This stucco relief, from the first century of Islam in Iran, offers a striking instance in how a royal image from the preceding Sasanian empire continued to hold power and prestige long after its propagators had fallen. The molded plaque depicts a king on horseback with his spear in hand, ready to strike at his quarry. The king’s crown notably displays the emblems of the Sasanian dynasty, which include a standing crescent and globe between symmetrical wings. This plaque likely came from the palatial citadel known as Chal Tarkhan-Ishqabad, located southeast of Rayy in northwestern Iran. There, multiple matching wall plaques were found in the main palace, which indicate that the king’s prey is a wild boar. Such royal Sasanian imagery enjoyed a significant afterlife in material culture under the Umayyad dynasty (661-750), and was revived again in early nineteenth-century Iran to support a new age of leaders who bolstered their legitimacy by claiming the dynastic imagery of their predecessors.
Though Chal Tarkhan-Ishqabad was likely established in late Sasanian times, the majority of its impressive stucco work is believed to have originated under Umayyad rule of the area. Buildings from this later period hosted an array of extensive stucco sculpture painted in a polychrome palette. The site’s repertoire spanned small figural relief plaques, like the one here, as well as oversized human and animal reliefs, statues, and vegetal ornament. Identical reliefs to this plaque, possibly from the same mold, offer more complete versions of the work’s composition, which reveal that the king's quarry was a wild boar. This plaque marks just one example of how early Islamic rulers asserted their own sovereignty in a newly conquered area through recognizable markers of royalty, appropriated from the Sasanians.
Related efforts spanned a range of media produced for Umayyad elite. For instance, many of the earliest Islamic coins struck under the Umayyad caliphs and their governors feature the bust of a Sasanian ruler donning similar regalia to those in this relief, including the winged crescent crown (see M.2002.1.450). They are only distinguishable as Islamic by Arabic phrases indicating the new regime and mints. Sasanian-style reliefs based on designs akin to this plaque also found new audiences during the Qajar dynasty (1789 to 1925). Fath ‘Ali Shah (r. 1797 - 1834) commissioned numerous monumental rock reliefs in an aesthetic that revived Sasanian and Achaemenid traditions. One near Rayy, created circa 1820-30 by sculptor ‘Abdullah Khan, mirrors the theme of the medieval relief here. The later sculpture depicts Fath ‘Ali Shah as a crowned Sasanian king on horseback, spearing a lion. This sculpture may have drawn on the design here, or other incarnations of the same theme in Persian Shahnama manuscripts, such as Bizhan spearing wild boars on horseback. Though the sculptor updated the crown to fit Qajar fashions, the rest of the composition closely recreates known Sasanian antecedents. This relief and its contemporaries wielded the imagery of their Sasanian predecessors as a conduit for Qajar dynastic aspirations, which rulers placed in strategic public locations.
- Thompson, Deborah. Stucco from Chal Tarkhan-Eshqabad near Rayy. Warminster: Aris & Phillips, 1976.
- Ancient Bronzes, Ceramics, and Seals: The Nasli M. Heeramaneck Collection of Ancient Near Eastern, Central Asiatic, and European Art. Los Angeles: Los Angeles County Museum of Art, 1981.
- Komaroff, Linda. Islamic Art at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art. Los Angeles: Museum Associates, 2005.