The ornamented headdres, arms, and rich vestments of this figure suggest that it most likely represents a sovereign’s personal guard, viziers or amir. Probably meant to decorate the reception hall of a ruler’s court, be it the Seljuq sultan or one of his local vassals or successors, figures like this one would parallel and enhance actual ceremonies in the very setting in which they took place. Recent analyses have proven that a traditionally-made gypsum plaster is consistently employed on these figures and on archaeological stuccoes. This figure also displays integrated restoration of the first half of the twentieth century, including additions in a more refined gypsum, and modern pigments (some of the reds and synthetic ultramarine blue).
This figure is believed to derive from a royal context. As suggested by its iconography—jeweled headdress, arms, rich vestments—and by similar images found in situ, it was probably meant to decorate the wall of the reception area of a palatine complex, where such figures typically flanked or faced the enthronement area. These figures most likely represented the personal guard, the viziers or amirs, and the courtiers of a sovereign, be it the Seljuq sultan or one of his local vassals or successors. In their regality and power, figures such as this convey the very essence of rulership and authority in the visual arts of the Great Seljuqs and their successor states.
These sovereigns are not known to have been portrayed in their time, in any medium (though they appear in later paintings illustrating their history). Their rulership was expressed and extolled via their names and titles, minted on coins or inscribed on the buildings commissioned by them or their subjects. To symbolize the authority of rulers, the visual vocabulary of the eleventh century employed depictions of their guards of honor holding weapons and, in the following century, of their amirs or viziers holding insignia of office. In addition, representations of courtiers, including musicians and dancers, evoked the luxury of the ruler’s court.
The lack of historical inscriptions on surviving stucco figures themselves or of sources disclosing their meaning has led some scholars to question the identity of the larger standing ones— variably understood as royal guards, princely figures, and even a Nestorian priestess—as well as their connection to the court. However, similar depictions in wall paintings and stone bas-reliefs in coeval royal buildings support their interpretation as the ruler’s personal guard of honor (Persian ghulaman-i khassagi, Arabic al-ghilman al-khassa) or his viziers/amirs. The earliest occurrence of such imagery is in the Ghaznavid palace at Lashkari Bazar (mid-11th century), where club-wielding militia men in ceremonial attire, all unbearded and probably Turkish ghulams (here, slave servants or guards), appear in a wall painting positioned so as to face the ruler in his main reception hall.
Other portrayed personages to have been thus interpreted assume a frontal stance that is even more similar to that of the stucco ones: those on carved marbles from Ghazni (11th–early 12th century), each holding a club; and those carved in stone on the bridge of Hisn Kayfa (probably mid-12th century) and in the niche from a palatine structure at Sinjar (Gu’ Kummet, early 13th century), holding an array of objects. Each of these objects—maces, bows, curved swords, birds, poles, polo sticks, cups, and napkins—symbolized a specific post at court. They were granted to the ghulams who were closer to the sovereign and would have been a constant presence at royal ceremonies.
The Gu’ Kummet niche is thought to have been the actual seat of the patron in his reception hall, which clarifies that such depictions reproduced and boosted actual ceremonials in the very setting in which they took place. Moreover, it supports a direct association with royal authority for the other examples mentioned above. Such fully dressed figures were not meant to depict the ruler, as indicated by the reiteration of the personages and their identical or differentiated attributes. Rather, they symbolized the ruler’s prerogative and possession, and they served to enact his presence, expressing his authority and prestige.
Nevertheless, the stucco examples, which are known individually and detached from their original context, have sometimes been interpreted as princely on account of their jeweled headdresses. But rather than royal crowns, the latter are kulahs, the distinctive headgear, sometimes encrusted with silver and gold, worn by the Turkish guards of the Ghaznavids and Seljuqs and indicative of their rank. The use of metal-encrusted kulahs together with a distinctive belt (kamar) and robe (qaba) to denote military rank may be an innovation of the Seljuqs, for headdresses seem previously to have been more indicative of tribal affiliation and occupation.
