Gallery Guide: Luxury Arts of the Silk Route Empires

Two thousand years before today’s “global economy,” an exchange network linked the continent of Asia via the Silk Route. Between the first and eighth centuries of the common era, the empires and states of Asia often came into conflict as they competed for territory and other resources or sought to dominate their neighbors in religious and political arenas. Yet the sea and overland routes between China and the eastern Mediterranean—the Silk Route, or Silk Road—also fostered peaceful interaction, both cultural and commercial. Merchants, ambassadors, and pilgrims transported crafted goods and raw materials acquired from distant realms: spices, precious metals, musical instruments, rare medicinal herbs, objects used in worship and ritual. Silk, the most famous of these long-distance luxuries, reached southwest Asia by the first century B.C.E. from production centers in China.

This period, too, witnessed the expansion of Christianity, Zoroastrianism, Manichaeism, Buddhism, and Islam over vast regions of Asia as well as Europe and Africa. Religious beliefs sometimes divided people (and empires), but they could also bring devotees together in places of pilgrimage, and they forged common ground among widely diverse cultural traditions. Leaders and followers of these great faiths often required new ways to express concepts of divinity visually, as well as appropriate settings in which to house images, enact rituals, and assemble worshipers. At Kizil (Qizil), a center of Buddhist worship and learning in northwestern China, cave temples decorated with brightly colored wall paintings and sculptures reflect sources in India, Central Asia, and China. Further west along the Silk Route, this colossal head, which once belonged to an image of a bodhisattva (enlightened being), would have been part of the sculpted tableau in a Buddhist monastery. It was made in Gandhara (present-day Afghanistan and Pakistan). Here, artists created styles of Buddhist art that combined local traditions with Greek (and later Roman) influences, which had initially been introduced with the conquests of Alexander the Great (died 323 B.C.E) in the late fourth century B.C.E.

Sasanian period(500–650)
Silver and gilt
Gift of Arthur M. Sackler, S1987.125

Armies and artisans, missionaries and merchants all used these routes, which also served as channels through which luxury arts created for secular and religious purposes could travel extraordinary distances. Astonishingly, some still inhabit their original homes. The Shosoin Treasure House, an eighth-century repository in Nara, Japan, stands in its original location with its contents practically intact. This wooden building was constructed to store the objects dedicated in memory of an emperor to the Todaiji monastery, associated with the Buddhist temple of the same name. Its thousands of objects, including furniture, clothing, musical instruments, weapons and armor, were made not only close by in Japan and in neighboring China and Korea, but also in Central Asia and perhaps even farther west. The treasure dramatically illustrates how far prized articles traveled, and what exalted levels of society acquired them. Examples of textiles and other perishable items occasionally survive from burials in certain arid regions of Central Asia and northwestern China. Most numerous today, however, are the objects made in more durable materials—chiefly metal, ceramic, and glass—which were often buried in tombs or hoards and have been unearthed in modern times through accidental discoveries, scientific excavations, and deliberate looting.

One of the most sophisticated and widely admired of luxury arts was nurtured by the Sasanian dynasty, which emerged in the early third century as a political power from its homeland in southwestern Iran. Until 651, the Sasanians ruled a vast empire extending over present-day Iran, Iraq, and Afghanistan. Positioned strategically between the Byzantine Empire to the west and the kingdoms of Central Asia and Tang dynasty China (618–907) to the east, they fought wars, engaged in trade, and exchanged diplomatic missions with neighbors as well as those in distant realms. Artisans in the Sasanian Empire created magnificent silver vessels, often with gilt decoration, which enjoyed enormous prestige both within the empire and beyond its frontiers. They often sought inspiration for shapes and decoration among a range of artistic traditions: southwest Asia, the Mediterranean, and Central Asia. In turn, these vessels influenced the forms, manufacturing techniques, and ornament of luxury metalwork and ceramics produced in other kingdoms along the trade routes linking China and the Mediterranean world.

Sasanian period, 400–600
silver and gilt
Hammered, repousse, chased, and gilded
Gift of Arthur M. Sackler, S1987.118

Initially, Sasanian precious metalwork primarily served as royal propaganda. Court artisans fashioned silver into works of art embellished with royal images, which the king gave as gifts to high-ranking officials and heads of state. Later, when silver supplies were no longer reserved for royal use, artisans created opulent vessels for the Sasanian nobility to use in dining and banqueting. A silver ewer used to pour wine, probably made in Iran and inscribed by its Iranian owner, combines a shape that was also popular in the Roman and Byzantine Empires with images of dancing females, who may personify a Zoroastrian concept of the soul.

Sasanian silver also stimulated the production of precious metal and ceramic luxury arts in Tang dynasty China. Silver vessels made in the Sasanian Empire and locally crafted versions have been found in the tombs of wealthy individuals in northwestern China. In some cases, artisans may have traveled along with traders or in search of employment, and in so doing, they brought their craft traditions and styles with them. New fashions in metalwork encouraged artisans in China to develop their own industry in gold and silver vessels, introducing foreign shapes, subjects, ornament, and techniques. Metalsmiths often combined local and foreign forms on a single object. On the back of a Tang dynasty mirror, a separate sheet of silver is decorated with traditional Chinese creatures—a winged horse, a dragon, and two phoenixes—set among floral scrolls formed from peony blossoms. This style of ornament, consisting of floral scrolls inhabited by animals or human figures, was created centuries earlier in the Mediterranean world and traveled east along with other forms of ornament.

The prestige of silver and gilt vessels even inspired potters to create new shapes and styles of decoration. Many white stoneware and porcelain vessels made during the Tang dynasty were intended specifically to imitate the shapes and reflective surfaces of silver vessels. These sumptuous articles must have appealed to their owners in large measure for their markedly foreign character. Viewed from a different perspective, they also demonstrate vividly that elite preferences in the design and decoration of luxury tableware and personal ornaments often transcended immense geographical and cultural distances, two thousand years ago.