Asia Society Presents Major Exhibition of Court Objects From Iran

Glass, Gilding, and Grand Design: Art of Sasanian Iran (224-642)

February 14 through May 20, 2007

Media Preview: February 12, 10:30 a.m.

For the first time in a generation, Asia Society presents a major exhibition of artworks from one of the great kingdoms of the ancient Near East and the last great Iranian empire prior to the adoption of Islam. Glass, Gilding, and Grand Design: Art of Sasanian Iran (224-642) illuminates the splendor and broad influence of the courtly art of this vast empire that encompassed all of present-day Iran, Iraq, Afghanistan, Armenia, Eastern Turkey, and parts of Syria, Pakistan, Central Asia and Arabia. At its height, the Sasanian kingdom annexed Egypt, Jordan, Palestine, and Lebanon.

The exhibition features more than 70 objects - from European and American collections - including silver-gilt plates and vessels lavishly decorated with symbolic royal imagery and hunting scenes, precious glassware, silk textiles, magnificent arms, and carved gems. Bronze plates, stucco relief panels, and mosaics provide broader perspectives on the diverse artistic production of this flourishing empire.

Acting as a powerful and privileged intermediary between the West and Asia, the Sasanians controlled the western end of the main trade routes for spices and silk. Reflecting this rich confluence, the courtly art of the Sasanians was composite and eclectic, melding multiple influences from western and eastern faiths, cultures and artistic traditions. The penetration of Sasanian philosophies of kingship, intellectual developments and global outlook into Central Asia meant Sasanian cultural influence extended beyond the empire's territorial borders, reaching as far as Western Europe, Africa, China, and India.

"Much of what later became known as Islamic culture, architecture, and writing was strongly influenced by the Sasanians," noted Melissa Chiu, Asia Society Museum Director. "Glass, Gilding, and Grand Design presents a rare look at Iran's pre-Islamic origins that is essential to understanding contemporary Iran as well as some of the forces shaping Islamic societies in Central Asia, the Middle East, and the Caucasus."
The exhibition is curated by Françoise Demange, a scholar of Near Eastern art and Conservateur en chef, Départment des Antiquités Orientales, Musée du Louvre, Paris. Prudence O. Harper, curator emerita of Ancient Near Eastern Art at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, is curatorial advisor. Michael Chagnon, Research Assistant for Islamic Art, Brooklyn Museum, organized and interpreted exhibition objects for Asia Society as curatorial consultant.

Organized by the City of Paris, Musée Cernuschi and Paris Musées in association with Asia Society, the exhibition includes loan objects from European and American institutions as well as private collections. The exhibition benefits from the exceptional collaboration of the Musée du Louvre in Paris and the Bibliothèque Nationale de France. Also integral to this presentation are the Arthur M. Sackler Gallery, Smithsonian Institution in Washington, D.C.; the Cincinnati Art Museum' The Cleveland Art Museum' The Corning Museum of Glass in Corning, N.Y.; the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City; and the Field Museum of Natural History in Chicago. The exhibition is accompanied by an illustrated catalogue that includes entries by Françoise Demange, Prudence O. Harper, and Rika Gyselen, Directeur de Recherche, Centre National de la Recherche Scientifique (CNRS), Paris.

Glass, Gilding, and Grand Design is the first exhibition in New York since the 1980s to explore Sasanian art. The Metropolitan Museum of Art, one the lenders for the exhibition, presented a Sasanian exhibition in the 1980s. In 1978, Asia Society presented The Royal Hunter: Art of the Sasanian Empire, curated by Prudence O. Harper. The current exhibition brings to light new developments that have increased understanding of Sasanian history and culture at a time when current headlines about places like Iraq, Iran, and Afghanistan make such understanding especially relevant for U.S. audiences.

About Sasanian-era society
The Sasanian dynasty had a strong, centralized government in which trade was extremely important and agriculture was highly developed. The construction of dams, canals and bridges contributed to the success of farming and agricultural exports. Access to trade routes allowed for extensive trade in luxury items and the export of high-quality manufactured goods. The Sasanians were a feudal society of priests, warriors, and farmers; artisans were first part of the farming class and later constituted a separate class. A special trait of this society was national trilingualism: Pahlavi (middle Persian), Greek, and Parthian were three commonly spoken languages. The study of medicine, philosophy, and literature flourished.