Two more examples closely related to this figure have a direct royal implication on account of their architectural context, in both cases the reception area of a small palace or pavilion. Most importantly, they also show the broader, multifaceted decorative program of a ruler’s reception hall. The first comes from the Qara Saray in Mosul (after A.H. 631/A.D. 1234; attributed to Badr al-Din Lu’lu’), where small nimbed stucco busts are accompanied by vegetal patterns, eagles and other birds, inscriptions, and a scroll terminating in animals’ and birds’ heads. The second example, a painting in the reception pavilion at Samarqand (late 12th century), is even more relevant, as it shows a larger assortment of figures that vary in size depending on their role in the composition. Such evidence also supports the hypothesis that the smaller gypsum- plaster figures could have formed part of a larger composition that included not only royal guards but also courtiers engaged in various activities.
The Samarqand wall paintings, the subject of ongoing archaeological study, include bands with animal processions (a snow leopard, a panther, and fantastic beasts), a winged figure, an eagle, a human-headed animal, medium-size humans, smaller dancers and horsemen, and inscriptions in Arabic and Persian, sometimes with birds in the field. The focal point of the room—that is, where the Qarakhanid ruler would have sat enthroned, overlooking the entire reception hall—was the suffa (a small iwan), which was itself further enhanced by flanking paintings of large standing figures. One, a guard or courtier holding an arrow, has been reconstructed from the four that were there originally. Also revealing is the discovery in a lateral wall of what appears to be a painting of a ruler—an arrow-wielding figure with a peculiar scaled-motif headdress, seated on a throne. Despite being smaller in size than the standing arrow bearer, he is surrounded by smaller figures, suggesting his supremacy. While the figure’s identity will likely become clearer as on-site research continues, his position and dimensions provide a preliminary idea of the complexity of royal decorative programs.
The distribution of figures throughout the hall and their proportions offer a possible model for how the stucco figures were displayed in their original settings, with the larger ones positioned closer to the ruler, as royal guards, and the smaller ones representing courtiers engaged in or spectating at different activities performed for the entertainment of the ruler. The suggestion that the larger stucco figures represent the ruler’s personal guards and amirs is lent further credence by painted manuscripts from the early and mid-thirteenth century: the Kitab al-diryaq (Book of Antidotes) and the Kitab al-aghani (Book of Songs) each contain images of an enthroned sovereign surrounded by guards and officers. In addition, accounts of royal Mamluk palaces in Cairo report that the diwan (reception hall) bore images of the sultan and his amirs, with their rank.
Among the extant images linked to royal authority, the standing figures show a chronological progression. The early Ghaznavid examples mentioned above assume exactly the same position, wear the same Turkmen-style belts and bags, and carry the same type of club. Later examples, however, became more differentiated over time, each carrying a different object or insignia and often wearing different headdresses. This iconographic development may reflect the shift in status and position of court attendants, from less hierarchical Turkish ghulams in the mid-eleventh-century Ghaznavid state to more highly structured categories of attendants and amirs in the twelfth- and early thirteenth-century states ruled by the Seljuqs and their successors from Iran to Anatolia. During this period, former ghulam commanders first were appointed atabegs of young princes and then eventually established their own family successions.
Concurrent with these changes, the depiction of royal attendants was no longer linked exclusively to rulership. Northwest of Mosul, the Royal Gate of the church of Mart Shmuni, in Bakhdida/Qaraqosh (early 13th century), displays a seated figure at center dominating two lions, with standing attendants in trefoil niches. The composition, though still evocative of power, takes on a protective meaning, guarding the gate that connects the nave to the sanctuary in a Syrian Orthodox church. In about the mid-twelfth century, enthroned figures flanked by standing courtiers began to appear with frequency on inlaid metalwork and mina’i ceramics. Although sophisticated, these objects were not a royal prerogative, as their extensive retrieval in urban sites attests, and therefore would have been widely accessible to the middle-class population. Such widespread diffusion may have diluted the potency of this royal imagery while maintaining a luxurious aura associated with courtly life.
