The blue flask’s two sides present the object’s stratified history. A close investigation recently revealed that the painted and gilded decoration, once on both sides, is a modern enhancement applied to a plain surface— probably while the flask was in fragments before being reassembled. A sticker still glued to the vessel’s interior wall suggests that the restoration was executed in Iran.
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Title:Flask with Zodiac Medallions
Date:first half 14th century, with additions first half 20th century
Geography:Attributed to Iran, Kashan
Medium:Stonepaste; molded, blue-glazed, overpainted, and gilded
Dimensions:H. 12 in. (30.5 cm) W. 10 1/4 in. (26 cm)
Credit Line:Rogers Fund, 1957
This large pilgrim flask belongs to a group of wares known as lajvardina, from the Persian word for lapis lazuli (lajvard). This name was assigned to these vessels because they are coated with a deep, rich blue glaze, over which other colors—usually red, brown, white, and gold leaf—were added. This technique, developed in the Ilkhanid period, can be considered both as a replacement and continuation of the mina'i ware, which was decorated according to a similar process (see MMA 57.36.4, cat. no. 7 in this volume).
A pilgrim flask, whose shape is of Chinese origin, is a flat, circular bottle provided with rings to accommodate a cord for suspension. A functional pilgrim flask would be small or medium in size and made of animal skin or metal. The present ceramic flask, large and heavy, never was intended to be functional, but it had a symbolic meaning, which is suggested by its decorative program. It includes, on each face, one medallion in the center surrounded by six others linked by a continuous looping pattern. Each medallion that encircles the central one depicts a sign of the Zodiac, thus providing the complete cycle of twelve signs on the two faces of the flask. The central medallions include Gemini on one side and Sagittarius on the other. The fact that the two latter signs, which are also directly opposite on the zodiacal circle, are repeated and prominently displayed in the center of each face points to the specific astrological significance of the imagery, which, perhaps, may be associated with the horoscope of a newborn child.
The sequence of the twelve medallions is unusual: The side with Sagittarius in the center incorporates the first and the last three signs (counterclockwise from the lower right comer: Aries, Taurus, Gemini, Capricorn, Aquarius, and Pisces); the face with Gemini shows the central six signs in a random order (clockwise from the lower right corner: Cancer, Leo, Virgo, Scorpio, Sagittarius, and Libra). Gemini and Sagittarius are once again prominent, since they are represented inside the medallion placed at the top of each side, just below the neck. In addition, if one applies the abjad (the numerical value of the letters of the alphabet) to this unusual sequence, and a number from one to twelve is assigned to each sign according to the traditional sequence (Aries= 1 to Pisces= 12), one notices that the sum of the six medallions on each face equals thirty-nine. Could it be possible that this number corresponds to the year A.H. 39 I A.D. 1338–39 when the child might have been born? Obviously, without the support of an inscription this is only a hypothesis, but, as nothing was accidental in the casting of a horoscope, this interpretation might be close to the truth. The symbolism inherent in the object itself also would be appropriate for a newborn child to begin his travels through life, for the pilgrim flask is a container for water, the most vital staple for a safe journey.
sale, Hôtel Drouot, Paris, 1950, no. 64; [ J. Acheroff, Paris, until 1957; sold to MMA]
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. 15.
New York. The Hagop Kevorkian Special Exhibitions Gallery, The Metropolitan Museum of Art. "Transformed: Medieval Syrian and Iranian Art in the Early 20th Century," February 10–July 17, 2016, no catalogue.
"June 28, 1950." In Faiences Persanes Provenant de Fouilles de Guebri Rakka. Paris: Hôtel Drouot, Paris, June 28, 1950. no. 64, ill, b/w.
Carboni, Stefano. Following the Stars: Images of the Zodiac in Islamic Art. New York: The Metropolitan Museum of Art, 1997. no. 15, pp. 36–37, ill. (b/w).
Carboni, Stefano. "A Guastada with Images of the Zodiac." In Studi in onore di Umberto Scerrato: per il suo settantacinquesimo compleanno. Vol. 2 vols.. Napoli, 2003. pp. 25–27, ill. (b/w).
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