Of the wealth and splendor of the Shapurs, the Kavadhs, and the Khosrus nothing survives but the ruins of Sasanian art; enough, however, to heighten our wonder at the persistence and adaptability of Persian art from Darius the Great and Persepolis to Shah Abbas the Great and Isfahan.
Extant Sasanian architecture is entirely secular; the fire temples have disappeared, and only royal palaces remain; and these are “gigantic skeletons,”49 with their ornamental stucco facing long since fallen away. The oldest of these ruins is the so-called palace of Ardashir I at Firuzabad, southeast of Shiraz. No one knows its date; guesses range from 340 B.C to A.D. 460. After fifteen centuries of heat and cold, theft and war, the enormous dome still covers a hall one hundred feet high and fifty-five wide. A portal arch eighty-nine feet high and forty-two wide divided a façade 170 feet long; this façade crumbled in our time. From the rectangular central hall squinch arches led up to a circular dome.* By an unusual and interesting arrangement, the pressure of the dome was borne by a double hollow wall, whose inner and outer frames were spanned by a barrel vault; and to this reinforcement of inner by outer wall were added external buttresses of attached pilasters of heavy stones. Here was an architecture quite different from the classic columnar style of Persepolis—crude and clumsy, but using forms that would come to perfection in the St. Sophia of Justinian.
Not far away, at Sarvistan, stands a similar ruin of like uncertain date: a façade of three arches, a great central hall and side rooms, covered by ovoid domes, barrel vaults, and semicupolas serving as buttresses; from these half domes, by removing all but their sustaining framework, the “flying” or skeletal buttress of Gothic architecture may have evolved.51 Northwest of Susa another ruined palace, the Ivan-i-Kharka, shows the oldest known example of the transverse vault, formed with diagonal ribs.52 But the most impressive of Sasanian relics—which frightened the conquering Arabs by its mass—was the royal palace of Ctesiphon, named by the Arabs Taq-i-Kisra, or Arch of Khosru (I). It may be the building described by a Greek historian of A.D. 638, who tells how Justinian “provided Greek marble for Chosroes, and skilled artisans who built for him a palace in the Roman style, not far from Ctesiphon.”53 The north wing collapsed in 1888; the dome is gone; three immense walls rise to a height of one hundred and five feet, with a façade horizontally divided into five tiers of blind arcades. A lofty central arch—the highest (eighty-five feet) and widest (seventy-two feet) elliptical arch known—opened upon a hall one hundred and fifteen by seventy-five feet; the Sasanian kings relished room. These ruined façades imitate the less elegant of Roman front elevations, like the Theater of Marcellus; they are more impressive than beautiful; but we cannot judge past beauty by present ruins.
The most attractive of Sasanian remains are not the gutted palaces of crumbling sun-baked brick, but rock reliefs carved into Persia’s mountainsides. These gigantic figures are lineal descendants of the Achaemenid cliff reliefs, and are in some cases juxtaposed with them, as if to emphasize the continuity of Persian power, and the equality of Sasanian with Achaemenid kings. The oldest of the Sasanian sculptures shows Ardashir trampling upon a fallen foe—presumably the last of the Arsacids. Finer are those at Naqsh-i-Rustam, near Persepolis, celebrating Ardashir, Shapur I, and Bahram II; the kings are drawn as dominating figures, but, like most kings and men, they find it hard to rival the grace and symmetry of the animals. Similar reliefs at Naqsh-i-Redjeb and at Shapur present powerful stone portraits of Shapur I and Bahram I and II. At Taq-i-Bustan—“Arch of the Garden”—near Kermanshah, two column-supported arches are deeply cut into the cliff; reliefs on the inner and outer faces of the arches show Shapur II and Khosru Parvez at the hunt; the stone comes alive with fat elephants and wild pigs; the foliage is carefully done, and the capitals of the columns are handsomely carved. There is in these sculptures no Greek grace of movement or smoothness of line, no keen individualization, no sense of perspective, and little modeling; but in dignity and majesty, in masculine vitality and power, they bear comparison with most of the arch reliefs of imperial Rome.
