Bestowing Beauty: Masterpieces from Persian Lands
December 12, 2020–April 18, 2021
This exhibition celebrates the rich artistic traditions of Persian civilization through the significant private collection of Hossein Afshar, with works from the sixth to the nineteenth century, on long-term loan to the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston. Persian refers to lands where Persian language and culture were predominant, encompassing a larger area than the modern-day nation-state of Iran. Through the collector’s eyes, we see a portrait of Iran that affirms a strong sense of identity reflected and established by the visual arts as well as an artistic sensibility that has flourished over time.
Works in the exhibition include carpets, textiles, manuscripts, paintings, ceramics, lacquer, metalwork, scientific instruments, and jeweled objects. Highlights include exquisite miniature paintings from the Shahnama (Book of Kings), the Persian national epic; rare Qur’an pages; and monumental silk carpets from the height of Safavid carpet production. Woven throughout the tales of these extraordinary artworks are experiences, ideas, and emotions shared by all peoples, grouped within the exhibition into the universal themes of faith and piety, love and longing, banquets and battles, kingship and authority, and earth and nature.
Some of the works in this exhibition use two dates; one includes the abbreviation AH, meaning “after Hijra.” The Hijra is the journey the Islamic Prophet Muhammad took from Mecca to Medina in 622 CE. Just as the Gregorian calendar begins with the birth of Christ, the Islamic calendar begins with this pivotal event.
This exhibition is organized by the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston.
Star Tile, Iran, Kashan or Takht-i Sulayman, possibly AH 690/1291–1292Star Tile, Iran, Kashan or Takht-i Sulayman, possibly AH 690/1291–1292
Star Tile, Iran, Kashan or Takht-i Sulayman, possibly AH 690/1291–1292
Stonepaste; luster and cobalt painted on opaque white glaze
Star tiles decorated with single animals adorned the walls of Takht-i-Sulayman, the summer palace of the Ilkhanid ruler Abaqa Khan (r. 1265–1282). The animal theme was suitable for the decoration of this palace because of its location in a wooded region in northwest Iran, an area ideal for hunting. A Persian quatrain shown along the border of the tile may suggest another layer of meaning: “Do you know, o my admired one, why / My two oppressed eyes are full of tears? / My eyes draw from the desire of your lips, / Water from the mouth of my pupils. . . .”
Jar, Iran, sixth centuryJar, Iran, sixth century
Jar, Iran, sixth century
Silver-gilt; hammered, repoussé, chased, and mercury gilded
This silver-gilt vessel, with its scrolling vines, leaves, grapes, birds, and bear, combines two of the most popular artistic motifs in the late antique period: a love of gardens and Dionysiac themes. The symbolism of the grapevine came to represent eternal life and abundance.
Mirror Case, Iran, probably Shiraz, mid-nineteenth centuryMirror Case, Iran, probably Shiraz, mid-nineteenth century
Mirror Case, Iran, probably Shiraz, mid-nineteenth century
Watercolor, gold-colored pigments, metallic particles, and lacquer on pasteboard
The front and back covers of this mirror case are adorned with roses and carefully studied nightingales. The rose and nightingale motif (gul u bulbul) is cherished in Persian literary and artistic traditions. The rose symbolizes the beloved, who has thorns and can be cruel, and the nightingale, the lover, who sings endlessly of his longing. This depiction of earthly devotion can be inferred to represent divine love and the soul’s search for a union with God. The gul u bulbul motif came to be associated with the city of Shiraz, a leading center of lacquer production in Qajar-era Iran.
Folio of Calligraphy, India, late sixteenth–early seventeenth centuryFolio of Calligraphy, India, late sixteenth–early seventeenth century
Signed Muhammad Husayn al-Katib
Indian, active sixteenth century
Folio of Calligraphy, India, late sixteenth–early seventeenth century
Ink, opaque watercolor, and gold on paper
The text includes a ghazal by Amir Shahi, in Persian:
In the presence of your face, who would talk of jasmine?
In the presence of the lane where you live, who would talk of the lawn of the garden?
They all spoke of their pain in the presence of the beloved,
Who am I, who would speak of me?
Faced with your ruby lips the bud tightened its lips,
In your presence who would speak of that mouth?
If the breeze does not arrive from the beloved,
Who will tell the secret to every gathering?
