This masterpiece of silverwork belonged to King Shapur II. He ruled ancient Iran during the fourth century CE when the Sasanian dynasty was in power. Legend has it that noblemen and priests placed a crown on his mother’s womb and so literally crowned Shapur from birth. He took up the throne at the ripe age of sixteen and became a well known and forceful military leader. He stood up to Rome, persecuted the Christians, and ushered in the height of Persian power.
During Shapur’s reign, the finest objects were made from gold and silver. They depicted scenes of the king hunting gazelles, boars, bulls, and ibex. Hunting was a royal pastime and a metaphor for power and skill. This plate is made up of nineteen separate parts, an accomplishment that illustrates the height of Sasanian craftsmanship. Plates like this one were presented as gifts to other kings and dignitaries or used on special occasions at the palace to assert Shapur’s sovereignty.
This plate was not rediscovered in Iran but in Russia. Its journey from Iran to Russia and then to the United States and the Freer Gallery of Art is as important to its identity as was its role in the Sasanian court. It was discovered on the estate of the wealthy Russian family, the Stroganovs, on the borderlands of Siberia. (And yes, that family is also associated with the dish Beef Stroganoff.) The plate was displayed in their palace in Saint Petersburg until the Russian Revolution of 1917. In 1934 it became one of the first works of Sasanian art to enter the United States, and it is among the most important ancient Iranian objects in any American museum today.