Persian Art

Persian art and architecture

Persian art and architecture, works of art and structures produced in the region of Asia traditionally known as Persia and now called Iran. Bounded by fierce mountains and deserts, the high plateau of Iran has seen the flow of many migrations and the development of many cultures, all of which have added distinctive features to the many styles of Persian art and architecture. There are excellent collections of Persian art in Tehran; the Metropolitan Museum; the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston; and the Victoria and Albert Museum.

Early Works

Although earlier civilizations are known, the first archaelogical finds of artistic importance are the superb ceramics from Susa and Persepolis (c.3500 BC). On tall goblets and large bowls are symmetrical designs that cover the surfaces with stylized abstractions of animals, particularly water birds and ibex. The choice of subjects from nature, simplified into almost unrecognizable patterns, may be called the formative principle of Persian art. Much of 4th-millennium Iranian art is strongly influenced by that of Mesopotamia. The 3d-millennium art of Elam, found at Sialk and Susa, also follows Mesopotamian styles, and this trend is continued in the less well-known Elam and Urartu art of the 2d millennium.

The art that comes from mountainous Luristan has aroused a good deal of controversy. Probably dated 1200–700 BC, the many small bronze objects are thought to be mostly weapons and horse trappings—bits, bridle ornaments, rein rings, and pole tops. The treasure of Ziwiye (Sakiz), a hoard containing gold, silver, and ivory objects, included a few Luristan pieces. These provide a definite link with the art of the Scythians known as the animal style. The Ziwiye Treasure is roughly divided into four styles: Assyrian, Scythian, proto-Achaemenid (with strong Greek influences), and native, or provincial. Dated c.700 BC, this remarkable collection of objects illustrates the heterogeneity of types and sources in early Iranian art.

The Achaemenid Period

A unified style emerges in the Achaemenid period (c.550–330 BC). Influenced by the Greeks, the Egyptians, and those from other provinces of the Persian Empire, the Achaemenids evolved a monumental style in which relief sculpture is used as an adjunct to massive architectural complexes. Foundations of the palace of Cyrus at Pasargadae, of Artaxerxes I at Susa, and above all extensive remains of the magnificent palace complex of Darius I and Xerxes I at Persepolis reveal plans that characteristically show great columned audience halls. In front of the halls were colonnaded porticoes, flanked by square towers and set on high terraces. The palaces were approached by double flights of steps converging at the top. Although there are marked analogies to Egyptian, Greek, and Assyrian architecture, the style as a whole and the feeling for space and scale are distinctive. The Persepolitan columns are slenderer and more closely fluted than those of Greece. Bases are high, often bell-shaped; capitals are composed of the foreparts of two bulls set back to back or of other animals above volutes with rosette ornament.

In the sculpture, of an ordered clarity and simplicity, heraldic stylization is subtly combined with effects of realism. Typical are the low stone reliefs of a procession of tribute bearers that adorn the great double staircase approaching the audience hall of Xerxes I (Persepolis) and the famous Frieze of Archers (Louvre, from the palace of Darius I at Susa), executed in molded and enameled brick, a technique of Babylonian-Assyrian origin. The great care lavished on every stone detail is also found in the fine gold and silver rhytons (drinking horns), bowls, jewelry, and other objects produced by this culture.

Parthian and Sassanid Contributions

After the death of Alexander the Great (323 BC), there was turmoil in Iran until the rise of the Parthians (c.250 BC). Theirs is essentially a crude art, synthesizing Hellenistic motifs with Iranian forms. Buildings of dressed stone and rubble and brick were decorated with sculpted heads and mural paintings. The larger-than-life-size bronze statue from Shami of a ruler is the most outstanding remaining Parthian monument.

Of far greater artistic importance is the contribution of the Sassanids, who ruled Iran from AD 226 to the middle of the 7th cent. Adapting and expanding previous styles and techniques, they rebuilt the Parthian capital at Ctesiphon. There a great palace with a huge barrel vault was constructed of rubble and brick. Sassanid architecture is decorated with carved stone or stucco reliefs and makes use of colorful stone mosaics. Beautiful gold and silver dishes, bowls, and ewers, often decorated with hunting scenes or animals in high relief, and textiles with symmetrical heraldic designs also remain. The Sassanids recorded their triumphs on immense outdoor rock reliefs scattered throughout Iran, often using the same sites that the Achaemenids had covered with reliefs and inscriptions.

