February 18, 2010

At the Met: Animals from Ancient Iran

Vessel terminating in the head of an Antelope, 7th century BCE, glazed ceramic, northwestern Iran

When I was in NYC in December, I took my camera to the Metropolitan Museum for the first time to photograph some of my favorite collections; see the posts on the Greek and Roman Study Collection, Chinese Porcelain, and Egyptian art. It was intensely pleasurable to form a deeper relationship with objects by photographing them; the close attention necessary to make a good photograph helped me to see each work more clearly; writing then aided in thinking about the art. Because of this I now carry my camera into the city and will try to gather images whenever I can.

Sometimes I walk through the galleries of ancient Near Eastern art on entering the museum; I was very taken, last weekend, with the sculpted forms of animals, refined and sensitive, on ancient Iranian vessels. I believe I was especially open to seeing the beauty of these pieces because I'd just read The Cave Painters by Gregory Curtis, recommended by fellow blogger Julia Moore. The work of the prehistoric painters, especially in the earliest known, Chauvet cave, is sophisticated in its understanding of animal form and movement, and is very beautiful. It is stunning to think that the paintings were made over 30,000 years ago.

Vessel with a handle in the form of a Ram, 8th-7th century BCE, Iran, ceramic and paint

The Iranian sculpture shows the same love and attention to each animal, described with subtle grace, that we see in cave paintings, or in ancient Egyptian art. In the three vessels, the bodies of the animals are inventively integrated with the large cup shapes. I also wanted to show these works because, these days, we too often hear about bad news coming out of Iran; it is good to be reminded that Persian culture is a rich and ancient one.

Rhyton terminating in the forepart of a Ram, mid-5th century BCE, silver, Iran

This vessel, which has a pouring hole at the front, is made of carefully worked precious silver. Although there are decorative elements on the ram––his horns, a bridle, a round shape on the shoulders––the feeling I come away with is of a wonderfully present, real creature, full of breath and life.


  1. Thanks so much for providing all these rich images to accompany my morning coffee, -- a healthier pairing and an antidote to the daily news.

  2. Beautiful museum photos. Framing, composition, color all so complimentary to the ancient forms.

  3. I'm glad you both enjoyed seeing these images; I loved getting to know the works better.

  4. As an Iranian, I am very thankful for reminding us such a great art history of iran, as well as caring about our culture and society.