Stucco and Stone: Archaeological Evidence, Continuity of Traditions
The object under examination here can be considered within the broader context of two uninterrupted architectural traditions in Iran and its neighboring regions: figural imagery and stucco decoration. The latter represents the seamless continuation into the Islamic period of Parthian and Sasanian carved and modeled stucco, especially well attested in Iran and the Jazira. It was in the twelfth century, however, that a renewed use of stucco emerged: a large number of mihrabs and vegetal and inscribed panels of this period are known, from Transoxiana to eastern Afghanistan and Khurasan, and from the northern and central regions in Iran (where the large number of preserved stuccos allowed for the identification of a "Kashan school") to the Jazira (especially in the region of Mosul) and Anatolia. They often show a more pronounced use of volume that would dramatically increase in the fourteenth century.
As for the tradition of figural images in the decoration of buildings, examples in modeled and carved stucco comparable to this piece are scarce compared with the rich evidence from the early Islamic periods, such as those from Chal Tarqan, Tepe Mel, and Nizamabad in Iran and from the Umayyad residential and agricultural complexes in the Syro-Palestinian region, in some cases, such as at Khirbat al-Mafjar, including three-dimensional, nearly freestanding figures. Nevertheless, they attest to a tradition that was never completely abandoned. Friezes representing camels adorned the Abbasid palace in Samarra and, broadening our view farther westward to the Mediterranean, several human and animal depictions were excavated from the palace at Sabra al-Mansuriyya, in Tunisia (mid-10th to mid-11th century).
Closer in geography and time to our figure—that is, from Khurasan and central Iran in the eleventh and twelfth centuries—are panels with fantastic creatures excavated at Termez; animals, from Khulbuk; two heads, one turbaned from Bishapur and one with a jeweled headdress from Nishapur; and a hawk attacking a duck and the hand of a large figure, both excavated at Rayy. Westward, in the Mosul area, figural depictions in stucco occur in the early thirteenth century in a palatine context, namely the Qara Saray, as well as in Christian contexts. At the monastery of Mar Behnam, a stucco panel depicts the horse-mounted saint with angels, while another shows his sister, Mart Sara, in a standing frontal position.
It is likely that the proliferation of stucco decoration in twelfth-century Iran galvanized the representation of figurative images in this medium as well. It was an impetus analogous in other media, for instance, the previously mentioned wall paintings in Lashkari Bazar and Samarqand, and also those in Khulbuk and Nishapur.
As for stone, high-relief carvings are scarcely attested in the architectural decoration of Iran, where the few known examples are flat bas-reliefs. Stone carvings were widely employed in Anatolia, in the area of Mosul, and probably in Baghdad (for instance, the Talisman Gate). Additionally, a local white marble was used extensively in Ghazni, the Afghan capital of the Ghaznavid and Ghurid dynasties.
Technical Analysis and Techniques
The most figures appeared on the art market between the mid-1910s and early 1930s, together with a number of other stucco figures and figurative panels attributed to the Seljuq period. About that time, surface color was added to satisfy the contemporary market aesthetic: the blues used in three of the figures were recently found to be synthetic ultramarine, and some of the reds appear to contain modern components. The remnant pigments—black, other reds, and gilding—could just as well be medieval as modern, making it difficult to confirm whether the paint was added to enhance extant polychromy (a crucial factor in most medieval decorative programs) or as an entirely modern addition. Together with overpainting, repairs to and the filling in of missing parts were customary restoration methods of the early twentieth century and were practiced extensively in the antiquities trade. This calls for caution when making observations, and rumors and accusations of forgery have, in the case of some stucco figures, proven to be correct. The issue is complicated, as the whole group is without context, and scientific analyses cannot prove the dating of the gypsum plasters of which the figures are made (at least those that were analyzed). As a result, iconographic discussion of each figure must first take into consideration its provenance, as well as a mapping of the elements of which it is currently composed, including those related to different conservation efforts. Recent and ongoing investigations initiated on the occasion of the exhibition Court and Cosmos: The Great Age of the Seljuqs aimed to understand the composition of the materials, the techniques used, and the stratigraphy of interventions, as well as to compare the composition of objects that came through the art market with those unearthed through controlled archaeological excavations. The results have helped build a table of reference for the composition of the gypsum plaster employed and have made way for initial hypotheses on manufacturing techniques.
