Persia, one of the oldest countries in the world, and one of the earliest civilizations in the history of art, occupies the Persian plateau, bounded by the Elburz and Baluchistan mountains in the north and east. In ancient times, during the first Millennium BCE, Persian emperors like Cyrus II the Great, Xerxes and Darius I extended Persian rule into Central Asia and throughout Asia Minor as far as Greece and Egypt. For much of Antiquity, Persian culture intermingled continuously with that of its neighbours, especially Mesopotamia, and influenced - and was influenced by - Greek art, as well as Chinese art via the "Silk Road".
Early Persian artworks include the intricate ceramics from Susa and Persepolis (c.3500 BCE), as well as a series of small bronze objects from mountainous Luristan (c.1200-750 BCE), and the treasure trove of gold, silver, and ivory objects from Ziwiye (c.700 BCE). Most of this portable art displays a wide variety of artistic styles and influences, including that of Greek pottery.
Achaemenid Era (c.550-330 BCE)
The first upsurge of Persian art occurred during the Achaemenian Dynasty era of the Persian Empire, under the influence of both Greek and Egyptian art. Persian art was exemplified in a series of monumental palace complexes (particularly at Persepolis and Susa), decorated with sculpture, especially stone reliefs, and the famous "Frieze of Archers" (now in the Louvre Museum in Paris) created out of enameled brick. The city gate at Persepolis was flanked by a pair of huge bulls with human heads, while in 515 BCE, Darius I ordered a colossal relief and inscription to be carved out of rock at Behistun. The sculpture portrays shows him vanquishing his enemies watched by the Gods. Persian sculptors influenced and were influenced by Greek sculpture. Other artworks from this period include dazzling gold and silver swords, drinking horns, and intricate jewellery.
Parthian Era (c.250 BCE)
Persian art under the Parthians, after the death of Alexander the Great, was a different story. Parthian culture was an unexciting mixture of Greek and Iranian motifs, involving visible on monuments and in buildings decorated with sculpted heads and fresco wall painting.
Sassanid Era (226-650 CE)
The second outstanding period of Persian art coincided with the Sassanian Dynasty, which restored much of Persia's power and culture. Sassanid artists designed highly decorative stone mosaics, and a range of gold and silver dishes, typically decorated with animals and hunting scenes. The biggest collection of these eating and cooking vessels is displayed at the Hermitage Museum, St. Petersburg.
As well as mosaic art and metalwork, frescoes and illuminated manuscripts were two other art forms which thrived during this period. In addition, crafts like carpet-making and silk-weaving were also strongly encouraged. Persian carpets and silks were exported as far as Byzantium (present-day Istanbul) to the west and Turkestan to the east.
However, the most striking relics of Sassanian art are rock sculptures carved out of steep limstone cliffs (eg. at Taq-i-Bustan, Shahpur, Naqsh-e Rostam and Naqsh-e Rajab) which depict the victories of the Sassanid leaders.
The influence of Sassanian artists extended to Afghanistan (a Persian colony of the time), where excavations at monasteries at Bamian have revealed frescoes and huge Buddhas. The Sassanian Empire collapsed after being defeated by the Byzantine Roman Emperor Heraclius.
Persia Under Islam
After being overrun by the Arabs in 641, Persia became part of Islam and its visual arts developed according to Islamic rules. One of these - the ban on three-dimensional portrayal of living things - led to an immediate decline in Persian sculpture and forced fine art painting to become more ornamental and adopt the flat traditions of Byzantine art. However, in decorative art, like ceramics, metalwork and weaving continued to flourish, especially from the time of the Abbasid Dynasty (750-1258) in the eighth century. Ornamentation of Islamic temples like the Mosque of Baghdad (764), the Great Mosque at Samarra (847), the tenth-century mosque at Nayin, the Great Mosque at Veramin (1322), the Imam Riza Mosque at Meshad-i-Murghab (1418), and the Blue Mosque at Tabriz. Mosaics and other decorations were widely used in mosques and other buildings. Coloured roofs, using ceramic tiles in blues, reds and greens were also a popular part of Persian architecture.
Safavid Era (1501-1722)
Safavid Era is sometimes called the golden age of Iranian art, it was a high point for the art of the book and architecture; and also including ceramics, metal, glass, and gardens. The arts of the Safavid period show a far more unitary development than in any other period of Iranian art. The Safavid Empire was one of the most significant ruling dynasties of Iran. The capital was moved to Esfahan and under the reign of Safavid kings it became one of the most beautiful cities of Iran.
Illumination and Calligraphy
With the decline in figure drawing and figure painting, one popular Islamic art form which developed in Persia was Illumination - the decoration of manuscripts and religious texts, especially the Koran. Iranian illuminators were active during the Mongol takeover of the country during the late Middle Ages, and the art of illumination reached its heyday during the Safavid Dynasty (1501-1722). The copying of religious works also stimulated the development of ornamental writing like calligraphy. This grew up during the eighth and ninth centuries, roughly concurrent with the era of Irish illuminated manuscripts and became an Iranian speciality.
