Empires of Faith: interactions in art and religions of Late Antiquity across Eurasia

The Khosro Cup.
The Khosro Cup. Département des Monnaies, Médailles et antiques, Bibliothèque nationale de France, inv. 379.
(c) Rachel Wood

Carved into a rock crystal medallion, the Sasanian King of Kings (Šāhanšāh) confronts the viewer from his elaborate couch. Around him, circles of garnet and rock crystal decorated with rosettes are set in a gold openwork cup, interspersed with green glass. These inlays encircle the king in three rows, increasing in size with each row as if emanating from the centre.

Identifications of precisely which Šāhanšāh is depicted in the centre of this dish depend upon comparison with the distinctive crowns worn by each king in their coin portraits. This crown differs in detail from all of the Sasanian rulers, likely due in part to the particular demands of the medium. Candidates include Peroz I (459-84), Kavād I (488-531), and Khosro II Parviz (590-628), but the most commonly accepted attribution, first identified in 1842, is as Khosro I Anuširvān (‘of the Immortal Soul’), who reigned from 531 to 579.

The visual impact of the king’s person was of immense importance at the Sasanian court for the display of his power. Direct sight was restricted by a curtain, which, upon its removal, would reveal the king adorned in silks, jewels, gold, and makeup. Later Arabic writers’ descriptions of the king’s appearance refer to him bedecked by those very jewels, emeralds and rubies, evoked by the garnets and glass of this cup.                                                                                                                    

By the time of Khosro I, the king’s crown was so enormous and weighed down by its precious metals and jewels that it was too heavy to be worn, and instead was suspended above his head by a golden chain. According to Tabari, after the sack of Ctesiphon during the Arab conquest in 636, the crown was captured. During the rule of ‘Abd al-Malik (r.685–705), the crown was sent to Jerusalem where it was suspended over the most sacred point, the exposed rock, in the Umayyad caliph’s monumental architectural feat, the Dome of the Rock. Here, it hung alongside the sacred relics of the horns of Abraham’s ram. Thus, Sasanian regalia became integrated into the visual presentation of Islamic sacred space. And not only in Umayyad Jerusalem: Al-Wasiti, in his Fafaa’il al-Bayt al-Muqaddas written c.1020, says that the Abbasids sent the Sasanian crown to reside in the most sacred Islamic site, the Ka’ba at Mecca. The presentation of the crown seems to have been emulated by early Islamic rulers, since a stone chain in a throne room at Khirbat al-Mafjar (an Umayyad palace in Palestine) is said to have held the heavy crown of the caliph over his head.

The Sasanian concept of sacred rulership is reinforced in the presentation of the Mazdean ruler on the Khosro Cup. Life and power emanates outwards, growing, yet in an orderly fashion, from his person. It was perceived that, through their just rule, Sasanian rulers maintained order against the forces of chaos in gētīg (the material world), as a proxy for Ohrmazd (Ahura Mazda) against Ahriman, the evil spirit. Thus the role of the Sasanian king was at the centre of the world order. This idea is echoed in the elaborate contraption erected in Khosro’s throne room in the sanctuary at Takht-e Solimān. This hill-top sanctuary with its sulphuric lake in the Iranian province of West Azerbaijan, was the home of Adur Gušnasp, one of the three most sacred fires in Zoroastrianism, this one dedicated to warriors and kings. In the space where Khosro would greet embassies, there was a mechanism whereby the sound of thunder rumbled and rain would pour, seemingly caused at his whim and emblematic of his celestial power. A similar concept of the ruler at the centre of the celestial arrangement was conveyed by the domed canopy over the king in the throne hall of Khosro I’s grandson and namesake, Khosro II (r.590-628). It is described by the tenth-century writers Ta’alebi and Ferdowsi as bearing a sky of lapis lazuli embellished with jewels and precious metals to represent the celestial bodies. This canopy reportedly rotated so that it could indicate the time and also created the illusion of the heavens rotating around the enthroned king, reminiscent of the static depiction presented by the Khosro Cup.

