Unknown (likely worked with Ali Ibn Yusuf), Bahram Gur and Azada
Iran, 12th-13th century
Stonepaste; polychrome inglaze and overglaze painted on opaque monochrome glaze (mina’i)
In the center of this bowl is a depiction of the famous Shahnama story of Bahram Gur and his concubine Azada. On a hunting excursion Azada doubts Bahram Gur’s abilities as an archer and challenges him to pin a gazelle’s leg to its ear. After he successfully makes the shot, she criticized him for being cruel, which angers him leading him to trample her to death with his camel. The violence of the scene in the bowl is overlooked at first glances, but then the viewer notices the repeated image of Azada sitting on the camel and being stepped on by the camel. The genius of the superimposing the two defining scenes of the story to create continuous narrative is lost to many modern viewers having grown up with television. The neutrality of the faces gives no direction to how one should emotionally react to the scene. Faces in Persian art are often drawn very similar, round heads with small eyes which each have a thin line coming from the ends to the sides of the face and small mouths which usually lack any emotional expression. The painter depicts two snapshots from a story that many people of the time would know, but probably had never seen visually depicted. The beauty of this piece, however, does not lie in the characters or the story, but in the decorations in which it is framed.
Against a white background, Bahram Gur extends a bow in a downward direction and sits in front of Azada on a camel with a blue cover over its hump. He wears a beige garment filled with brown scrolls. Azada is depicted in two places, sitting behind Bahram Gur on the camel in a green garment and laying on the ground under the camel in a blue garment with dots. To the left of the camel are two gazelle, one white, and the other (with its leg pinned to its head) is also blue with dots like Azada. A small red and blue bird is also depicted. These images are restricted to the center of the bowl with an arabesque border of diamonds with alternating red and green triangles coming off from the sides all connected with blue filling in the spaces to create a smooth circle. The open spaces of the center are taken up by plants consisting of thin, sprawling stems with blue and red dots on either side to represent leaves. Surrounding the center of the bowl is a circular arrangement of people on horses playing polo. The clothing of the horse riders alternates in color and design between green, blue, and brown, along with the color of the horses which alternate, between black, blue, white, and red/brown. The multiple position of the horses and riders, in addition to the rotational position on the bowl creates a sense of motion similar the revolving stories depicted on Greek pottery, or for a more modern example a zoetrope. The border of the bowl is a Kufic inscription in blue lettering with an outline of red. The space between letters is filled with thin scroll work. The very edge of the bowl is a repetitive border of inward facing blue triangles.
The bowl with the Bahram Gur subject can be labeled as being in the Rayy miniature style. The center motif is filled with what Oliver Watson called “dotted-plants”. These were stems with dots along the sides and he said that their appearance can be used to identify Rayy pottery. The band of four-spiked stars encircling the center motif is specific to a collection of Rayy style pieces that Arthur Pope identified. Pope says it is likely that they came from the same workshop or even a school. The artist of this bowl (along with three other bowls that can be attributed) likely worked with Ali Ibn Yusuf who’s signature appears on a bowl with the same band of stars. Pope does note that the sheer superiority of this artist’s work to Ali’s meant he was likely a progenitor or possibly his father. Other than the rare insight that this piece and others give about stylistic choice from a single production site, this piece is representative of the Rayy miniature style. The geometric patterns on textiles are hardly seen in the Rayy monumental style. Each figure stands out against the plain white background, and taken with the use of miniatures, indicates the Rayy style. The very edge is dotted with blue, followed by blocky, even Kufic script creating a border just inside, the uniformity of which is distinctive of the Rayy style. This piece is easy to identify, mostly because all the characteristics of it are generally agreed upon as attributable to the Rayy style.