Learn/ Educators/ Curriculum Resources/ Art of the Islamic World/ Unit Two: Arabic Script and the Art of Calligraphy/ Featured Works of Art: Images 7–11/ Image 9

Image 9

Lamp stand with chevron pattern
Dated A.H. 986 / A.D. 1578–79
Brass; cast, engraved, and inlaid with black and red pigments; H. 13 1/4 in. (33.7 cm), Diam. (base) 6 5/8 in. (16.8 cm)
The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, Rogers Fund, 1929 (29.53)

Previous Image Next Image

Calligraphy (nasta'liq script), poetry, metaphor, symbolism, Sufi, Iran, brass

This lamp stand is inscribed with a mystical Sufi poem that, in its description of a moth drawn to a flame, links the surface decoration with the object's function.

Hollow brass stands such as this incorporated a separate element containing lamp oil that fit into the socket. They were sometimes also used to hold large candles. The writing on the stand transforms this everyday object into a symbol of mystical devotion. Some of these stands were commissioned as gifts for shrines, mosques, or other religious institutions.

The surface of this brass lamp stand features alternating bands of engraved poetic inscriptions, in nasta'liq script, and vegetal scrolls. The diagonal arrangement of the writing is a common feature seen in Persian and Mughal album pages containing rhyming couplets of lyric poetry (see image 10). The residue of red and black pigments suggests the background may originally have been inlaid with different colors of enamel or mineral paste.

The inscriptions are from well-known Persian and Indian poems. Starting at the top of the stand, verses belonging to the Bustan (Orchard) by the Persian poet Sa'di translate as follows:

I remember one night as my eyes would not sleep
I heard a moth speaking with a candle
[Said the moth:] "Because I am a lover, it is [only] right that I should burn.
[But,] why should you weep and burn yourself up?"

(Translation based upon the work of Assadullah Souren Melikian-Chirvani)

Around the shaft, two couplets by Indian poet Amir Khusrau Dihlavi, each from a different lyric poem (ghazal), read:

There is not a moment that my soul is not burning from love for you.
Which heart is not burning from that artful coquetry?

I am burning from jealousy because you set fire to another
You set fire to another, yet no one else is burned but me . . .

(Translated by Denise-Marie Teece)

The verses belong to the mystical tradition of Islam called Sufism and speak of a moth (the lover) drawn to the flame (the beloved). The lover and the beloved are common metaphors in Sufi poetry, meant to express the relationship between God and the believer and the yearning of the believer (the lover) to unite with the divine (the beloved). The dialogue between the moth and the candle represents the desire of the devout believer, who, like a lover, seeks the object of his or her love, God. The flame of the lamp represents the intensity of the divine, in whose presence no mortal can survive. Despite this, it is the nature of the moth to be captivated by the bright flame.

The maker of this brass lamp imbued it with multiple layers of meaning through his use of metaphor. The poetry, rendered in highly decorative yet legible calligraphy, links the lamp stand to the rich symbolism of fire. The expertly chosen passages by different authors would have been immediately recognizable by the patron, who would have admired their arrangement and calligraphic rendering. In this case, calligraphy transforms an everyday object into a symbol and a reminder of a rich poetic tradition, prompting reflection on faith, devotion, and love.