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Persia, thirty centuries of art: Exciting exhibition in the Hermitage Amsterdam

The history of Persia goes back some three thousand years. Indeed, modern Iran is regarded as one of the cradles of civilisation. For three thousand years the land was ruled by various dynasties, indigenous as well as Greek, Arab, Mongol and Turkish. Their traces and their influence can be traced in the rich cultural heritage of this remarkable region. The Hermitage in St Petersburg has an excellent collection of art objects from Persia. It includes many interesting pieces covering the whole of Persian history from antiquity to the end of the Qajar dynasty (1785-1925). From 31 March to 16 September the seventh exhibition at the Hermitage Amsterdam will present nearly 200 works from this rich culture, among them the famous Sassanid silver and the enchanting Persian miniatures. This is the first time that such a wide-ranging overview of Persian art has been seen in the Netherlands.

Fragment of  a  bas-relief with a depiction of a
Persian Warrior. Stone, 5th century BC.
(22,3 x 20,2 cm), Cat. No. 3.

The exhibition begins with the first important dynasty of the old Persian empire the Achaemenids. They, above all, left their mark on the country. With their immense wealth they built roads, canals, splendid palaces and temples adorned with sculptures and bas-reliefs. One example, a fragment of a bas-relief from the rich city of Persepolis (cat. 3), is among the highlights of the exhibition. All this monumental architecture and art served but one aim: the glorification of the dynasty. It was not by chance that the Achaemenids used images borrowed from the once all-powerful Babylonian Kingdom: the bull, the lion and the griffin

Figure of a griffin. Gold, 4th century BC (8,5 x 5,2 cm), Cat.No. 11

At the edges of the Persian Empire nomadic peoples also left traces. This area later became part of the Russian Empire, so the spectacular finds from excavations are now part of the Hermitage's collection. These nomads from the Scythian Empire built monumental burial mounds known as kurgans. Remarkably, the first excavations date from the time of Peter the Great, and indeed these 18th-century finds represent the earliest archaeological collection in Russia. The costly gold objects were kept in the first museum in Russia, the Kunst Kamera. The exhibition includes some of these spectacular finds, such as an extraordinary gold griffin (cat. 11). In the second half of the 4th century BC, the Achaemenids' weakened state was conquered by Alexander the Great. Greek influence is clearly visible in the great cultures of the Parthians and the Sassanids. The Sassanids in particular excelled at making elaborately worked silver objects, often decorated with hunting scenes. In the exhibition there are magnificent dishes from the 3rd century AD.

Tile. Faience, 19th century (24,2 x 32,5 cm), Cat. No 197

Art from the early Middle Ages

With the advent of Islam in Persia, the vocabulary of art changed. The Hermitage Amsterdam displays the finest examples of Persian art from this period. They include highlights from the collection of bronzes, such as the remarkable incense burners in the shape of a cock (cat. 39) from the 11th century. Naturally, there is also earthenware. One of the finest exhibits is the ensemble of 22 frieze tiles from the mausoleum of Pir Husayn dating from the 13th century (cat. 52-73).

Cock-shaped jug. Bronze 11th century
(Height 36 cm), Cat. No. 39.

Persian miniatures

This extraordinary and delicate Persian art has been admired in Europe since the 19th century. The great age of miniature painting was the 15th and 16th centuries. Making these manuscripts was an important art at the court. Countless princes and rulers commissioned miniatures, which were often part of complex book manuscripts. In them we find the fairy-tale world of the Thousand and One Nights: a poetic world in which all is beauty and harmony depicted in splendid types of paint in unusual combinations. In the 15th century the fairy-tale look was replaced by images that were closer to the truth: artworks about individual characters with realistic details, taken straight from everyday life. From the 16th century miniatures on separate sheets became the principal creative field for Persian painters. In total, nearly forty miniatures and book manuscripts may be seen at the exhibition in the Hermitage Amsterdam. Because of their fragility, they will be changed halfway during the exhibition.

Two Lovers. Oil on Canvas, beginning
19th century (131,5 x 77 cm), Cat. No. 178


Art of the 15th to the 18th centuries
Two rooms in the exhibition are devoted to the flowering of Persian art between the 15th and the 18th centuries. Remarkable Iranian ceramic dishes dating from the 15th and 16th centuries are displayed (cat. 130-139). The Hermitage's collection of ceramics from this period is among the finest in the world. The forms and the cobalt decoration under transparent glazing show the influence of Chinese porcelain of the 15th century. The exhibition also includes glass. Glass-blowing became an important branch of the applied arts after the 16th century. In their accounts of their travels in the 17th and 18th centuries Europeans described the many glass workshops in Persia. The centre of production was the city of Shiraz. This is where the unusual Persian scent bottles in the shape of swans came from. Because of their popularity they were also on sale in 19th-century Europe (cat. 176).

The costly and fragile fabrics from Persia are exceptional. In the exhibition there are two striking 16th-century fragments, both showing a prince at a banquet in a blossoming garden (cat. 163 and 164). These pieces, but also the later Persian fabrics, with their delicate depictions of people and birds, are among the finest textiles ever made anywhere. Persian envoys often took these valuable fabrics with them as diplomatic gifts.

Tile of a Frieze (from a set of 24) from the mausoleum
of Pir Husayn. Faience, 1285/1286 AD (35 x 35 cm),
Cat. No. 52-73

The Qajars

The exhibition ends with an impressive survey of the art of the last great Persian dynasty, the Qajars. At the beginning of their rule, at the end of the 18th century, the style of Persian art changed. The reign of Fath Ali Shah was marked by great splendour, luxury and opulence. Inspired by their Achaemenid and Sassanid predecessors, the Shah and his followers grew long beards and wore long, ceremonial robes.

Seal with a Persian defeating a Grecian warrior.
Chalcedony, 4th century BC (2,6 x 2,1 cm), Cat. No. 9.

For more information:

Communication, Education & Marketing
Noepy Testa, Wieke van Veggel

Postbus 11675
1001 GR Amsterdam
T : 020-530 87 55
F : 020-530 87 50
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