Specialized cheetah-keepers tamed and trained cheetahs, caracals, and other wild felines for hunting expeditions, a traditional leisure pursuit of royalty and the wealthy elite. The trained felines rode with their masters on horses and hunted animals such as hares and gazelles. Despite this horseman’s weapons (a mace and a shield), his small cheetah suggests he is a hunter. The figurine was manufactured by altering a preexisting mold of a drinker: the applied arm holding the mace covers and conceals the mold’s original, bent arm holding a cup.
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Title:Mounted Hunter with Cheetah
Date:12th–early 13th century
Geography:Attributed to Jazira (or Iran?)
Medium:Stonepaste; molded in sections, glazed in transparent turquoise, underglaze-painted in black
Dimensions:H. 10 7/8 in. (27.6 cm) W. 3 in. (7.6 cm) D. 8 1/4 in. (21 cm) Wt. 24 oz (680.5 g)
Credit Line:Harris Brisbane Dick Fund, 1966
Mounted Hunter with Cheetah
This hollow stonepaste vessel is molded in the shape of a hunter on horseback. With a mace in his right hand and a shield on his back, he wears all the paraphernalia of the battlefield, but the presence of the small cheetah seated behind him suggests that he is a hunter. Cheetahs, caracals, and other wild felines were captured, tamed, and trained by specialized cheetah-keepers (yuzdar) to assist in hunting expeditions, a traditional leisure pursuit of royals and the wealthy elite in pre-Islamic Iran that was later adopted by the Arabs in the first centuries of Islamic history. The felines were trained to ride pillion on their masters’ horses and were employed in the hunt of animals such as hares and gazelles. Cheetahs were especially prized for their speed and strength.
A passage from the Shahnama, written in the early eleventh century but based on traditional epics passed down orally, tells of a hunting party organized by the Sasanian king Khusraw Parwiz, who was accompanied by hundreds of richly dressed and armed horsemen and footmen, falconers, tamed felines, musicians, and servants; among them were three hundred horsemen leading cheetahs. Such extravagance befits the royal hunt, an elite pursuit through which the king could exhibit his outstanding capabilities. Hunting and martial prowess (razm), together with the ability to achieve full contentment by feasting (bazm)—a concept that included the appreciation of poetry, music, dance, and drink—embodied the essence of kingship in the Iranian tradition and celebrated in the Shahnama.
This horseman was manufactured by altering a preexisting mold of a drinker (which is an image found on comparable objects): the applied arm holding the mace covers and conceals the mold’s original, bent arm holding a cup. But the artisan who painted the figurine opted not to conceal but to highlight the cup by painting it black. His decision, although originating from a contingency, may reflect his understanding of fighting and feasting as not conflicting but complementary activities.
Although the figurine is allegedly Iranian, it may have originated in one of the many workshops active in the second half of the twelfth century in the Jazira and Syria that produced underglaze-painted stonepaste vessels (often referred to collectively as "Raqqa ware"). The white degradation of the glaze is, in fact, particular to these wares.
Martina Rugiadi in [Canby, Beyazit, and Rugiadi 2016]
1. Viré, F. “Fahd.” In EI2 1960–2009, vol. 2 (1965), pp. 738–43; A‘lam, Hušang. “Caracal.” In Encyclopaedia Iranica 1982– , vol. 4 (1990), pp. 788–90.
2. F[i]rd[a]wsi, Abolqasem. Stories from the Shahnameh of Ferdowsi. Vol. 3, Sunset of Empire. Translated by Dick Davis. Washington, D.C., 2004, p. 461.
3. Most of the painted decoration is visible only when the surface is humidified. Quite surprisingly, it shows the legs and boots of the horseman and the horse’s trappings. The spotted body of the cheetah also becomes more evident.
4. Tonghini, Cristina. Qal‘at Ja‘bar Pottery: A Study of a Syrian Fortified Site of the Late 11th–14th Centuries. British Academy Monographs in Archaeology, 11. 1995. Oxford and New York, 1998.
Marking: - Sticker below base: c / 633
[ E. Safani, New York, until 1966; sold to MMA]
New York. The Hagop Kevorkian Special Exhibitions Gallery, The Metropolitan Museum of Art. "The Nature of Islamic Ornament, Part IV: Figural Representation," September 16, 1999–January 30, 2000, no catalogue.
New York. The Hagop Kevorkian Special Exhibitions Gallery, The Metropolitan Museum of Art. "Riding Across Central Asia: Images of the Mongolian Horse in Islamic Art," April 26–November 12, 2000, no catalogue.
New York. American Museum of Natural History. "The Horse," May 17, 2008–January 4, 2009, no catalogue.
Pittsburg, PA. Carnegie Museum of Natural History. "The Horse," February 27, 2009–July 6, 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. 70.
Ettinghausen, Richard. "The Flowering of Seljuq Art." Metropolitan Museum Journal vol. 3 (1970). p. 126, ill. fig. 19 (b/w).
Page, Jutta-Annette, Don Bacigalupi, and Stefano Carboni. The Art of Glass: Toledo Museum of Art. Toledo, Ohio; London: Giles, 2006. p. 59, ill. fig. 21.1 (color).
Khemir, Sabiha Al. Nur = Light: Light in Art and Science from the Islamic World. Seville, Spain: Fundación Focus-Abengoa, 2014. p. 58.
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. 70, p. 140, ill. (color).
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