Samples were taken from six fragments excavated at Rayy; from a figure in the al-Sabah Collection, Dar al-Athar al-Islamiyyah, Kuwait (LNS2ST); from a figure in the Worcester Art Museum (1932.24); and from, a large panel from the Philadelphia Museum of Art. Collaborations with the Museum of Islamic Art, Doha, also enabled visual comparison with a panel in their collection (SW.160.2011). All the objects are made of gypsum plaster that in most cases is quite consistent in composition and manufacturing technique, proving a poorly controlled, or "traditional," firing of raw materials. Such technology produces an unevenly fired gypsum plaster that contains relics with different degrees of calcination, from unburned gypsum to highly burned anhydrite, as well as contaminants from the fuel, the kiln surfaces and surroundings, and impurities from the original gypsum rock. Often a coarse, poorly sorted mixture was used for the inner layer of the figures and the Rayy archaeological fragments. A more refined mixture was used for the surface layer, which may incorporate abundant unburned gypsum fragments or a sand temper of complex composition.
A purer, more refined gypsum manufactured under a more controlled firing was employed in the Worcester Art Museum figure, which proved to be a modern cast, as well as for a (certainly modern) backing layer in some of the other figures.
The coarser gypsum plaster that comprises the figures’ inner layers was roughly modeled and left to dry. This process was sometimes carried out in more than one phase until the desired size was achieved, as shown by the stratigraphy on the backs of some figures. At least one case, the seated figure from the Victoria and Albert Museum, may have been executed on a horizontal surface, as shown by markings indicating the direction of the flow of gypsum plaster as it dried. The flat but uneven, unworked back surfaces show that the figures were meant to adhere to a wall, conforming to the medieval Islamic tradition of figural stucco decoration. As in the Victoria and Albert example, other figures show evidence of drying absent surface contact. While this may suggest that the modeling of the inner layer was not executed on a wall—and there is, in fact, no evidence of a horizontal flow of gypsum plaster—voids may have resulted from the application of the dense, coarse gypsum plaster on the wall. In any case, when the inner layer had dried to the desired shape and size, the outer layer (1–5 cm) of finer gypsum plaster was applied to the front face, where it was modeled and carved to achieve the final appearance of the figure. The fragment of the hand, the one archaeological object of the group, appears to be made of a fine gypsum plaster of two shades of gray, based on the amount of impurities, particularly nodules of clay containing fine fragments of charcoal and soot.
The shaping technique—modeled, with carved details—is consistent with that of known examples in central Iran and Mosul representing human figures, and follows that employed in the Sasanian period. Interestingly, some of the known figurative stuccos were modeled separately, among them the busts at the Qara Saray in Mosul, which were apparently nailed to the stucco relief. Similarly, the plaque of a hawk attacking a duck, which is made of fine stucco only, with no inner, coarser layer, has refined borders; it may have been intended for a larger composition.
Overall, these investigations revealed multiple interventions and additions, with the most modern ones characterized by a distinctly more refined gypsum of a purer, more consistent composition than other samples for which a similar, nonindustrial manufacturing technique was hypothesized. Comparisons with excavated materials and with parallels on site also showed that both overall composition and modeling techniques are similar. Differences in the texture of gypsum crystals and in the typology and amount of mineral and rock fragments in the mixture could be used to distinguish among objects produced in separate instances.
