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Bas-relief

© 1997 RMN / Hervé Lewandowski

Near Eastern Antiquities
The Middle East after Alexander's Conquest

Author(s):
Benoît Nicolas

In the Parthian period, sovereigns placed statues in their likeness in temples as a sign of their piety. This bas-relief from the Iranian site Masjid-e Suleiman shows a Parthian king from the 2nd or 3rd century AD performing a ritual. This work was an offering to the god Heracles-Verethragna, protector of the royal dynasties, placed in the temple in which it was discovered.

A scene of offering

A major religious center active from the 8th century BC to the 5th century AD was found at the Masjid-e Suleiman site in southwest Iran. Excavations led by Roman Ghirshman yielded valuable documents relating to the Parthian culture, such as this bas-relief found in Chamber 13 of the temple of Heracles-Verethragna. The relief depicts a standing man seen from the front. His curly hair is divided into three parts, the top one of which is missing. He has a mustache and a pointed beard. His tunic with fitted sleeves is belted at the waist, falling into three rounded panels over a long undergarment covering baggy pants with round concentric folds. A long cape is tied at his chest. In his left hand he holds a cornucopia tightly to his breast. In a gesture of offering, his right arm is extended toward an "altar of fire," or pyre, made up of seven ovoid mounds.

A royal portrait

A frontal pose and flat relief are characteristic of Parthian sculpture. The body is sturdily built and always treated in a conventional manner. The individualization of the subject, deriving from the Hellenistic portrait tradition, is expressed in the face and above all in the highly elaborate hairstyle. Parthian portraits were made only for a privileged section of society and were relatively rare. The figure portrayed here wears a "tripartite" hairstyle characteristic of the royal families, and the pyre over which he officiates is also an exclusively royal attribute. It is therefore probably a portrait of a king or a prince, dating from the 2nd or 3rd century AD.

Heracles and Parthian royalty

The development of Parthian portraits appears to have been related to the building of temples. These images were used as offerings to the god and were assertions of the piety and faith of the dedicators. It is significant that many royal portraits have been found at the temple of Heracles. In the Parthian period, the Greek god/hero Heracles was equated with Verethragna, an Iranian divinity with similar attributes. Both were warrior gods, symbols of power and victory, as well as being patrons of royal dynasties. The temple of the god Heracles-Verethragna was therefore the favored receptacle for royal portraits.
The figure portrayed here holds a cornucopia, created, according to Greek mythology, by Heracles. This image features on several portraits of Parthian princes dedicated to Heracles-Verethragna. On a bas-relief found at Tang-i Sarvak, a cornucopia is shown in the hands of a dynastic ancestor, symbolizing the prosperity of his past reign. The horn depicted here may therefore refer to ancestors of the past, as an offering to Heracles-Verethragna, who himself personifies generations of sovereigns past and present.

Bibliography

Ghirshman Roman, "Masjid-i Solaiman ou mosquée de Salomon, campagne de fouilles dans les montagnes des Bakhtiari (Iran) au printemps 1967", in Comptes rendus de l'Académie des inscriptions et belles-lettres, janvier-mars 1968, Paris, Librairie C. Klincksieck, 1968, pp. 8-15, fig. 2.
Ghirshman Roman, "Les Scènes d'investiture royales dans l'art rupestre des Sassanides et leur origine", in Syria, t. LII, Paris, Geuthner, 1975, pp. 119-129, fig. 11.
Ghirshman Roman, Terrasses sacrées de Bard-è Néchandeh et Masjid-i Solaiman : l'Iran du Sud-Ouest du VIIIe s. av. n. ère au Ve s. de n. ère, Paris, E. J. Brill, coll. "Mémoires de la Délégation archéologique en Iran", t. XLV : "Mission de Susiane", 1976, pp. 118-133, 230, 241-243, pl. LXXIX, n 2 (= GMIS 35).
Kawami Trudy S., Monumental Art of the Parthian Period in Iran, Leiden, E. J. Brill, coll. "Acta Iranica", troisième série, vol. XIII, 1987, pp. 81-87.

Technical description

  • Bas-relief

    IIe siècle - IIIe siècle après J.-C.

    Masdjid-e Suleiman, temple d'Heraclès

  • Pierre

  • Fouilles R. Ghirshman, 1967

    Sb 7302

  • Near Eastern Antiquities

    Sully wing
    Ground floor
    Mesopotamia, Iran, eastern Mediterranean
    Room 16, temporarily closed to the public

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