Muhammad’s Ascent to Heaven (Miraj), 16th century, Persian (modern Iran), Safavid period (1501-1722), opaque watercolor and gold on paper, 9 3/16 x 5 3/8 in., Eugene Fuller Memorial Collection, 47.96. Not currently on view, but accessible online (link below).
A prophet enters an ancient holy place, where he is met by angels. They present him with a gift, a horse with wings who immediately flies the man to a faraway place. Here, the man and winged horse leap into the air, and ascend to heaven itself. The prophet speaks with God. When they come back down to earth, the man dismounts the horse armed with one cornerstone of a faith. Lailat al’Miraj, celebrated this week by Muslims around the world, commemorates this journey, and the prophet Muhammad’s return to earth with the knowledge that God wants Muslims to pray five times daily (Salat).
The story behind the holiday provided inspiration to artists in earlier eras, who often illustrated it as a frontispiece to volumes of the Khamseh, five epics by the Persian poet Nizami. While figures are forbidden from religious settings, illustrating this journey within books of secular sagas proved popular for centuries across the Islamic world.
Contrary to popular belief, Islamic art is bursting with images of humans and animals. The Qur’an, Islam’s holy book, admonishes against the making and adoration of idols, but does not forbid the creation or viewing of images. This tripod, from the 12th century, stands on the legs of three fantastic creatures, possibly lions. Between the main figures, a low relief presents dogs cavorting in gardens. While not used in a religious setting, images of animals such as these have been common in secular Islamic arts since the very advent of Islam in the seventh century.
Tripod stand with fantastic creatures, 12th century, Persian (modern Iran), bronze, 7 x 6 ¾ in. overall, Eugene Fuller Memorial Collection, 52.61. Currently on view in the Ancient Mediterranean and Islamic art galleries, fourth floor, SAM downtown.
In this scene, King Bahram Gur has won the hand of seven beautiful princesses from seven distinct lands. They each entertain the great king on successive days, ensconced in different pavilions, dressed in different colors, all with different lessons for the king. Depicted here, after spending a day with each of his other six consorts, Bahram Gur visits Diroste, the daughter of a Persian king and mistress of the White Pavilion on Friday, the final day of the week. Teaching the king perhaps his most important lessons, Diroste tells of the attraction of passion, and the redemption of virtue.
The 12th-century poet Nizami is famous for setting down in writing the great folk histories of Persia. This scene is drawn from the Haft Paykar (“Seven Beauties”), one of the sections of Nizami’s Khamsa (“Quintet”). The Haft Paykar records the rise to power of the Sasanian king Bahram Gur, while also serving as a fable of love and morality.
Bahram Gur in the White Pavilion (detail), mid-16th century, Persian (modern Iran), Safavid period (1501–1722), opaque watercolor, ink and gold on paper, 9 3/16 x 5 7/16 in., Eugene Fuller Memorial Collection, 47.16, Photo: Marta Pinto-Llorca. Currently on view in the Ancient Mediterranean and Islamic art galleries, fourth floor, SAM downtown.
Two sparring horsemen, galloping toward one another, are all that remain from what was once an extended frieze. Perhaps formerly on the exterior of a building, this stucco sculpture was hardy enough to brave the elements—the only loss is the once-bright polychrome that would have covered the surface. In his 1945 book Masterpieces of Persian Art, author Arthur Upham Pope introduced readers to the selected 155 works that he considered the greatest achievements of more than 5,000 years of artistic production in today’s Iran. Of just three stucco works he included, this was the only sculpture Pope called “a genuine masterpiece of ornamentation.”
Relief with two fighting horsemen, inscription, and star medallion, 12th–13th century, Persian (modern Iran), stucco, 43 1/8 x 19 3/4 in., Eugene Fuller Memorial Collection, 54.29. On view starting next Wednesday, 7 December, Ancient Mediterranean and Islamic art gallery, fourth floor, SAM downtown.