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"Feast Your Eyes" on Ancient Iranian Luxury Metalwork at the Freer and Sackler Galleries

Source: Smithsonian’s Freer and Sackler Galleries, Washington, DC


Spouted vessel with lynx protome
1st century B.C.E.-1st century C.E.
Parthian period
Silver and gilt
H: 23.5 W: 12.4 D: 30.4 cm
Gift of Arthur M. Sackler S1987.131

Drinking vessels with a tall horn joined to the protome (forepart) of a lynx, panther, or lion, are sometimes depicted in Hellenistic and Roman art. They are usually identified as objects used in celebrating the cult of Dionysos, the Greek god of wine and ecstatic experience, which spread over a wide area of the eastern Mediterranean and southwest Asia.

“Feast Your Eyes: A Taste for Luxury in Ancient Iran,” on view at the Smithsonian’s Freer and Sackler Galleries beginning Feb. 4, explores the beauty, role and function of luxury metalwork in ancient Iran. The exhibition features more than 40 works fashioned in silver and gold between the founding of the Achaemenid Empire ca. 550 B.C.E. and the beginning of the Islamic period in the seventh century.

“Together the Freer and Sackler house one of the world’s most remarkable collections, which offers invaluable insight into the lives of the powerful of the period,” said Julian Raby, the Dame Jillian Sackler Director of the Arthur M. Sackler Gallery and the Freer Gallery of Art.

The exhibition coincides with the 25th anniversary of the founding of the Arthur M. Sackler Gallery, and a large number of the objects were part of Sackler’s original gift. These are juxtaposed with works from the Freer Gallery of Art, the Sackler’s sister museum, one of the first institutions in the U.S. to collect ancient Iranian metalwork.

Installed in the connecting gallery between the two museums, the exhibition will highlight how rulers expressed the political power and material wealth of their empires through portable luxury objects.

The vessels on display include finely hammered bowls, cups, plates, ewers and bottles. Many of the objects were intended for elaborate, multicourse banquets, for which the Iranians were known throughout the ancient world. Others were used for more solemn religious ceremonies.

Among the most celebrated works is a silver-gilt royal hunting plate with the portrait of Shapur II (309-379 C.E.), a Sasanian ruler recognizable by his distinctive crown. Fashioned out of 19 separate components, the plate is also one of the earliest Sasanian examples to depict a king hunting-one of the most enduring royal images from the ancient Near East.

Vessels depicting rulers or royal hunting scenes, an activity long associated with kingship in the ancient Near East, had yet another function: they were used primarily as diplomatic gifts and sent as symbols of imperial authority to far-flung corners of the Iranian Empire and along the Silk Road as far as China, to strengthen diplomatic and commercial relations. Military conflict between Iran and its western neighbors, first with Alexander of Macedonia, which brought the Achaemenid Empire to a close in 331 B.C., and later with the Romans, who vied for territorial and economic control, introduced new techniques and motifs into Iranian metalwork. For example, the figure of Dionysus, the Roman God of wine, together with his female companions, appears on several vessels.

Another rare and remarkable object from the Sasanian period is a wine horn, terminating in the head of a gazelle with a small spout, used for pouring out wine. Horn-shaped drinking cups of this type were continuously popular for at least a millennium.

Spouted vessel with gazelle protome

4th century
Sasanian period
Silver and gilt
H: 15.5 W: 25.4 D: 14.1 cm
Iran or Afghanistan
Gift of Arthur M. Sackler S1987.33

Vessels made entirely or in part in the shape of an animal, in both metal and ceramic versions, have a long history in ancient Iran. Only a few examples of this vessel type, however, have surfaced among artifacts of the Sasanian period (ca. 224-651). Chiefly influenced by Roman and Byzantine prototypes and to some extent by Central Asian styles, Sasanian silver plate seldom drew on traditional Iranian vessel forms. Horned animals, such as the ram and this gazelle, appear as quarry on some of the Sasanian silver and gilt plates depicting a royal hunt. With its animal-shaped protome (forepart) joined to a compact horn and furnished with a spout through the animal's mouth, this is an extremely rare example dating from the Sasanian period. This type of vessel embodies an important image and concept: a special liquid, probably wine, was contained in and dispensed from the mouth of an animal that itself held powerful, royal connotations.

The art of ancient Iran had a lasting impact on the region long after the arrival of Islam in the seventh century. Several objects in the exhibition, including a magnificent gold jug, will highlight the continued use and reinterpretation of ancient Iranian motifs in the Islamic period.

“Feast Your Eyes: A Taste for Luxury in Ancient Iran” will be accompanied by an “Explore and Learn” feature on the Freer and Sackler’s website, which offers an in-depth look at the artistic, technical and historical aspects of the Freer’s celebrated hunting plate.

The Arthur M. Sackler Gallery, located at 1050 Independence Avenue S.W., and the adjacent Freer Gallery of Art, located at 12th Street and Independence Avenue S.W., are on the National Mall in Washington, D.C. Hours are 10 a.m. to 5:30 p.m. every day, except Dec. 25, and admission is free. The galleries are located near the Smithsonian Metrorail station on the Blue and Orange lines.

For more information about the Freer and Sackler Galleries and their exhibitions, programs and other events, the public may visit For information about special programs for the Sackler’s 25th anniversary year, visit For general Smithsonian information, the public may call (202) 633-1000 or TTY (202) 633-5285.

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