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Work Bottle decorated with figures of female dancers

Department of Near Eastern Antiquities: The Middle East after Alexander's Conquest

Bottle decorated with figures of female dancers

© 2008 RMN / Franck Raux

Near Eastern Antiquities
The Middle East after Alexander's Conquest

Author(s):
Caubet Annie, Prévotat Arnaud

This gilded silver bottle decorated with elegant female dancers is typical of Sassanid metalwork. It hints at the sumptuous luxury of royal and religious feasts during the Sassanid era. Sassanid art was heavily influenced by the traditions of antique Greece, Rome, and Iran. In turn, it was an important influence on the art of medieval Europe. Sassanid fabrics and silks in particular were widely copied.

Figures of young female dancers

The bottle has a rounded, egg-shaed body decorated with a ring of beads round the neck and gilding on the body. The neck, the foot, and the motifs in relief are not gilded. The body is decorated with four female figures who dance in procession, one foot lifted and arms spread wide. They are holding branches of foliage or birds. The women are wearing a close-fitting, transparent tunic which covers their arms but hugs their bodies. They wear a pleated cloak draped over their elbows, its horizontal folds partially hiding their legs. The wind playing with the hem of the cloak gives a lively impression of movement. The dancers are slender of torso but have generously rounded hips. They are holding their heads to one side, which adds to their charm. Are they professional dancers at a royal celebration, like the sensual female musicians in the Bishapur mosaics? Or was the celebration of the exuberance of nature intended as a form of worship of the goddess Anahita?

A taste for costly tableware

Such bottles are typical of Sassanid metalwork. Other known examples include numerous platters decorated with scenes of royal hunts or battles, as well as ewers and gadrooned dishes. These precious pieces of tableware were doubtless used to serve guests at celebratory and religious feasts. Their iconography is either royal or religious in nature. Sassanid art remained remarkably constant in style from the 3rd to the 6th century AD and across a vast area - pieces similar to this have been found in Iran, Central Asia, and Anatolia. The Sassanids were not alone in their taste for costly tableware. Antique records yield a number of other examples, including the inventory of the possessions of King Zimri-Lim of Mari in Syria in the 18th century BC, an account of the Assyrian king Sargon II's pillaging of the city of Musasir in the 8th century BC, and the depictions of servants carrying such objects on reliefs in Assyria and Persepolis.

From the Orient to Europe

Sassanid artists produced mosaics, stucco work, precious fabrics, stamps, and costly tableware, inspired by the Greek and Roman traditions, as well as the art of antique Iran. In this case, the detail of the cloak curving in a graceful arch is borrowed from the nymphs typical of Eastern Roman art, while the generous curves of the dancers and the birds are more typically Oriental. At the same time, a few details look forward to the art of medieval Europe. The wind puffing out the garments of the dancers foreshadows the Roman tympanums of Autun cathedral or the basilica of Vézelay, just as the heavily armored knights on horseback fighting with lances which figure in the cave reliefs of Bishapur and Taq-i-Bustan prefigure the warlike images of feudal Europe. Many of these stylistic features reached Europe in the form of motifs on the embroidered fabrics and silks, used to protect religious relics sent back from the Orient to the churches of Europe. It is moving to think that Europe was familiar with the classical heritage thanks to such objects from Persia, well before the rise of Islam and the Crusades.

Technical description

  • Bottle decorated with figures of female dancers

    Sassanid era, c. 5th-6th century AD

    Reshy, Dailaman province, Iran?

  • Gilded silver

    H: 18 cm; L: 11 cm

  • Purchased 1965

    MAO 426

  • Near Eastern Antiquities

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

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