Feast Your Eyes: A Taste for Luxury in Ancient Iran, on view at the Smithsonians Freer and Sackler Galleries
beginning Feb. 4, explores the beauty, role and function of luxury metalwork in ancient Iran. The exhibition features more than 40 works fashioned in silver and gold between the founding of the Achaemenid Empire ca. 550 B.C.E. and the beginning of the Islamic period in the seventh century.
Together the Freer and Sackler house one of the worlds most remarkable collections, which offers invaluable insight into the lives of the powerful of the period, said Julian Raby, the Dame Jillian Sackler Director of the Arthur M. Sackler Gallery and the Freer Gallery of Art.
The exhibition coincides with the 25th anniversary of the founding of the Arthur M. Sackler Gallery, and a large number of the objects were part of Sacklers original gift. These are juxtaposed with works from the Freer Gallery of Art, the Sacklers sister museum, one of the first institutions in the U.S. to collect ancient Iranian metalwork.
Installed in the connecting gallery between the two museums, the exhibition will highlight how rulers expressed the political power and material wealth of their empires through portable luxury objects.
The vessels on display include finely hammered bowls, cups, plates, ewers and bottles. Many of the objects were intended for elaborate, multicourse banquets, for which the Iranians were known throughout the ancient world. Others were used for more solemn religious ceremonies.
Among the most celebrated works is a silver-gilt royal hunting plate with the portrait of Shapur II (309-379 C.E.), a Sasanian ruler recognizable by his distinctive crown. Fashioned out of 19 separate components, the plate is also one of the earliest Sasanian examples to depict a king huntingone of the most enduring royal images from the ancient Near East.
Vessels depicting rulers or royal hunting scenes, an activity long associated with kingship in the ancient Near East, had yet another function: they were used primarily as diplomatic gifts and sent as symbols of imperial authority to far-flung corners of the Iranian Empire and along the Silk Road as far as China, to strengthen diplomatic and commercial relations. Military conflict between Iran and its western neighbors, first with Alexander of Macedonia, which brought the Achaemenid Empire to a close in 331 B.C., and later with the Romans, who vied for territorial and economic control, introduced new techniques and motifs into Iranian metalwork. For example, the figure of Dionysus, the Roman God of wine, together with his female companions, appears on several vessels.
Another rare and remarkable object from the Sasanian period is a wine horn, terminating in the head of a gazelle with a small spout, used for pouring out wine. Horn-shaped drinking cups of this type were continuously popular for at least a millennium.
The art of ancient Iran had a lasting impact on the region long after the arrival of Islam in the seventh century. Several objects in the exhibition, including a magnificent gold jug, will highlight the continued use and reinterpretation of ancient Iranian motifs in the Islamic period.