The scene on this bowl represents a famous episode from the Shahnama, the Persian epic passed down orally for centuries until preserved in writing by the poet Firdawsi (d. 1020). The story tells of a hunting expedition of Bahram Gur and his concubine Azada, depicted here on the back of his camel. While the prince shows his mastery in archery, Azada plays the harp—an evocation of the paired royal pursuits of bazm and razm, or feasting and fighting. Bahram Gur, challenged by Azada to transform a male gazelle into a female, a female into a male, and to pin together with a single arrow the ear and hoof of another gazelle, is shown succeeding in the third dare, which he accomplishes after throwing a stone onto the ear of the animal, causing it to lift its hoof. The epilogue of the story, in which the camel tramples Azada on Bahram Gur’s order after she disparages the prince for his cruel feats, is portrayed at the bottom of the dish.
This episode occurs on several mina’i bowls and less frequently in metalwork. The general scheme—Bahram Gur and Azada on camelback—is maintained, while the narrative is depicted with variations. These range from simpler representations of the two lovers before the dare takes place to more complex arrangements such as the one shown here, in which Bahram Gur’s feats and Azada’s tragic demise are both included. Such variations attest to the popularity of the story, intelligible to the viewer with even the sparest of iconographic clues, as well as to the creativity of the craftsman. A demand for personalization has also been suggested. In any case, mina’i bowls with narrative and literary scenes tend to be of higher quality than those bearing paintings of other subjects, a difference that speaks to a differentiated market. The presence of scenes from the Shahnama in both royal and non-elite contexts reveals the popularity and diffusion of these epic tales, in both their written and oral tellings, and suggests the adaptability of ubiquitous royal iconography.
Martina Rugiadi in [Canby, Beyazit, and Rugiadi 2016]
1. Although the story of Bahram Gur and Azada is not known from texts dating before the late tenth century, it was certainly well known at least from the seventh to eighth century, as it appears on Sasanian metalwork (see a silver dish in the Metropolitan Museum, 1994.402) and on stucco panels excavated at Chal Tarqan, near Rayy (Ettinghausen, Richard. “Bahram Gur’s Hunting Feats or the Problem of Identification.” Iran 17 (1979), pp. 25–31, pls. 1–1). The bowl was published in 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, pp. 114–15, with previous references.
2. In addition to the Vaso Vescovali (cat. 124 in this volume, British Museum 1950,0725.1), examples in metal include a twelfth-century inlaid bucket in the State Hermitage Museum, Saint Petersburg (Ettinghausen 1979 [reference in note 1 above], pl. 10), and a bowl in the Victoria and Albert Museum, London (760-1889; see Auld, Sylvia. “Characters Out of Context.” In Hillenbrand, Robert, ed. Shahnama: The Visual Language of the Persian Book of Kings. Aldershot, Hampshire, 2004, pp. 99–116., figs. 8.9a, b, with further examples). Other subjects drawn from the Shahnama include the tale of Bijan and Manija, which appears on a beaker in the Freer Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C. (28.2); Simpson, Marianna Shreve. “The Narrative Structure of a Medieval Iranian Beaker.” Ars Orientalis 12 (1981), pp. 15–24, pls. 1–7. lists comparative mina’i pieces for each scene). From literary sources such as the poems of Khaqani (d. 1190), episodes from the Shahnama are known to have been the subject of wall paintings in palaces of the eleventh to twelfth century; see Melikian-Chirvani, Assadullah Souren. “Le Shah-name, la Gnose soufie et le pouvoir mongol.” Journal asiatique 272, nos. 3–4 (1984), p. 296. This is not, however, the case for any of the extant examples. Indeed, a wall painting in the Harvard Art Museums, Cambridge, Mass. (1935.23), was recently proven to be almost entirely an early twentieth-century repainting, as was its pendant at the Metropolitan Museum (52.20.1); Narayan Khandekar and Teri Hensick, Straus Center for Conservation and Technical Studies, Harvard Art Museums, Cambridge, Mass., unpublished conservation report, 2011, and Federico Carò, Assistant Research Scientist, Department of Scientific Research, The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York. My thanks to Mary McWilliams, Harvard Art Museums, Cambridge, Mass.
3. For early Arabic and Persian versions of the tale, see Fontana, Maria Vittoria. “Ancora sulla caccia di Bahram Gur e Azada.” In Haft Qalam: Cento pagine in onore di Bianca Maria Alfieri da parte dei suoi allievi, pp. 15–37. Naples, 2000; and Fontana, Maria Vittoria. La leggenda di Bahram Gur e Azada: Materiale per la storia di una tipologia figurativa delle origini al XIV secolo. Istituto Universitario
Orientale, Dipartimento di Studi Asiatici, Series minor, 24. Naples, 1986, pp. 77–120. For variations linked to oral recitation, which continued after Firdawsi wrote his text, see Grabar, Oleg. Mostly Miniatures: An Introduction to Persian Painting. Princeton, N.J., 2000, pp. 99–100. A passage in the twelfth-century Kitab al-naqd, quoted by Qazwini, mentions singers narrating the tales of the Iranian heroes in the bazaars; see Bausani, A[lessandro]. “Religion in the Saljuq Period.” In Boyle, J. A., ed. The Cambridge History of Iran. Vol. 5, The Saljuq and Mongol Periods. Cambridge and New York, 1968, pp. 283–302. For more on related oral traditions, including ethnographic evidence, see Melville, Charles, and Gabrielle van den Berg, eds. Shahnama Studies II: The Reception of Firdausi’s Shahnama. Leiden and Boston, 2012.