The Sasanian era was the golden age for Zoroastrianism, which was the official state religion until the introduction of Islam in the 7th century. The Zoroastrian faith was initiated by the prophet Zoroaster in the late second or early first millennium B.C.E. Religious priests served as judges and administrators operating on all levels of society. The early political and religious histories in the region were preserved by the Sasanians in a "book of kings," which was used as a source for the later national Persian epic, the Shahnameh.

The exhibition Glass, Gilding, and Grand Design comprises four thematic sections beginning with The Arts of King and Court. At the core of Sasanian art, the image of the sovereign demonstrated the unity of the country and the authority of the crown. Imagery depicting Sasanian kings in scenes of investiture, battle, and hunting are found on relief sculpture, silver, and silver-gilt vessels and plates, mosaics, seals, and coins. Royal hunting scenes, as well as sumptuous celebrations where the pomp of the court was on full view, reinforced the primacy of the victorious king.

The exhibition section on Religious Traditions explores the Zoroastrian religion and the influence of the clergy. Fire played a central role in Zoroastrian ritual in the Sasanian era, as seen on an agate seal depicting a priest before a sacrificial altar. The belief in a supreme god and a contrasting power of evil was also a key article of faith. A parallel search for balance and order in the universe is reflected in the artistic composition of works in this section of the exhibition, such as the patterning of grapevine scrolls and other naturalistic designs found on silver bowls of this era.

Borderlands and Beyond examines Sasanian artistic exchange along its Western (Roman), Eastern (East Asian) and Southern-Central Asian frontiers. The Sasanians were famous for textile production, notably richly colored and jeweled court silks, several of which are on display in this section. While textiles and their exchange have been much-studied, more recent archaeological finds of exquisite Sasanian glass vessels in far-flung locales are less known. Among the several glass vessels on loan from The Corning Museum of Glass in Corning, N.Y., is a brown bowl, whose location of discovery is unknown. A fragment of this type of bowl was discovered in Southern Iran, and similar pieces were discovered in the Far East: in a Tang dynasty royal tomb in Ningxia; in Xinjiang; and in the Munakata sanctuary on the Japanese island of Okinoshima, in an archaeological context dating back to the sixth and seventh centuries.

Sasanian artistic influence not only extended throughout a broad geographical expanse, it endured long after the fall of the empire and the emergence of Islamic rule. The final section of the exhibition, The Artistic Legacy, shows that Sasanian iconography continued to be transmitted into new forms, even after their reign ended. When the kingdom fell in 642, the Sasanians left a unified and centralized empire. The succeeding Islamic Umayyad and Abbasid dynasties not only adopted concepts of government and kingship from those they defeated, they also drew inspiration from their arts and scientific advances.

Related Programs
Asia Society is presenting a number of performances and public programs to coincide with Glass, Gilding, and Grand Design including a lecture, "Grand Design: (Re)introducing Sasanian Art to a 21st Century Audience" with curatorial advisor Michael Chagnon, Brooklyn Museum. As part of the Coca-Cola Family Program Series, on Saturday, March 3, from noon to 3:00 p.m., Asia Society and Museum will present family activities inspired by the Iranian New Year celebration of Norouz. Programming on the current politics and social issues that are shaping contemporary Iran are also planned. Check for latest program updates.

Glass, Gilding, and Grand Design is made possible with major support from The Leon Levy Foundation; The Lee and Juliet Folger Fund; Lisina and Frank Hoch; and Sheila and Hassan Nemazee.

About the Asia Society
Asia Society is the leading global organization working to strengthen relationships and promote understanding among the people, leaders, and institutions of Asia and the United States. We seek to enhance dialogue, encourage creative expression, and generate new ideas across the fields of policy, business, education, arts, and culture. Founded in 1956, Asia Society is a nonpartisan, nonprofit educational institution with offices in Hong Kong, Houston, Los Angeles, Manila, Melbourne, Mumbai, New York, San Francisco, Shanghai, and Washington, D.C.

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