Under Khosro I’s rule, sponsorship of cultural and political endeavours opened up new avenues of interaction. His reign is regarded as a peak of the Sasanian empire’s prosperity and cultural attainment. Khosro was held up as a wise philosopher king, who sponsored the translation of numerous texts, including Syriac, Greek, and Sanskrit, into Middle Persian, and who gave harbour to the Neo-Platonic philosophers who came to his court from Athens after Justinian closed the Academy in 529, leading to the establishment of the Academy of Gundešāpur. Diplomatic interactions with India increased under his rule, which further opened up the trade routes of the Silk Road. Khosro is esteemed in Zoroastrianism for having suppressed the Mazdakite heresy and commissioned the final period of codification of the Zoroastrian sacred texts, the Avesta.

The Khosro Cup resides in the Cabinet des Médailles of the Bibliothèque nationale de France in Paris. It was acquired as part of the Trésor of Saint-Denis in 1791. How this artefact, one of the most famous remnants of Sasanian craftsmanship, ended up in Paris remains a mystery. One theory is that the cup was part of diplomatic gift exchange between Khosro I and Justinian, or between a later Sasanian emperor and his Roman counterpart, and later was taken from Constantinople after the siege and sack of the city during Fourth Crusade in 1204. Khosro II would also be a convincing candidate as the bestower of this gift, in light of his good relations with Maurice, at whose court he had taken refuge, and whose son Theodosius was sheltered and assisted by Khosro. Gilded silver dishes bearing the image of the king are perhaps the most widely known form of artefacts from the extant Sasanian material record. These were often given to members of the nobility, and the Khosro Cup would have been of this ilk but par excellence. Ibn Zafar (1104-70), in his Sulwān al-mutā, describes among the riches of the Byzantine treasury a crystal drinking bowl decorated with gold, silver, and glass, and bearing the carved portrait of an earlier Sasanian Šāhanšāh, Šāpur II. This description may refer to the Khosro Cup, but equally we cannot discount the possibility of other, now lost, precious artworks of Sasanian manufacture once residing in the Byzantine court.

The story attached to the cup from the Grandes Chroniques de France, a historiographical work begun in 1274 by the monks of Saint-Denis, is that the cup was part of the donation bequeathed by the Carolingian king Charles the Bald upon his death in 877. A popular theory is that the cup reached the Carolingian court during the reign of Charlemagne (r.800-814), as part of the embassy of the Abbasid caliph Harun Al-Rašid (763-809) in 801. While we cannot verify this association, which may be an attempt to attach more historical weight to the object, it is credible that an object such as the Khosro Cup would have held significance in the caliphs’ court for several reasons, apart from the value of its material and any aesthetic appeal. Khosro I’s legacy was felt long after the Sasanian empire fell to the Arab conquest. Indeed, he was idealised and semi-mythologised in later Iranian literature such as Ferdowsi’s Šāhnāmeh and the poetry of Hāfez, which are still central to Iranian culture and national identity. Khosro was renowned as a good king, fully meriting his epithet of dādgar (‘the Just’) and acting as a model for early Islamic rulers, who appropriated the concept of sacral kingship so integral to Sasanian rule. Yazid III (r.744) even claimed he was the ‘son of Kisra’ (Khosro), as well as claiming descent from the Umayyad, Roman, and Avar rulers, in order to position himself as the legitimate and just ruler in contrast to his cousin Walid II (r.743-4).

Those thirteenth-century monks of Saint-Denis called the cup the ‘Tasse de Salomon’, positing it as a relic of the biblical king. Wise figures from the Bible, such as Solomon, David, and Daniel, were invoked regularly as the archetypal representatives of power, embodying successful and wise rule, prosperity, and the enactment of divine will for both Islamic and Christian rulers. The Lothair Crystal in the British Museum, for example, commissioned by another Carolingian king, Lothair II (r.855–869), shows the story of Susanna and the Elders including the judgement by Daniel. Andreas Fischer notes that, as well as demonstrating al-Rašid’s generosity, a relic of Solomon would also have been considered appropriate for the protector of Christians in the Holy Land. He further suggests that the association of the cup with Solomon could well have existed at the Abbasid court, due to Solomon’s role as a prophet in Islam (see, for example, the Islamic-period renaming of the fire temple site in West Azerbaijan as Takht-e Solimān, the throne of Solomon).

