Choosing a “fave” object from among the Freer|Sackler’s collection of more than 40,000 priceless artworks is almost impossible. Despite an array of options, I can’t help but be drawn to a small golden ewer currently on view in the exhibition Feast Your Eyes: A Taste for Luxury in Ancient Iran. This ewer, though diminutive, packs a mighty punch. Its body is not smooth hammered metal, but instead is formed by countless ridges and bumps. These extra edges catch and throw light in a multitude of directions. The ewer glimmers under the exhibition lights, and its intricate patterns are enchanting. Arabic script coils around the mouth, while peacocks and interlocking floral designs adorn the body. Not even the bottom of the ewer is plain: Vines and blossoms are charmingly wound in geometric patterns. The head of a lion roars menacingly at the top of the handle. The fact that this delicate object has survived for more than a thousand years makes it all the more impressive.
In addition to the ewer’s craftsmanship and physical beauty, I’m fascinated by its history. While it was being forged, Islam was spreading at an unprecedented rate throughout the Near East. During this period, the Buyid dynasty ruled over the southern and western parts of Iran and Iraq. Despite this meteoric rise in converts, Izz al-Dawla Bakhtiyar ibn Mu’izz al-Dawla was not deterred from commissioning it.
Izz al-Dawla himself led a life of defiance, to his own detriment. He was groomed to be a leader from his early youth and married a daughter of a prominent military official. His father, while on his deathbed, advised his son to treat the Turkic populations with respect, cooperate with his powerful cousin and uncle who ruled areas nearby, and to avoid invading Mosul. Instead of ruling prudently, Izz al-Dawla openly defied his father’s advice, enraged the Turks and his powerful relatives, and plunged his domain into chaos and disarray. He was eventually executed for his misdeeds.
Unlike Izz al-Dawla, his ewer has survived as an emblem of, and perhaps a warning against, vanity and arrogance.