Muhammad Husayn al-Katib, favored calligrapher of Mughal emperor Akbar (r. 1556–1605), penned in nasta‘liq script these lines, which include one of the Beautiful Names of God in Arabic and poetry verses in Persian by Amir Shahi (d. 1453), a poet of the Timurid period. Mughal emperors encouraged the naturalistic depiction of flora and fauna. Birds embellish the verses, and one bird (second from the top on the left) may be a golden pheasant. Indigenous to China and highly prized, it would have arrived in India through trade or as a diplomatic gift.
Bookbinding, Iran, third quarter of the sixteenth centuryBookbinding, Iran, third quarter of the sixteenth century
Attributed to Aqa Mirak
Persian, active sixteenth century
Bookbinding, Iran, third quarter of the sixteenth century
Watercolor, gold-colored pigments, and lacquer on pasteboard
Two essential elements of Persian kingship—feasting and hunting—are seen on these lacquer book covers attributed to the celebrated Safavid master painter Aqa Mirak. Seen here, a prince and his courtiers enjoy a banquet in a lush garden. This scene of princely pleasure is complemented by another depicting horsemen in pursuit of game. Hunting and warfare allowed princes and courtiers to display their equestrian and archery skills, and hunting often serves as a metaphor for military might and kingship in Persian literature and art.
Dervish, Iran, late sixteenth–mid seventeenth centuryDervish, Iran, late sixteenth–mid seventeenth century
Dervish, Iran, late sixteenth–mid seventeenth century
Ink, opaque watercolor, and gold on paper
This dervish’s contemplative state is aided by the wine in his hand. In Sufi poetry, a drunken dervish is someone intoxicated with the love of God. The roses in the foreground are a metaphor for the divine beloved and a reminder of the dervish’s quest for union with God. Depictions of blue and white porcelains like the bowl in the bottom right corner appear in representations of dervishes after Shah ‘Abbas, who had donated Chinese porcelains to the shrine of Shaykh Safi, founder of the Sufi order of the Safavid dynasty in Ardabil in 1611.
Pear, Iran, nineteenth centuryPear, Iran, nineteenth century
Pear, Iran, nineteenth century
Steel; inlaid with gold
The Qur’an promises believers ripe fruits in its description of paradise: “This is the Paradise that you have been given . . . . Therein you have abundant fruits” (Qur’an 43:72–73). Depictions of ripe fruit came to represent the promise of paradise. During the Qajar period, steel fruits such as this pear became popular. These decorative objects allowed their owners to have perpetually perfect fruit, evoking a vision of paradise—a world like their own but intensified, idealized, and eternalized.
Embroidered Panel, Iran, seventeenth centuryEmbroidered Panel, Iran, seventeenth century
Embroidered Panel, Iran, seventeenth century
Velvet, cotton, and metal-wrapped thread
Large velvets sumptuously embroidered with silk and metal-wrapped threads were produced under the Safavids (1501–1722). The designs are very similar to classical Persian carpets, but the exact function of these textiles is uncertain. They may have served as a lighter floor covering for the hot summer months, or they may have hung on walls as lavish decorations. The high degree of symmetry in this design attests to the skill and precision of the embroiderers.
The “King Umberto II Polonaise” Carpet, Iran, probably Isfahan or Kashan, early seventeenth centuryThe “King Umberto II Polonaise” Carpet, Iran, probably Isfahan or Kashan, early seventeenth century
The “King Umberto II Polonaise” Carpet, Iran, probably Isfahan or Kashan, early seventeenth century
Silk pile and gilt-silver, foil-wrapped silk thread on a foundation (warp and weft) of cotton and silk
Lustrous silk pile and precious metal-wrapped threads make this carpet one of the most important examples woven by Safavid court weavers. Though they appear muted as a result of tarnish and fading, these carpets were once coveted in Europe for their brilliant sheen and bold colors. The moniker “Polonaise” was coined after examples woven with Polish coats of arms were shown at the nineteenth-century Paris Exposition Universelle. This carpet was owned by the Italian royal family and was among the possessions of the House of Savoy until the death of Umberto II in 1983, the last king of Italy.
Folio from a Shahnama of Firdausi, Iran, Shiraz, AH 741–742/1341Folio from a Shahnama of Firdausi, Iran, Shiraz, AH 741–742/1341
“Kay Khusrau Flees from Turan to Iran and Crosses the River Jaihun with Giv and Farangis”
Folio from a Shahnama of Firdausi, Iran, Shiraz, AH 741–742/1341
Opaque watercolor, ink, and gold on paper
A recurrent theme in the Shahnama is familial conflict. The monarch Kay Khusrau and his wife Farangis hold a council of war with the paladin Giv and his military officers. The verses immediately preceding and next to the first painting come from Giv’s address to Kay Khusrau: “The river will give you passage, / You who has glory and stature and would adorn a throne.” Below, Kay Khusrau bravely breaks the torrent and leads his cavalry across the river.
