A MONUMENTAL PANEL IN SELJOUK STUCCO

The tally of surviving figurative wall decoration from the medieval Islamic world is scant. Tantalizing fragments have survived which offer an occluded indication of the wealth that must once have existed, among which two regions and periods stand out for their achievements in stucco decoration. The first is the Near East during the Umayyad era (as at Qasr al-Hair al-Gharbi and Khirbat al-Mafjar). Princely themes predominate, most of which ultimately derive from Sasanian Iran, which had a well-developed tradition of such figurative stucco carvings (e.g. Ctesiphon, Kish, Khunj, Damghan, Nizamabad, Chal Tarkhan-Eshqabad, Bishapur and Bandiyan) . The second flowering of stucco sculpture took place in the Iranian world from the tenth to the twelfth century (Konya, Tirmidh, Khulbuk, Rayy and Sava; the latter site yielded at least two figurative panels). For the most part, the somewhat later Iranian world sculpture created under the Seljuks, including fighting horsemen, animals and musicians, is small-scale, although a few standing figures of pages or courtiers are near life-size ( Stefan Heidemann, Jean -François de Lapérouse and Vicky Parry, ‘The Great Audience: Life-Size Stucco Figures of Princes of the Seljuk Period’, Muqarnas, 31, (2014), p.35-71). Many, however, are sadly fragmentary and all are decontextualized.
Among all the medieval stucco decorations of the Islamic world, a trio of monumental panels from Seljuk Iran stands out as quite exceptional. All three were prominently published by Arthur Upham Pope in the Investigation (Arthur Upham Pope, A survey of Persian art from prehistory to the Present, London and New York, 1939, 1304-8, 1374-7, 2729-30, pls. 514-8 and 554 and fig.508-9 and 926a-b). The largest of the three, measuring 2.14 m by 6.71 m long, is in the Philadelphia Museum of Art. For years consigned to the reserve collection, it was one of the highlights of the recent exhibition of Seljuk art at the Metropolitan Museum of Art (Sheila Canby, Deniz Bayezit, Martina Rugiardi and ACS Peacock, Court and Cosmos, the great age of the Seljuqs, New York, 2016, n°16, pp.76-77). His extremely impressive presence, placed high on a wall, dominated the room in which he was installed. The coronation cursive inscription contains a series of royal titles although the placement of Tughril’s name centrally above the enthroned crowned figure is now thought to be part of the reconstruction. The second, formerly in the possession of Stora Frères in Paris, and between the other two in terms of size, at 152 x 344 cm., was sold in these rooms on October 5, 2010, lot 99, and is now in the Museum of Islamic Art in Doha. The one proposed here is the third of the group.
Despite their impressive size, the three panels are themselves incomplete, for in each case either the inscription breaks unfinished or its opening is lost. It would be pointless to speculate on their original size, as key data is missing. All three examples have been fitted with a modern, solid stand to provide stability; however, this also obscures the reverse and thus complicates the interpretation. In the Doha example as in the present panel, the rhythm of the main medallions is such that the composition as seen today is almost certain to differ from the original arrangement. In Doha, two figurative star medallions flank two central medallions with palmettes. A study of almost any figurative design in other materials, particularly metalwork, would indicate that the original arrangement was more likely to be an upright alternation of figurative medallions and palmettes. In this panel, it is less clear if the sequence has been modified. It is certainly possible to envision a sequence which would have had a succession of A, B, A, C, repeated in other segments, with A being the knights facing right, B being the pair of figures and C being the jumper facing left, and the interlacing patterns in the background are less obviously composite than they are in the Doha example. The Philadelphia and Doha panels were both reviewed and found to consist of one or more smaller elements, with areas of makeup. This is clearly detailed in the Court and Cosmos entrance for the Philadelphia sign, and visible in the present layout of the sign in Doha compared to its appearance here in 2010. The restoration of the Doha sign was also publicly discussed by Chief Curator Dr. Stefan Mazarovic during a a presentation on November 16, 2016. In both cases, while a considerable amount of restoration has been uncovered and removed, the basic panel structure and key elements remain in place. The public today is much better prepared to read the missing elements in a design such as these panels than the public was when they were originally restored in the early 20th century, and places much greater emphasis on knowing that what is presented is original.
The composition of the Philadelphia panel appears to derive from painted prototypes such as the generic enthronement scenes of the manuscript frontispieces or the frescoes in the Ghaznavid Throne Hall at Lashkar-i Bazar and two similar fragmentary frescoes from Seljuk Iran. The current panel and its counterpart in Boston, however, draw not only on these sources, but also on a long tradition of dado stucco ornamentation, as exemplified for example at Afrasiyab, Tirmidh or Samanid Nishapur. In such works, large interconnected medallions dominate the available space, a formula repeated and perhaps even copied in textiles. This formula also recurs frequently in Seljuk metalwork; the medallions, with quite varied shapes – circular, lobed, polygonal, stellar – are filled with geometric, vegetal or figurative motifs. Such a layout gives equal importance as filler ornament to each of these three themes.
