill. figs. 79–81 (details).
Ekhtiar, Maryam. How to Read Islamic Calligraphy. New York: The Metropolitan Museum of Art, 2018. no. 31, pp. 120–21, ill.
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