The long prehistoric period in Iran, is known to us mostly from excavation work carried out in a few key sites, which has led to a chronology of distinct periods, each one characterised by the development of certain types of pottery, artefacts and architecture. Pottery is one of the oldest Persian art forms, and examples have been unearthed from burial mounds (Tappeh), dating back from the 5th millennium BC.
through the Centuries
The "Animal style" which uses decorative animal motifs is very strong in the Persian culture first appearing in pottery, reappearing much later in the Luristan bronzes and again in Scythian art.
During the Achaemenian and Sassanian periods, metal-work continued its ornamental development. Some of the most beautiful examples of metal-ware are gilded silver cups and dishes decorated with royal hunting scenes from the Sassanian Dynasty.
The earliest known distinctive style of Persian painting dates back to the Seljuk period, which is often referred to as the "Baghdad School". Early painting was mainly used to decorate manuscripts and versions of the Holy Koran, though some 13th century pottery found near Tehran indicates an early, unique Persian style of art. During the Mongol period, paintings were used to decorate all sorts of books.
Persian architecture has a very long and complex history, and is often regarded as the field in which Persia made its greatest contribution to the world's culture. Although Persian styles differ sharply from any other Islamic architecture, they have strongly influenced buildings throughout much of the Islamic world, especially in Central Asia, Afghanistan, Pakistan and India.
The art of the Iranian world from its earliest beginnings exhibited a constant and unmistakable characteristic, in spite of the many trends and currents and the abundance of foreign influences.
The following chapters provide a brief insight into the history of Persian Art up to and including the Qajar period:
When the Abbasids made Baghdad their capital (near the former capital of the Sassanian rulers), a vast stream of Persian influences came pouring in. The caliphs accepted the Old Persian culture; a policy also followed at the courts of the relatively independent local principalities (The Samanids, The Buwayhids etc.), which led to a conscious revival of Persian traditions in art and literature.
Wherever possible, the cultural inheritance of Persian art was infused with new life, and customs thoroughly foreign to Islam were retained or newly introduced. Islamic art (paintings, metalwork etc.) was heavily influenced by Sassanian methods and Persian vaulting techniques were adopted in Islamic architecture. Few secular buildings of the early period have survived, but judging from the remains it is probable that they retained many features of the Sassanian palaces, such as the "domed audience chamber" and "the ground plan arranged around a central court".
The main change that this period brought to the development of art was to restrict the depiction of lifelike portraits, or true-life representations of historical events.
"On Resurrection Day, God will consider image-makers as the men most deserving of punishment"
Collection of sayings form the Prophet
As Islam did not tolerate the three dimensional representation of living creatures, Persian craftsmen developed and extended their existing repertory of ornamental forms, which they then rendered in stone or stucco. These provided a common stock on which, artists in other media drew. Many of the motifs can be traced back to the ancient civilizations of the Near East: they include fabulous beasts such as the human-headed sphinx with wings, griffins, phoenixes, wild beasts or birds at grips with their prey, and purely ornamental devices like medallions, grapevines, floral patterns and the rosette.
More tolerant Moslem believers were less stringent to the portrayal of figurative art and in bathing houses, paintings of hunting or love scenes for the entertainment of the patrons seldom aroused objection. However, in religious establishments, only indistinct hints of human or animal forms were tolerated.
The Persians were quick to appreciate the decorative value of the Arabic script and developed every variety of floral and abstract ornament. Persian ornament is usually distinguishable from that of other Islamic countries. The treatment of the arabesque tended to be freer in Persia than elsewhere and usually, though by no means always, retained natural and recognizable plant forms. Palmettes, Frets, Guilloches, Interlacings, and elaborate geometric figures such as the polygonal star also occur.
Calligraphy is the highest art form of the Islamic civilization, and like all forms of art that came into contact with Iran, the Persians enhanced and developed it. Ta'liq, "hanging script" (and its derivative Nasta'liq) was formalised in the 13th century; although it had been in existence for centuries prior to this, and it is claimed to be derived from the old pre-Islamic Sassanian script. The written page was also enriched by the art of the "Illuminator" and in some manuscripts by that of the painter, who added small-scale illustrations.
"In the name of God, the Merciful, the Compassionate". Almost every sura (chapter) in the Koran begins with this phrase, known as the bismillah ('in the name of God') from its opening three words. Here it is executed in some major Koranic hands: (left from top) early Kufic, square Kufic, eastern Kufic, Thuluth; (right from top) Naskhi, Muhaqqaq, Rihani, Ta'liq.
The tenacity of Persia's cultural tradition is such that, in spite of centuries of invasions and foreign rule by Arabs, Turks, Mongols, Afghans, etc., her art reveals a continuous development, while retaining its own identity. During Arab rule, the adherence of the local population to the Shi'ite sect of Islam, (which was opposed to rigid orthodox observance), played an important role in their resistance to Arab ideas. By the time orthodoxy gained a foothold, through conquest by the Seljuks in the 11th century, the Persian element had become so deeply entrenched that it could no longer be uprooted.