This link with other materials is very apparent in the three stucco panels. We know so little about the architectural interiors for which they were created, our view of the secular Seljuk built environment relies to a large extent on close observation of detail in other materials. The paired figures leaning towards each other flanking a central cypress tree on either side of the Doha panel are immediately reminiscent of the interiors of many Mina’i pottery bowls. The row of accompanying figures on the Philadelphia panel recall those molded into the sides of a small group of monochrome pottery ewers from Kashan, such as two in the Museum of Islamic Art in Doha, one sold in these halls, 7 April 2011, lot 43, the other, probably from the same mould, at Sotheby’s, April 14, 2010, lot 142. Rows of similar figures are also found in metal inlays, such as those around the cavetto of Cleveland’s magnificent Ayyubid platter (inv.1945.386) and it is ironwork more than pottery that has the closest parallels to our current panel. The relative scale of the designs here, both of the medallions in the main band and of the figures occupying the medallions, are the same as on many silver-inlaid bronze vessels, although the actual design here is very different. The bond extends to the band of animals running along the lowest register; the Cleveland Tray as well as many products from Khorassan such as the pencil case signed by Shadi and dated 1210-11 AD in the Freer Sackler National Gallery of Asian Art, Washington DC, have comparable border designs (Esin Atil, WT Chase and Paul Jett, Islamic Metalwork at the Freer Gallery of Art, Washington DC, n°14, pp.102-109). There, as here, the majority of trotters and other animals face forward, but every once in a while you look over your head, worried about what might be happening just behind.
This panel is distinguished by its high relief, its mastery of floral ornament, its convoluted design kufic inscription and its unique design of four contiguous lobed ovals. The carving technique deserves careful consideration. A subtle awareness of texture is felt not only in the varying depth of the figurative carving, but also in the type of background used. For figurative scenes, this is a regular square grid of tiny diamond-shaped elements that emphasize the figures. For the other areas delimited by the scroll elements, there are a variety of different patterns, mainly based on triangular or hexagonal lattices with great consistency in the way they are deployed. When first made, it is almost certain that this panel would have been a riot of color. How much would have been painted, we do not know; the intricate detail in the background lends itself to steeply angled light and may not have needed much color. Robert Hillenbrand, during the Doha panel review, noted a tiny piece of gilding in a crevice, although there is no way to know for sure if it was original. it should be remembered that a mass of heavily gilded stucco ornaments found a few yards from the Philadelphia sign were returned for gold’s sake, which was worth about £7, which was not an average sum in the early 1930s. Restoration of the Philadelphia panel showed the inscription to have a blue background, although again there is no way of knowing for sure if it was an original or from a later date. The large separate stucco figures noted earlier, scattered in museums, all retain their color, and two images by de Lapérouse in the article already noted by recreate a suggestion of the strength of the original color (Heidemann, de Lapérouse and Parry, op.cit. please. 30 and 31, p.61).
The enormous scale and intricate execution of this panel and its Philadelphia and Doha counterparts, coupled with the varied courtly iconography they all display, unambiguously indicate royal patronage rather than wealthy mercantile patronage. It is clear that themes and patterns migrated through the media, and it is equally clear that it was the privileged context of the palace wall that best suited both the narrative themes and the gradual unfolding of a almost life-size courtyard. atmosphere. Its components are individually familiar as iconic images that recur in book painting, metalwork and especially luxury ceramics, and are the bread and butter of any textbook dealing with medieval Persian art. But they are only familiar as isolated sets, scaled down to fit in a circular dish, medallion, or small rectangular frame, not as parts of a larger whole. This panel and its two pendants allow us to savor, in something close to their original context, the impact of large-scale figurative art in the interiors of Seljuk palaces. Thus, they flesh out the detailed descriptions in literary sources, such as the Tarikh-i Bayhaqidecorating the interiors of royal buildings.

We are grateful to Professor Robert Hillenbrand for his permission to incorporate much of the material from the entry he prepared for the Doha panel when it was sold in these halls.

Additional comparative literature not included in the text above:
F. Sarre, “Figürliche Stuckplastik in der islamischen Kunstabteilung”, in Amtliche Berichte aus den Königlichen Kunstsammlungen XXXV (1914), 181-9
PBC(=Cott), “A Persian figure in stucco”, Worcester Art Museum Bulletin XXIII (1932), 104-10
AUPope, “Some have recently discovered Seljuk stucco”, Ars Islamic I (1934), 110-17
BP Denike, Ornament Arkhitekturnii Srednei Azii (Moscow, 1939), 48-69 and 78-80
R.Hillenbrand, “Islamic Art. Architectural decoration: figurative sculpture”, in JSTurner (ed.), The dictionary of art (London, 1996), 16: 245a-247b.

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