In Afghanistan at Bamian are ruins that show the great impact of Iranian art forms on works from the 4th to the 8th cent. Frescoes and colossal Buddhas adorn Bamian's monasteries, revealing a fusion of Greco-Buddhist and Sassano-Iranian elements.

The Coming of Islam

Little remains from the early centuries of Islam in Iran, but the influence of Persia on Islamic art and architecture in Syria and Palestine is very strong. A significant innovation by the Persians is the raising of a dome over a square hall by means of squinches. Also influential was their use of cut-stucco decoration, various intricate motifs, and ever-apparent symmetry.

The earliest important Islamic monument extant in Iran is the mausoleum of Ismail the Samanid at Bukhara. Dated 907, it is a solid, square building in cut-brick style, covered by a dome. During this early period, ceramics were raised to a major art form. The finest were the "calligraphy wares" of Nishapur and Samarkand. The star-shaped tomb tower of Qabus (1006) presents a form with far-reaching influence. Both pottery and metalwork were further developed under the Seljuk Turks in the 11th and 12th cent. Luster and "minai" ceramics—using overglaze enamel colors including leaf gilding—both with intricate scenes of court life, were produced at Rayy, Kashan, and elsewhere.

The Mongol and Timurid Periods

The Mongol invasions of the first half of the 13th cent. destroyed many towns and much art. We know little of Persian painting until the so-called Mongol school of the 14th cent. The most famous work of this period is the magnificent Demotte Shah Namah (The History of Kings). The book has been divided up, and many leaves are in American collections. The pictures are large, somber in color, and free and lively in execution, with landscape playing an important role. Small Shah Namahs have simple illustrations in yellow, red, blue, and gold.

Timurid painting of the 15th cent. employs smaller figures and more static compositions. Chinese influences have been integrated and patterned symmetry reemerges. Bihzad, the greatest painter in this style, is renowned for his fine, firm line and exquisite delicacy. The Blue Mosque at Tabriz, named for its brilliant faience casing, is contemporary. Mosaic faience-covered architecture reached its height in 16th-century Isfahan in the great building complex Maidan-i Shah.

The Safavid Dynasty

Under the Safavid dynasty (1499–1722) palaces were decorated with mural paintings, which have been heavily restored. Single-figure portraits and ink drawings were also made for the Safavids. In book illustrations, figures became sinuous, color and pattern ran riot, and, at best, the effect was that of ornate jewelry. A masterpiece of Safavid illumination was the Shah Namah of Shah Tamasp, which incorporates the greatest developments in painting of the early 1520s to the mid-1530s (published in facsimile as The King's Book of Kings, 1972).

Later Developments

In the 17th-century Persian art fell under European and Indian influences and rapidly degenerated. Under the Qajar dynasty (1779–1925) a distinctive, theatrical style was developed in architecture, painting, and the decorative arts. The so-called Neo-Achaemenid style, which characterizes the public buildings of modern Tehran, points to a conscious effort at reviving and integrating the ancient heritage in modern Iran.


See D. Schmandt-Besserat, Ancient Persia: The Art of an Empire (1980).

The Columbia Encyclopedia, 6th ed. Copyright© 2018, The Columbia University Press.

Persian Art: Selected full-text books and articles

Masterpieces of Persian Art By Arthur Upham Pope; Phyllis Ackerman; Eric Schroeder Dryden Press, 1945
Persian Art, Parthian and Sassanian Dynasties, 249 B.C.- A.D. 651 By Roman Ghirshman; Stuart Gilbert; James Emmons Golden Press, 1962
Islamic Chinoiserie: The Art of Mongol Iran By Yuka Kadoi Edinburgh University Press, 2009
A Handbook of Muhammadan Art By M. S. Dimand Hartsdale House, 1947 (2nd edition)
Librarian's tip: "Bihzad and His School" begins on p. 41
FREE! History of Ancient Art By Franz Von Reber; Joseph Thacher Clarke Harper and Brothers, 1882
Librarian's tip: "Persia" begins on p. 99
Encyclopedia of Painting: Painters and Painting of the World from Prehistoric Times to the Present Day By Bernard S. Myers Crown, 1979 (4th Rev. edition)
Librarian's tip: "The Development of Painting in Persia" begins on p. 376 and "Persian Painters" begins on p. 380
Iran from the Earliest Times to the Islamic Conquest By R. Ghirshman Penguin Books, 1954
Librarian's tip: "The Luristan Bronzes" begins on p. 99
Western Asiatic Antiquities: The Burrell Collection By Edgar Peltenburg; Burrell Collection Glasgow Museums Edinburgh University Press, 1991
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