Tile with image of a phoenix
Late 13th century
Iran, probably Takht-i Sulaiman
Stonepaste; underglaze-painted in blue and turquoise, luster-painted on opaque white ground, molded; 14 3/4 x 14 1/4 in. (37.5 x 36.2 cm)
The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, Rogers Fund, 1912 (12.49.4)
KEY WORDS AND IDEAS
Cultural exchange, Genghis Khan, Ilkhanid Mongols, Chinese Yuan, phoenix, simurgh, relief, stonepaste
LINK TO THE THEME OF THIS CHAPTER
The phoenix (featured here) and dragon (found on many other tiles found at the same site) are important symbols in Chinese art and culture, in which they are regarded as benevolent and auspicious beasts (fig. 50). Both subjects made their way from China into Iran. The phoenix was transformed into a mythical Persian bird, the simurgh. In its Persian context, the simurgh retained its benevolent and magical associations. It is legendary for saving the life of prince Zal in the Shahnama. (See The Making of a Persian Royal Manuscript: The Shahnama (Book of Kings) of Shah Tahmasp.) This is just one of many Chinese motifs—such as scroll-like clouds and vegetal spirals of flowers, leaves, and vines—that began to appear in Persian art during the thirteenth century.
Archaeological evidence indicates that this tile was once one of hundreds that decorated the interior walls of the Ilkhanid imperial palace Takht-i Sulaiman (near Tabriz, in present-day northwestern Iran). Together with other decoration such as carved stucco, the tiles created a richly colored and textured surface in the interior of the palace.
A phoenix, or simurgh, adorns the center of this tile, the body pointing upward toward the sky and the blue and turquoise plumage spreading out behind it. The entire surface is molded in relief and painted in blue, turquoise, white, and luster—a gold-colored metallic sheen achieved by firing at a specific temperature. One can imagine the stunning visual effect created by hundreds of such intricate and colorful tiles adorning the inside of a palatial room.
This tile indicates the close economic, political, and artistic relationship between the Ilkhanid Mongols and their Chinese Yuan cousins within the vast area controlled by descendants of the Mongol conqueror, Genghis Khan. As east-west trade flourished throughout the Mongol domains, so did the transmission of artistic techniques, aesthetic tastes, and decorative motifs. The Ilkhanids, whose name means "subordinates to the Great Khan [of China]," ruled Iran and its surrounding territories. Nomads and traders transported luxury items, such as textiles and works of art on paper and silk, throughout the vast empire, introducing dragons, lotus flowers, phoenixes, and other creatures from Chinese mythology into the Ilkhanid decorative repertoire, where they took on new meanings and forms.
Fig. 50. Canopy with phoenixes and flowers, Yuan dynasty (1271–1368), China; silk and metallic thread embroidery on silk gauze; overall: 56 3/8 x 53 in. (143.2 x 134.6 cm); The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, Purchase, Amalia Lacroze de Fortabat Gift, Louis V. Bell and Rogers Funds, and Lita Annenberg Hazen Charitable Trust Gift, in honor of Ambassador Walter H. Annenberg, 1988 (1988.82)
Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History
RELATED AUDIO FROM THE GALLERY GUIDE
Denise-Marie Teece: My name is Denise-Marie Teece and I'm a research associate in the Department of Islamic Art. And I'm here with my colleague Maryam Ekhtiar. And we're talking today about this beautiful phoenix tile.
Maryam Ekhtiar: This phoenix tile is a wonderful piece from an Ilkhanid palace, fourteenth century. It's got a molded design. And it shows this mythical bird, soaring to the skies. It's got very lively feathers and long plumage.
Denise-Marie Teece: So this tile is really a striking example of the adoption of Chinese imagery by Persian artists in the fourteenth century. And how this happened was that during the fourteenth century, in the Ilkhanid period, there was a vast trading network that opened up between China and Iran.
Maryam Ekhtiar: The phoenix is actually a Chinese motif. However, the Persian potters and painters take it and transform it into a bird that is thoroughly Persian. It's a bigger-than-life bird living in the mountains. And in the Shahnameh, the Book of Kings, the phoenix figures very prominently.
Denise-Marie Teece: From excavations, we know that these kinds of tiles were used in the Ilkhanid Palace, the Summer Palace known as Takht-i Sulayman. So within these palaces, tiles like this with the phoenix would have alternated with similar tiles, but with dragon motifs. So both of these are being taken from Chinese iconography.