Nasir al-Din Shah, Iran, Tehran, ca. 1848Nasir al-Din Shah, Iran, Tehran, ca. 1848
Nasir al-Din Shah, Iran, Tehran, ca. 1848
Opaque watercolor and graphite on paper
Nasir al-Din Shah (r. 1848–1896), fourth ruler of the Qajar dynasty, projects a powerful presence. The shah, who acceded to the throne at age seventeen, wears a European-style military uniform. He is flanked by his first prime minister, Amir Kabir, and army representatives. One half of the king’s body is grounded in the physical world, while the other half is in a golden sky, affirming both earthly and divine authority. A keen painter, photographer, and art patron, Nasir al-Din Shah collaborated with court painters to craft his image. This portrait of the young ruler marks the beginning of a prolific, creative period of royal portraiture.
Inkwell, Pakistan, Sindh, eighteenth centuryInkwell, Pakistan, Sindh, eighteenth century
Inkwell, Pakistan, Sindh, eighteenth century
Steel; overlaid with gold (koftgari)
This inkwell is dedicated to Mir Fateh ‘Ali Sarkar-i Khan Talpur (r. 1783–1801/2), chief of the Talpurs, a tribe that conquered and ruled Sindh, in present-day Pakistan, from 1783 until 1843. The slit in the inkwell’s base, which makes it possible for a belt to pass through, suggests its portability and importance as part of courtly attire. The gold overlay, delicate decoration, and dedicatory inscription emphasize the power and prestige of the written word.
The written word is a dominant feature in all forms of Islamic art. The primary role of calligraphy is to transmit the word of God, and a range of calligraphic scripts was developed to achieve this goal, enhancing the aesthetic form and rhythmic beauty of calligraphy, or “beautiful writing.” The predominant style of literary calligraphy in Iran is nastaʿliq, which was created in the fourteenth century as a distinctive Persian script.
Watch contemporary calligrapher Mohamed Zakariya use traditional calligraphic tools and techniques in the film Traces of the Calligrapher, developed by David J. Roxburgh and produced by Gail MacFarquhar and Silk Road TV for the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston.
Traces of the Calligrapher
Traces of the Calligrapher
Developed by David J. Roxburgh
Produced by Gail MacFarquhar and Silk Road TV
Bestowing Beauty: Masterpieces from Persian Lands is organized by the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston.
This exhibition is made possible by
Premier Exhibition Series Sponsor
Exhibition Series Sponsor
Premier Exhibition Series Supporters
The Antinori Foundation
Sarah and Jim Kennedy
Benefactor Exhibition Series Supporters
Anne Cox Chambers Foundation
Robin and Hilton Howell
Ambassador Exhibition Supporter
Louise Sams and Jerome Grilhot
Contributing Exhibition Series Supporters
Farideh and Al Azadi
The Ron and Lisa Brill Family Charitable Trust
Lucinda W. Bunnen
Marcia and John Donnell
W. Daniel Ebersole and Sarah Eby-Ebersole
Karen T. & Jeb L. Hughes, Corporate Environments
Mr. and Mrs. Baxter Jones
Joel Knox and Joan Marmo
Margot and Danny McCaul
The Fred and Rita Richman Fund
Mrs. Harriet H. Warren
Generous support is also provided by
Alfred and Adele Davis Exhibition Endowment Fund, Anne Cox Chambers Exhibition Fund, Barbara Stewart Exhibition Fund, Dorothy Smith Hopkins Exhibition Endowment Fund, Eleanor McDonald Storza Exhibition Endowment Fund, The Fay and Barrett Howell Exhibition Fund, Forward Arts Foundation Exhibition Endowment Fund, Helen S. Lanier Endowment Fund, Isobel Anne Fraser–Nancy Fraser Parker Exhibition Endowment Fund, John H. and Wilhelmina D. Harland Exhibition Endowment Fund, Katherine Murphy Riley Special Exhibition Endowment Fund, Margaretta Taylor Exhibition Fund, and the RJR Nabisco Exhibition Endowment Fund.