Martina Rugiadi in [Canby, Beyazit, and Rugiadi 2016]
Stucco figures nos. 57.51.18 (cat. 62) and 67.119 (cat. 63)
Nearly lifesize, these two stately figures with Turkic "moon faces" wear embroidered and highly embellished coats or kaftans over an undergarment and pants. The kaftans’ upper sleeves are embroidered with tiraz bands whose inscriptions are only partially visible. Both figures have long, flowing hair and wear elaborate crowns; one is adorned with a winged palmette (no. 57.51.18), while the other (this figure) is richly decorated with jewels. In addition, each figure’s right hand firmly grips the hilt of a slightly curved sword or saber. Although their posture recalls standing Sasanian royal and Umayyad caliphal figures, it was also typical at a later date for images of palace guards. A symbol of royalty, the mandil or the royal napkin, can be seen in the right hand of the second figure and may have been held in the right hand of the first one, although it is missing now. The plaster figures were highlighted in different colors, among them ultramarine, red, orange, and black; minute traces of gold foil remain on such raised elements as the flowers, jewelry, and headdresses. Even though these figures arrived at the Metropolitan Museum at different times, their technique, style, size, and decoration suggest that they once belonged to the decorative program of the same palace complex, which has yet to be identified.
Initially dated to the later Seljuq period, about the twelfth and thirteenth centuries, these carvings have several features that suggest an earlier dating between the mid-eleventh and mid-twelfth century. After the decline of the Abbasid Empire in the early tenth century, Iran saw a revival of pre-Islamic, Sasanian, and even Soghdian forms and images of royalty. These images were intended to shed a favorable light on new dynasties of Iranian and Turkish origin as revivers of past glory. Images of winged crowns, such as the one seen on no. 57.51.18, are markers for this revival style.
The calligraphic design, especially with respect to the tiraz brassards of this figure, allows an approximate dating. Beginning in the early tenth century, the pointed triangular fins of the short vertical letters of such inscriptions evolved to reach the height of the long vertical shafts of the letters, as seen here. This style was popular from the eleventh century until the middle decades of the twelfth century. A minbar panel in the Metropolitan Museum dated A.H. 546/1151 A.D. (no. 34.150.2) displays a fine example of this calligraphic style.
Several similar but much smaller figures, which presumably came from western Iran, were acquired by a number of museums prior to World War I. In northern Mesopotamia and Seljuq Asia Minor, large reliefs of humans and princely figures were made of stone rather than stucco, and differed in style. The closest parallels in terms of imagery are offered by frescoes in Central Asian palaces in Bust (present-day Afghanistan) and Samarqand. The fresco murals in Bust at the Lashkari Bazaar palace complex are dated to the reign of the Ghaznavid ruler Mas‘ud I (r. 1031–41). Depicted are forty-four standing courtly figures in three-quarter view, all with Turkish Asiatic "moon-face" features and clothed in kaftans of blue and red. The scene appears to be a royal audience, in which courtiers or guards turn to a central figure that is now missing. Quite similar are the murals in a pavilion in Samarqand from the Qarakhanid period (992–1212), dated to the mid-twelfth century.
The Metropolitan’s two extraordinary, large polychrome stucco sculptures of princely figures probably once served as centerpieces of a larger courtly scene of stucco revetments that complemented a palace complex in Iran about 1050 to 1150.
Stefan Heidemann in [Ekhtiar, Soucek, Canby, and Haidar 2011]
1. Gibson, Melanie. "A Symbolic Khassakiyah: Representations of the Palace Guard in Murals, Stucco, and Ceramic Sculpture." In Art, Architecture and Material Culture, New Perspectives: Proceedings from a Workshop held at the Centre for the Advanced Study of the Arab World, edited by Margaret S. Graves. British Archaeological Reports. Oxford, forthcoming.