Apparently these carvings were colored; so were many features of the palaces; but only traces of such painting remain. The literature, however, makes it clear that the art of painting flourished in Sasanian times; the prophet Mani is reported to have founded a school of painting; Firdausi speaks of Persian magnates adorning their mansions with pictures of Iranian heroes;54 and the poet al-Buhturi (d. 897) describes the murals in the palace at Ctesiphon.55 When a Sasanian king died, the best painter of the time was called upon to make a portrait of him for a collection kept in the royal treasury.56
Painting, sculpture, pottery, and other forms of decoration shared their designs with Sasanian textile art. Silks, embroideries, brocades, damasks, tapestries, chair covers, canopies, tents, and rugs were woven with servile patience and masterly skill, and were dyed in warm tints of yellow, blue, and green. Every Persian but the peasant and the priest aspired to dress above his class; presents often took the form of sumptuous garments; and great colorful carpets had been an appanage of wealth in the East since Assyrian days. The two dozen Sasanian textiles that escaped the teeth of time are the most highly valued fabrics in existence.57 Even in their own day Sasanian textiles were admired and imitated from Egypt to Japan; and during the Crusades these pagan products were favored for clothing the relics of Christian saints. When Heraclius captured the palace of Khosru Parvez at Dastagird, delicate embroideries and an immense rug were among his most precious spoils.58 Famous was the “winter carpet” of Khosru Anushirvan, designed to make him forget winter in its spring and summer scenes: flowers and fruits made of inwoven rubies and diamonds grew, in this carpet, beside walks of silver and brooks of pearls traced on a ground of gold.59 Harun al-Rashid prided himself on a spacious Sasanian rug thickly studded with jewelry.60 Persians wrote love poems about their rugs.61
Of Sasanian pottery little remains except pieces of utilitarian intent. Yet the ceramic art was highly developed in Achaemenid times, and must have had some continuance under the Sasanians to reach such perfection in Mohammedan Iran. Ernest Fenellosa thought that Persia might be the center from which the art of enamel spread even to the Far East;62 and art historians debate whether Sasanian Persia or Syria or Byzantium originated lusterware and cloisonné.*63 Sasanian metalworkers made ewers, jugs, bowls, and cups as if for a giant race; turned them on lathes; incised them with graver or chisel, or hammered out a design in repoussé from the obverse side; and used gay animal forms, ranging from cock to lion, as handles and spouts. The famous glass “Cup of Khosru” in the Bibliothèque Nationale at Paris has medallions of crystal glass inserted into a network of beaten gold; tradition reckons this among the gifts sent by Harun to Charlemagne. The Goths may have learned this art of inlay from Persia, and may have brought it to the West.64
The silversmiths made costly plate, and helped the goldsmiths to adorn lords, ladies, and commoners with jewelry. Several Sasanian silver dishes survive—in the British Museum, the Leningrad Hermitage, the Bibliothéque Nationale, and the Metropolitan Museum of Art; always with kings or nobles at the hunt, and animals more fondly and successfully drawn than men. Sasanian coins sometimes rivaled Rome’s in beauty, as in the issues of Shapur I.65 Even Sasanian books could be works of art; tradition tells how gold and silver trickled from the bindings when Mani’s books were publicly burned.66 Precious materials were also used in Sasanian furniture: Khosru I had a gold table inlaid with costly stones; and Khosru II sent to his savior, the Emperor Maurice, an amber table five feet in diameter, supported on golden feet and encrusted with gems.67
All in all, Sasanian art reveals a laborious recovery after four centuries of Parthian decline. If we may diffidently judge from its remains, it does not equal the Achaemenid in nobility or grandeur, nor the Islamic Persian in inventiveness, delicacy, and taste; but it preserved much of the old virility in its reliefs, and fore-shadowed something of the later exuberance in its decorative themes. It welcomed new ideas and styles, and Khosru I had the good sense to import Greek artists and engineers while defeating Greek generals. Repaying its debt, Sasanian art exported its forms and motives eastward into India, Turkestan, and China, westward into Syria, Asia Minor, Constantinople, the Balkans, Egypt, and Spain. Probably its influence helped to change the emphasis in Greek art from classic representation to Byzantine ornament, and in Latin Christian art from wooden ceilings to brick or stone vaults and domes and buttressed walls. The great portals and cupolas of Sasanian architecture passed down into Moslem mosques and Mogul palaces and shrines. Nothing is lost in history: sooner or later every creative idea finds opportunity and development, and adds its color to the flame of life.