Ancient Persianisms: Persepolitan Motifs in 19th Century Qajar Persia

Judith A. Lerner

Institute for the Study of the Ancient World

Pre-Islamic imagery—specifically that of the Achaemenid (c. 550-330 BCE) and Sasanian (224-651 CE) dynasties—had remained strong in the art of Islamic Iran (post-651 CE); the major pictorial themes of razm u bazm (fighting and feasting), along with hunting and enthronement, continued through successive Islamic dynasties in painting, metalwork, ceramics and textiles, all artistic media that were prominent in pre-Islamic Iran. But one medium of the pre-Islamic period had all but disappeared: monumental relief sculpture carved into living rock. This ancient artistic medium had been dormant for more than a millennium when it was revived under the second Qajar ruler, Fath ‘Ali Shah (r. 1797-1834). During his reign all but one of the eight known Qajar rock reliefs were carved; after his reign—except for one relief executed in 1878 by his great-grandson, Naser al-Din Shah (r. 1848-1896)—monumental sculptured reliefs were no longer made. Instead, relief carving on a much smaller scale was used for embellishing the stone foundations of Qajar buildings. 

The stylistic and iconographic contrasts between these two modes of sculptural expression is striking: the earlier Qajar reliefs draw upon those of the Sasanians, the last Persian dynasty before the Muslim conquest, and feature enthronement and hunting scenes, while the later ones quote those of the earlier Achaemenids, specifically images from their capital city, Persepolis. What brought about this change? In this talk I offer some reasons for this shift from Sasanian to Achaemenid imagery and propose that it stemmed, in great part, from the desire in Iran to forge a modern national identity that drew upon Iran’s imperial pre-Islamic past. Select photographic examples of these reliefs and monuments which provided the inspiration for the Qajar pieces, and which form part of ISAW’s exhibition, Eye of the Shah: Royal Court Photography and the Persian Past, will be discussed in the context of “Persianisms.”

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