2. Riefstahl 1931.
3. Sourdel-Thomine, Janine. Le décor non figuratif et les inscriptions. Lashkari Bazar, une résidence royale ghaznevide et ghoride, 1B. Paris, 1978. For Ghaznavid inscriptions, see Flury, S[amuel]. "Le décor épigraphique des monuments de Ghazna." Syria 6, no. 1 (1925), pp. 61–90, esp. pp. 83–84, no. 12, for the tomb of a certain As‘ad ibn ‘Ali, which Flury dated to the early twelfth century.
4. Casal, Genevieve. "Description des peintures de la grande salle d’audience du château du sud à Lashkari Bazar (automne 1949)." In Lashkari Bazar: Une résidence royale ghaznévide et ghoride, vol. 1A, L’architecture, edited by Daniel Schlumberger, pp. 101–8; pls. 13–15, 121–24. Mémoires de la Délégation Archéologique Française en Afghanistan. Paris, 1978. Some of the figures carry a kind of rod or mace over the right shoulder.
5. Karev, Yuri. "Qarakhanid Wall Paintings in the Citadel of Samarqand: First Report and Preliminary Observations." Muqarnas 22 (2005), pp. 45–84.
Inscription: Inscription in Arabic in kufic script on tiraz band with cartouches, on right and left sleeves:
Dominion [belongs to God]
Hagop Kevorkian, New York (by 1931–d. 1962); Kevorkian Foundation, New York (1962–66; its sale, Parke-Bernet Galleries, New York, November 4–5, 1966, no. 196, to Wolfe); Mr. and Mrs. Lester Wolfe, New York (1966–67; gifted to MMA)
London. Royal Academy of Arts. "Turks: A Journey of a Thousand Years, 600–1600," January 22, 2005–April 15, 2005, no. 39.
The Metropolitan Museum of Art. "Court and Cosmos: The Great Age of the Seljuqs," April 25, 2016–July 24, 2016, no. 1b.
Riefstahl, Rudolf M. "Persian Islamic Stucco Sculptures." Metropolitan Museum of Art Bulletin vol. 13 (1931). pp. 438-463, ill. fig. 3, detailed card on p. 462.
"Kevorkian Foundation sale, November 4-5, 1966." In Indian, Siamese and Chinese Sculpture and Paintings. New York: Parke-Bernet, 1966. no. 196, ill. (b/w).
Grube, Ernst J. "Reports of the Departments: Islamic Art." Metropolitan Museum of Art Bulletin vol. 27, no. 2 (1968). pp. 103-106, ill. p. 105 (b/w).
Swietochowski, Marie, and Marilyn Jenkins-Madina. Notable Acquisitions 1965–1975 (1975). p. 140, ill. (b/w).
Sims, Eleanor, B. Marshak, and Ernst J. Grube. "Persian Painting and its Sources." In Peerless Images. New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 2002. p. 38, ill. fig. 52 (color).
Roxburgh, David J., ed. Turks: Journey of a Thousand Years, 600–1600. London, New York: Royal Academy of Arts, 2005. no. 39, pp. 86-87, ill. fig. 39 (color).
Ekhtiar, Maryam, Sheila R. Canby, Navina Haidar, and Priscilla P. Soucek, ed. Masterpieces from the Department of Islamic Art in The Metropolitan Museum of Art. 1st ed. ed. New York: The Metropolitan Museum of Art, 2011. no. 63, pp. 88, 102-104, ill. p. 103 (color).
Heidemann, Stefan, Jean-Francois de Laperouse, and Vicki Parry. "The Large Audience: Life-Sized Stucco Figures of Royal Princes from the Seljuq Period." Muqarnas vol. 31 (2014). pp. 35, 37, 46, 47, 53, 60, 61, 63, figs. 2, 14, 15, 23, 29, 31, 33, 34 (color).
Canby, Sheila R., Deniz Beyazit, and Martina Rugiadi. "The Great Age of the Seljuqs." In Court and Cosmos. New York: The Metropolitan Museum of Art, 2016. no. 1a, pp. 40-47, ill. p. 40 (color).