Middle Eastern Art under Parthians and Sassanids

The ephemeral conquest of the East by Alexander was the only major attempt carried out by Europe in order to incorporate Asia into European classical culture. Subsequently, the monarchies of the Parthians and Sassanids sought to return the former greatness of the ancient Persian civilization.

The conquest of the Iranian plateau by northern Parthians began during the third century BCE as a revolt against the Seleucid Greeks. On the opposite bank of the Tigris, the Parthians built a military camp with a circular floor plan (in the Assyrian style) which became their new capital -Ctesiphon- that was also the capital of the Sassanid dynasty when in the third century AD they managed to dominate the Iranian plateau.

Female figure in marble (Ehemals Staatliche Museen, Berlin) with clear Greek influence, it could almost be mistaken for a Hellenistic piece.

In architecture and sculpture it is not surprising that Parthians tried to reassess some of the ancient features of the Persian Achaemenid art. In their constructions built in adobe or brick, the presence of protruding surfaces which disrupt the smoothness of walls (see Sumerian and Akkadian art) were signs of oriental influence. However, certain details denote the acceptance of Hellenistic elements such as Doric or Corinthian capitals, the friezes and meanders that adorned the stucco covering inner walls, the attached columns flanking portals thus giving the appearance of Roman triumphal arches, etc. The few examples of sculpture denote a concern for asserting a racial label, although the expression of bodies and faces imitated those of the Greek sculpture. Some marble female heads show how important the Hellenistic influence was for the Parthian statuary. But the ambition to connect with the ancient Persian culture was most evident in the commemorative reliefs. In these compositions the relief is very flat with no concerns to reproduce a naturalistic anatomy, but it was extremely attentive to costume’s details or ritualistic attitudes which tell us about the rank of the portrayed characters and the interpretation that should be given to a particular represented scene. All of these were features of the Achaemenid art that reappeared.

Sassanid cameo of the third century (“Cabinet des Médailles” from the National Library of Paris) representing the combat between Shapur I and the Roman Emperor Valerian. The winner holds the tiara surmounted by a sphere typical of the Sassanid kings.

When in the year 224 Ardeshir Babakan, the Prince of Fars, succeeded after a long fighting to kill the Parthian king Artabanus V, the Sassanid dynasty (which claimed direct descent from the Achaemenid dynasty conquered by Alexander) was introduced. The monumental rock reliefs from Firuzabad narrating the fight between Sassanids and Parthians, and the relief from Naqsh-i-Rustam near Persepolis are closer to the reliefs that had formerly represented Achaemenid Persian kings and resemble their majestic style and energetic features.

Fragment of rock reliefs at Firuzabad narrating the battles between Sassanians and the Parthian kings of the Arsacid dynasty.

Thanks to its majestic character, the relief of Naqsh-i-Rustam is indeed impressive. Sculpted around mid-third century on a rocky mountainside, it represents the deity and the king on an equal level. Both of them ride horses wearing similar robes and showing the same height (any of them is taller than the other). Ardeshir I takes in his right hand the crown of power offered to him by the god Ahura-Mazda. Both crush their respective enemies with the hoofs of their horses: the Sassanian king to the Parthian king Artaban, and the god of light to Ahriman the prince of darkness.

The god Ahura-Mazda gives the symbol of power to the Sassanid King Ardeshir I, while both trample their enemies with the hoofs of their horses. Relief of Naqsh-i-Rustam from the year 224.

This monumental Sassanian art experienced great progress under Shapur I, the second king of the dynasty. In Taq-i-Bostan have been found reliefs from the end of the Sassanian period, perhaps representing the king Khosrau II (590-628) hunting wild boar and gazelles. These are large compositions with fundamental importance to the relief decorative value: the figures are intended to be symbols and careful attention is paid to the details of clothing, badges, and weapons. Everything suggests a sensitivity similar to the one that will be exhibited during the coming European Middle Ages that received undoubtedly strong influences from the Sassanid art.

Two details of a large rock relief from Taq-i-Bostan, from the early seventh century, depicting a hunting scene in a swampy forest with boats and elephants; above, Chosroes II, in his boat with four rowers, shoot arrows at a huge boar cornered by his assistants mounted on elephants (below). The King is distinguished by his height among the rest of the characters.
The Palace of Ctesiphon, built by Chosroes I in the sixth century, had as a central structure this great vaulted hall of 26 m wide by 34 m high, which was partially demolished during World War II.

The ruins of the Sassanid royal palace of Ctesiphon include a large brick and stucco building with carved stone reinforcements, an example of an art that offered many original features. This huge palace built by King Khosrau I (531-579) seems to foreshadow certain Romanesque decorative solutions, for example its facade arranged in zones with pilasters that overlap with a series of blind arcades. Even more surprising is the large central parabolic arch (known as iwan) leading into the vast hall and resting under a high domed vault that was decorated with stucco reliefs. The Sassanid artistic splendor lasted from V century until the Arab invasion during the first half of the seventh century which ended the Sassanian dynasty.

During the Sassanid period, in Persia flourished the art of polychrome weaving in silk and decorated with medallions reproducing various scenes, or griffins, or winged lions, or other fabulous animals. They were known as the pallia rotata or “weaves with circular medallions” mentioned in European documents from the Middle Ages. Within ornamental circles there were symbolic monsters that were later frequently represented in Romanesque capitals and that will become the Western heraldic animals during the coming Middle Ages. Byzantine looms frequently sought inspiration in these Sassanid Persian weaves and they were also in turn already a precedent of the modern Persian fabrics of the Muslim era.

Fragment of a silk fabric with circular medallions (“pallia rotata”) representing winged lions (Museum of Decorative Arts, Paris).

The same motives as well as banquet scenes, royal hunts, and others were used to decorate bowls, cups and tankards of engraved silver, all of these crafts of extraordinary artistic merit. Some examples of these objects are world famous, for example the gold bowl inlaid with glass and rock crystal and with a central medallion that reproduces the figure of King Kavadh I dating from the fifth century.

Gold cup inlaid with rock crystal and colored glass (National Library of Paris) which once belonged to the royal abbey of Saint-Denis. Carved in the center is the image of King Kavadh I (488-531), sitting on his throne sustained by two winged horses, the king has long curly hair, wears earrings and atop his crown is the sun dominating the moon, symbol of the dualism day-night.

Few civilizations can be proud upon having reached such magnificence and exercising their influence so far with precious objects and art styles. From old ancient Chinese ceramics of the T’ang dynasty to the reliefs on the exterior walls of the Visigoth chapel of Quintanilla de las Viñas (in Spain), Sassanid style took its forms and motifs from one end to the other of the Old World. It played a prominent role in the formation of both European and Asian medieval art. Much of what later became known as Islamic culture in architecture, poetry and other forms of art was transferred from the Sassanids throughout the Muslim world. Sassanid art is full with a fantastically rich series of images born under the suggestion of the old Sumerian, Assyrian, and Achaemenid styles and developed with the finest geometric combinations (polygons, circles, saw teeth) and the most intellectual plant stylizations.