9 Apr 2007, 12:36am
Art & Photography


Iranian Art at the Freer + Sackler Galleries

One of the most wonderful things about Washington D.C., besides its fantastically throwback Metro architecture (one can’t help but hum the Three’s Company theme song while waiting for the train), is its abundance of free art and culture. Thanks to the Smithsonian Institution, which funds more than a dozen museums in the city, the range of D.C.’s art is world-class. You could spend a whole week just visiting all the Smithsonian’s museums and galleries, and should you get the chance, plan to visit the Freer + Sackler Galleries to see great Iranian art.
The galleries are two unassuming buildings (connected underground so you can enter one and see both) with collections that emphasize Asian art, among them Islamic art at the Freer gallery (there are a couple of pieces at the Sackler and a cool exhibit on Eastern gardens there at the moment, but the Freer’s permanent collection far outnumbers them). Among that is a sizable collection of ancient Iranian art, which includes Koran folios, pottery, metalwork, and illustrated pages of a copy of the Shahnameh dating back to the 10th century (pictured at top; click on photos to see larger images).

There are a lot of surprising pieces in this collection, perhaps because the forms and figures depicted don’t look like arguably more familiar Persian miniature art, which is dominant in Iranian homes. Take, for instance, the glazed blue bowls below, which come from 13th-century Kashan. The figures depicted on them look more like those in Chinese or Central Asian art, which is an interesting reflection of the shifting borders, ethnography, and ruling dynasties throughout Iranian history. However, as the gallery notes, it’s even more interesting that “the female figure or ‘queen’ is not only the visual focus of [this] bowl, but she is also larger in scale than her male companion [in the bowl below it]… the two vessels are the only known extant examples of a ‘matching pair’ from medieval Iran.”
Also notable is the metal bowl below, which is from the Achaemenid period. From a distance, there’s something distinctly Persian about it, the hand-hammered shapes and grooves reminiscent of metalwork hanging on the walls of people’s homes (or used in lieu of coffee tables, in some instances).
But looking closer reveals that the bordering inscription is not in Arabic script, which Persian writing now employs. Rather, it’s in Old Persian cuneiform, and it reads (from the gallery notes): “Artaxerxes the Great King, King of Kings, King of Countries, son of Xerxes the King, of Xerxes [who was] son of Darius the King; in whose royal house this silver saucer was made.”

There are many more pieces worth seeing in this exhibit, far too many to list here, but the galleries also sponsor relevant events and conferences. Coming up later this month, for instance, is a symposium on Middle East Garden Traditions. Iranian visitors to D.C. can also check out DCPersian.com for the city’s Iranian social events calendar and Persian restaurants.

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20 May 2007, 8:38am
by Mahesh Sugathan

Hi Sepideh

I read your article on the persian exhibits on the parsarts page with fascination. I’m Indian and work with a thinktank on trade in geneva, switzerland.

I got a chance to familiarise myself with persian art during my overland trip from europe to iran a few years ago and it was a great experience. Persian art and architecture has also influenced Indian art as well (obviously the Taj is a well-known example) but I was suprised to find out that even in kerala ( in the south of India) where I’m from there’s a church in in town of kottayam established by early christian settlers from the persian empire which has a persian cross and the inscriptions are in pahlavi ( from the sassanian period).

Could you please tell me how I can find out about upcoming iranian art exhibitions here in Europe? I’m also interested in learning the beautiful persian language and am on the lookout for summer courses if any in europe.

thanks and keep up the good work!

Hi Mahesh,

Thank you for your comment. The church in Kottayam is fascinating; I was only able to find information on Syrian Christians: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Kottayam#Temples.2C_Churches.2C_Mosques.

Though I’m not sure where to find Iranian art in Geneva, I know that the Iran Heritage Foundation, based in England, is quite active and puts on a lot of programs in Europe. You can see their site here: http://www.iranheritage.org/.

Another good source might be the Iranian embassy in Switzerland: http://www.iranembassy.ch/ They may be able to direct you to summer courses or private instructors of Persian and will probably know about Iranian art in Switzerland. I hope that’s helpful; thanks again for your interest!


Hi Sepideh

Thanks a lot for the links! I’ll follow these up. Regarding information on the church and migration of persian christians, you may want to check out the links below: My understanding is that these could be christians from any part of the then persian empire (which included iraq and syria) as opposed to only those living within the territory of present day Iran.





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