Safavid, 16th century CE
Materials and technique
Pierced steel plate with moulded iron adjuncts
Height 81.5 cm; Width 32.5 cm
Although steel, which is an alloy of iron and carbon, is a metal essentially used for the production of weapons and armour, in the Safavid period it was often used as a raw material for etching plates and openwork standards. This standard was made from a pear-shaped sheet of steel ending in two divergent outgrowths alluding to the two tips of the Dhu’l-fiqar sword. The largest openworked area presents a mirror inscription which can thus be read from different angles. The inscription is engraved on a stylised foliated background repeated symmetrically in relation to the central axis. The following text can be read from top to bottom: “Ya Allah, ya Muhammad, ya 'Ali” (“O God, O Muhammad, O Ali”). The two invocations of 'Ali meet on the axis to form a stylised face, perhaps of a lion, which is symbolic of the first imam. The lam and the ya of 'Ali outline the contours, the 'ayn (the name of the letter but which also means “eye” in Arabic) form the eyes and the two vocative particles ya are joined to form a muzzle. Several related elements are nailed to this openwork sheet of metal, ornate with stylised dragon heads. This animal motif is repeated three times: at the end of the two curved extensions at the base of the standard; at the end of the two pieces of metal which are set in the pear-shaped part of the standard and are affixed to it in several places; on either side of the top element of which the middle axis is made of two symmetrical, separated sheets of metal between which another element could be inserted and attached. The dragon motif, the meaning of which could here be prophylactic, was highly appreciated in the Islamic world and often used on metal objects. During the Safavid period and in Mughal India, it would decorate the stern and prow of boat-shaped bowls or kashkuls. Pear-shaped standards with dragon heads often appeared in Safavid miniatures where they would be associated with battle scenes or be represented inside sanctuaries, which attest to both their warlike and religious functions at the time (Makariou 2007, pp. 158-59, n. 14). The still current practice of taking out these standards during processions associated with Shia religious calendar celebrations was confirmed by European travellers since the seventeenth century, but it does not seem to have been represented in the sixteenth century manuscripts (ibid., p. 159, n. 15).
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