Prudence Harper observed parallels in Central Asian monuments and artefacts to features such as the particular cut of the king’s tunic and the profile view of the theriomorphic throne. Such an attribution to the eastern territories of the Sasanian Empire would be credible since Khosro I was responsible for pushing the Hepthalites out of Bactria, regaining territory the Sasanian client Kušānšāhs had lost in the early fifth century. While we may attribute some of the iconographic anomalies to the requirements of the medium, if the Khosro Cup is of Central Asian manufacture then it constitutes an apt encapsulation of the transmission of objects and iconography through Late Antiquity, connecting via its possible biography Sasanian Bactria to the Carolingian Franks.

Such cross-cultural resonances for objects and iconography is a core research question of the five-year research project commissioned by the Leverhulme Trust in 2012 to investigate the formation of distinct religious iconographies during the period of Late Antiquity, c.200-800, across Eurasia. This project, entitled Empires of Faith, is run by the British Museum in collaboration with Oxford University. There are ten doctoral and postdoctoral researchers under the leadership of Prof Jaś Elsner, and their research interests include (but are not limited to) diverse topics ranging from sacred iconography on Anglo-Saxon and Merovingian arms and armour, to the coinage of Sind, mystery cults in the Roman Empire, and the figurative art of the first Islamic Empire. The project takes a broad perspective in order to investigate the interactions and connections between these regions, and to develop a comparative art history of religions during Late Antiquity. It almost goes without saying that we cannot view empires as unitary and representative of only one religion. The interactions of religious communities were within political entities as well as between them. A thriving Christian community developed in the Sasanian Empire, for example, focused at Ctesiphon. We can, however, discuss the impetus of imperial actions on the transmission of the religious iconography, and the role of objects in religious, cultural, and political interactions as products and stimuli.

These issues will be explored in an exhibition curated by the project in the Ashmolean Museum from October 2017 to January 2018, entitled Encounters: art and the rise of the world religions, on the religious art of Buddhism, Christianity, Hinduism, Islam, and Judaism in the first millennium. The exhibition argues that the creative impetus for both the inception and much of the distinctiveness of the visual repertoire of religions emerged through cultural, political, and religious encounter. We can see how the image of Christ and Jewish art emerged from the ‘marketplace’ of religious imagery current in the Roman Empire. Further east, we discuss how the anthropomorphic representation of the Buddha was conceived contemporaneously at Gandhara, a region of cultural encounter, and Mathura, a place of religious encounter; and how Vaishnavism incorporated other deities (of which the Buddha was one) as avatars of Vishnu, as a means of response and assimilation. Closer to home, Christian and pagan interactions on the British Isles gave impetus to the adaptation of Christian iconography to the local artistic forms. The development of decorative forms for sacred texts in Islamic art is an aspect paralleled in the Insular art of the British Isles. The section of the exhibition on early Islamic art also explores the encounters with the visual repertoires of regions under Islamic rule, from the western Mediterranean to India. Part of this is the legacy of the Zoroastrian Sasanian rulers, as represented in the Khosro Cup.

As part of the section on Islam’s encounter with the art of Iran and Central Asia, we would of course want to include the Khosro Cup in our exhibition since it embodies perfectly the world of continuities and cross-religious transmissions the Empires of Faith is investigating. Unfortunately, the cup is part of the grand réserve, as one of their most treasured artefacts, and cannot leave France. The curators at the Cabinet des Médailles have, however, very generously offered the opportunity to commission a 3D print of the cup. Using the very latest technology, it is now possible to scan an object with reflective and transparent surfaces such as this, and to print an exact replica. We are looking for sponsors who would be willing to fund this unique opportunity which would publicize this stunning remnant of Iranian and Zoroastrian heritage to a wider audience, setting it with regard to its likely earlier contexts rather than as currently displayed in its later role in the Trésor de Saint-Denis. Beyond the exhibition’s duration, such a replica would be an invaluable research tool in itself, and demonstrates modern techniques for the casting of ancient artefacts. 


-Rachel Wood

British Museum & Wolfson College

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