Says writer Will Durant: "Ancient Iranians with an alphabet of 36 letters, used skins and pen to write, Instead of ear-then tablets". Such was the creativity spent on the art of writing. The significance of the art of calligraphy in works of pottery, metallic vessels, and historic buildings is such that they are deemed lacking without the adorning decorative calligraphy.
Illuminations, and especially the Quran and works such as the Shahnameh, Divan Hafez, Golestan, Bostan et al. are recognized as highly invaluable because of their delicate calligraphy alone. Vast quantities of these are scattered and preserved in museums and private collections worldwide, such as the Hermitage Museum of St. Petersburg and Washington's Freer Gallery of Art among many others.
Caves in Iran's Lorestan province exhibit painted imagery of animals and hunting scenes. Some such as those in Fars Province and Sialk are at least 5,000 years old. Painting was regarded as an important art under Islam. Around 1150, several schools of religious art emerged which specialised in the illustration of manuscripts of various types, all illustrated with miniature paintings. This art form, in combination with illumination, grew into a significant artistic tradition in Iran. The most famous Persian miniature painter was Bihzad, who flourished at the end of the fifteenth century, becoming the head of the Herat Academy of Painting and Calligraphy. His landscape paintings were executed in a realistic style using a vivid colour palette. Among his pupils were several noted painters of the day, including Mirak and Sultan Mohammed. Bihzad's paintings are represented in the University Library at Princeton, and the Egyptian Library in Cairo.
Other painting styles, such as mountain-scapes and hunting scenes became popular during the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries with Baghdad, Herat, Samarqand, Bukhara and Tabriz becoming the main art centres. Later, portrait art became fashionable. From the late 1600s, Persian artists imitated European paintings and engravings, leading to a slight weakening of Iranian traditions.
The Persian rug
From the yarn fiber to the colors, every part of the Persian rug is traditionally handmade from natural ingredients over the course of many months.
The art of rug weaving in has its roots in the culture and customs of its people and their instinctive feelings. Weavers mix elegant patterns with a myriad of colors. The Iranian carpet is similar to the Persian garden: full of florae, birds, and beasts.
The colors are usually made from wild flowers, and are rich in colors such as burgundy, navy blue, and accents of ivory. The proto-fabric is often washed in tea to soften the texture, giving it a unique quality. Depending on where the rug is made, patterns and designs vary. And some rugs, such as Gabbeh, and Gelim have a variations in their textures and number of knots as well. Out of about 2 million Iranians who work in the trade, 1.2 million are weavers producing the largest amount of hand woven aritistic carpets in the world. exported $517 million worth of carpets in 2002.
Pottery and ceramics
Pottery Vessel, Fourth Millennium BC. The Sialk collection of Tehran's National Museum of Iran.
Prominent archeologist Roman Ghirshman believes "the taste and talent of this people [Iranians] can be seen through the designs of their earthen wares".
Of the thousands of archeological sites and historic ruins of Iran, almost every single one can be found to have been filled, at some point, with earthenware of exceptional quality. Thousands of unique vessels alone were found in Sialk and Jiroft sites.
The occupation of the potter ("kuzeh gar") has a special place in Persian literature.
During the course of Iran's recorded history, a unique distinctive music developed accompanied by numerous musical instruments, several of which came to be the first prototypes of some modern musical instruments of today.
The earliest references to musicians in Iran are found in Susa and Elam in the 3rd millennium BC. Reliefs, sculptures, and mosaics such as those in Bishapur from periods of antiquity depict a vibrant musical culture.
Persian music in its contemporary form has its inception in the Naseri era, who ordered the opening of a "House of Crafts," where all master craftsmen would gather for designing instruments and practicing their art.
Iran is filled with tombs of poets and musicians, such as this one belonging to Rahi Mo'ayeri. An illustration of Iran's deep artistic heritage.
Persian literature is by far the most stalwart expression of the Iranian genius. While there are interesting works in prose, it is poetry where the Iranian literature shines at its most. Flourishing over a period of more than a millennium, it was esteemed and imitated well beyond the confines of the Iranian homeland. The literature of Turkey and India developed under its influence.
Some notable Iranian poets are: Ferdowsi, Khayyam, Hafiz, Attar, Sa'di, Nizami, Sanai, Rudaki, Rumi, Jami, and Shahriar.
The tradition and style in the garden design of Persian gardens has influenced the design of gardens from Andalusia to India and beyond. The gardens of the Alhambra show the influence of Persian Paradise garden philosophy and style in a Moorish Palace scale from the era of Al-Andalus in Spain. The Taj Mahal is one of the largest Persian Garden interpretations in the world, from the era of the Mughal Empire in India.
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