Ladies of the East: Representation of Women on Sasanian Ewers

Fig. 1: Torso of an Indian goddess in dancing position; India, 1st–4th century; S2013.2.378.

The Sasanians (224 CE–650CE) established an empire that expanded from Iran, Iraq, and the Caucasus and into parts of the Indian subcontinent. Various types of luxurious vessels were produced within their vast territories.

Decorated ewer showing the side with a woman with a dupatta
Fig. 2: Ewer; Iran, Sasanian period, 6th–7th century; Silver and gilt; S1987.117.

Many Sasanian silver vessels are decorated with female figures, often in groups, dancing and standing on a ledge or underneath an arch. These women are either dressed in a diaphanous garment or appear naked, barefooted, and adorned with anklets, necklaces, bracelets, and sometimes armbands.

Their voluptuous bodies are curvaceous, with large hips and a narrow waist. Since nudity was not part of the Persian tradition, scholars have associated these images with Dionysian imagery or the Roman personification of the seasons. 

While some images on Sasanian silver might have a Dionysian connection, little to no visual evidence links Late Roman and Byzantine modes of representing Dionysian drinking and dancing to Sasanian figures on silverware. Indeed, such representations on Sasanian silver are more akin to Central and South Asian counterparts. The immediate connection to and similarities between these female figural images are evident in their body proportion and shape, the positions of their feet, and the sway of their hips in an almost tribhanga pose. These images correspond to the “Indian ideal of beauty” used in artistic styles of India, such as Begram ivories and Sanchi, Mathura, and Andhra arts, in the first to third century CE. They also refer to yakshis, semidivine tree spirits who are shown as beautiful women and are associated with fertility and prosperity in Indian mythology.

Decorated ewer showing a woman wearing a garment
Fig. 3: Ewer; Iran, Sasanian period, 6th–7th century; Silver and gilt; S1987.117.

In the multicultural milieu of Late Antiquity, where religious, cultural, and political boundaries were fluid and porous, this visual program imprinted itself onto larger cultural, temporal, and geographic areas. The similarity in the visual program of Sasanian art to Central and South Asian art bespeaks a firmly rooted iconographic tradition found in various large and portable objects.

Fig. 4: Attendant to a diety (Camara dharini), fly whisk bearer; India, Tamil Nadu, Madurai, 8th–9th century; Granite; S1987.955.

A small bronze female figure excavated at Khor Rori in Oman illustrates the vast geographical extent of this visual exchange (fig. 1). Similarly, a Sasanian ewer in the Sackler collection depicts a woman with a dupatta, a long thin scarf that hangs down to her ankle and is wrapped around her arms (fig. 2). Another figure on the same ewer wears a garment that accentuates her large breasts (fig. 3). The flying whisks in her hand recall the image of the yakshi holding the same type of object (fig. 4). In other scenes birds, rattles, and jars bring to mind luris, gypsy women and men from India that Bahram V Gor brought to Iran to play music and dance for his entertainment. The visible incorporation of “Indian” elements into Sasanian artistic and iconographic motifs indicates a complex exchange of cultural and artistic ideas.

Layah Ziaii-Bigdeli

University of California, Irvine

 

Layah was an intern at the Freer and Sackler in the Curatorial Department during summer 2019.

 

 

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