4. Shalem, Avinoam. “Bahram Gur Woven with Gold: A Silk Fragment in the Diocesan Museum of St. Afra in Augsburg and the Modes of Rendition of a Popular Theme.” In Hillenbrand, Robert, ed. Shahnama: The Visual Language of the Persian Book of Kings. Aldershot, Hampshire, 2004, p. 124, suggests that variable depictions of the same story reflect efforts to meet market demand, prompted by mass production, for distinctive versions of recognizable motifs.
5. Sylvia Auld suggests that the scene may have incorporated astral symbolism, possibly related to the constellation of the Cygnus, whose popular name in Arabic translated as “The Follower” or “The Pillion Rider” (Auld, Sylvia. “Characters Out of Context.” In Hillenbrand, ed. 2004 [reference in note 4 above], p. 111).
Among the most technically complex and luxurious glazed wares produced in the Seljuq period was a type known as mina’i (the Persian word for enamel). Incorporating a range of colors and intricate compositions and renditions, much of the painting found on mina’i wares recalls manuscript illustrations. As with Seljuq lusterware, many of these vessels portray visual and poetic themes derived from Persian literature, such as the Shahnama (Book of Kings), depicting heroes, warriors, lovers, and fantastic beasts. Kashan, also the site of production of lusterwares, appears to have been the main production center for mina’i ceramics, providing vessels in an array of forms such as bowls, ewers, and flasks.
This bowl is a fine example of mina’i and depicts one of the cherished tales from the Shahnama of Firdausi — that of Bahram Gur and Azada mounted on a camel, hunting. The story is as follows: Azada, Bahram Gur’s concubine, entertains the ruler by playing a harp, and challenges him to a hunting feat. When he succeeds, however, she pities the slain animal and reproaches him for being coldhearted and vain. In anger, he tramples her under the camel’s feet. Here, two moments in the story are conflated into one scene, both rendered with extraordinary charm and immediacy.
This tale has great longevity and dates back to the pre-Islamic period. A number of Sasanian silver plates, including one in the Metropolitan Museum, illustrate the same story, although in most of those examples the hunting couple are mounted on a horse rather than a camel. The inscriptions around the rim on the exterior of the bowl contain messages of good fortune and well-being to the owner.
Maryam Ekhtiar in [Ekhtiar, Soucek, Canby, and Haidar 2011]
1. Metropolitan Museum (acc. no. 1994.402), formerly in the Guennol Collection. See also Harper et al 1978, p. 48.
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. 59, p. 15.
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. 104C, p. 66.
"7th January to 28th February, 1931, Royal Academy of Arts, London." In Catalogue of the International Exhibition of Persian Art. 3rd edition ed. London: Royal Academy of Arts, 1931. no. case 104 C.
"Mémoires." In IIIe Congrès International d'Art et d'Archéologie Iraniens. Moscow and Leningrad: Academie des Sciences de l'URSS, 1935. ill. pl. LXXXI.
Harari, Ralph, and Richard Ettinghausen. A Survey of Persian Art from Prehistoric Times to the Present, edited by Arthur Upham Pope. Vol. I-VI. London and New York: Oxford University Press, 1938. vol. II, p. 1602, ill. vol. V, pl. 672, (color).
Ackerman, Phyllis. "The Iranian Institute, New York." In Guide to the Exhibition of Persian Art. 2nd. ed. New York: The Iranian Institute, 1940. no. Gallery I, case 24E, p. 22.
Dimand, Maurice S. "New Accessions of Islamic Art." Metropolitan Museum of Art Bulletin vol. 16 (April 1958). pp. 228, 234, ill. p. 234 (b/w).
Harper, Prudence Oliver, Jens Kröger, Carol Manson Bier, and Martha L. Carter. The Royal Hunter: Art of the Sasanian Empire. New York: John Weatherhill, Inc., 1978.
Hillenbrand, Robert, ed. "The Visual Language of the Persian Book of Kings." In Shahnama. VARIE occasonal papers; 2. Burlington, VT: Ashgate, 2004. p. 124, Related reference.
Roxburgh, David J. "From Dispersal to Collection." In The Persian Album, 1400–1600. New Haven & London: Yale University Press, 2005. p. 5, ill. fig. 4 (b/w).
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. 72, pp. 114-115, ill. p. 114 (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. 83, p. 153, ill. (color).