Reevaluating Divine Imagery in Late Antique Iranian Metalwork

Recorded: February 20, 2020
Event: Contextualizing Iranian Religions in the Ancient World - 14th Melammu Symposium

by Matthew Canepa (University of California, Irvine)

Reevaluating Divine Imagery in Late Antique Iranian Metalwork

Most late antique Iranian silver vessels are decorated with either royal imagery or stereotyped ornamental and figural imagery related to wine drinking and the ritual environment of the bazm. While there is some overlap, a small corpus of such luxury vessels integrate what scholarship might identify as divine imagery descendent from the Mediterranean divine iconographies. Often interpreted all simply as the result of one-time, transfers of exotica, such plates in fact participate in a much longer and more sustained development of Hellenistic and post-Hellenistic visual culture in Western, Central, and South Asia after Alexander. The theomorphic imagery on the plates, while idiosyncratic, does not occur in isolation, but was consumed by elites who participated in visual cultures with a long, independent tradition of Asian Hellenism. In both Iran and South Asia, deep-seated traditions of Hellenism cultivated by communities descendent from the Seleucid and post-Seleucid Hellenistic kingdoms were reinvigorated with new traditions coming from the West. Under the Parthian and Kushan empires, a brisk trade in luxury objects and even movement of craftsmen periodically brought new objects, images and ideas from the Hellenistic and Roman east to Iranian and northern Indian elites. These were subsequently integrated into contemporary currents of Iranian and South Asian art, which had originated from Seleucid and Greco-Bactrian traditions. Plates of this sort present a coda to this centuries-long process after the rise of the Sasanians. They reflect the integration – and reinterpretation – of a Classical mythological motif into a visual culture that still appreciated Mediterranean motifs but, now was created by artisans or for an audience who no longer interpreted them strictly through the lens of Classical paideia. Such vessels with divine imagery attest to a long and complicated history of interchange between the Iranian and Mediterranean worlds and this paper seeks to understand the origins and purpose of this peculiar type of luxury object.