The Politics of Beauty

Sarah Johnson, research assistant, works in the curatorial department on Islamic and Ancient Near Eastern art. 


The Shapur plate

Beauty is often political, although politics is rarely beautiful. This early work of propaganda, known as the Shapur plate, was created in the Sasanian Empire of Iran nearly 2,000 years ago. The Sasanian king Shapur II, who is depicted on the plate, probably sent it to another king to show off his power and wealth. Gifts between kings in the ancient world were powerful political symbols and the quality of a gift could solidify or deteriorate a diplomatic relationship. This plate shows the king’s power not only in its imagery of hunting but also in its design and craftsmanship. The lavish materials and intricate design (the plate is made of nineteen separate pieces of silver) showcase Sasanian mastery of the arts. Even aesthetics were subject to politics in the Sasanian Empire.

Long after antiquity, the Shapur plate continued to be subject to the whims of politics. In the 1870s, it was acquired by the famous Stroganovs in Russia, where it quickly became a star of ancient art. After the Russian Revolution in 1917, the Communist Party confiscated the plate along with the rest of the Stroganov collection. Luckily, the plate passed the test of the Antiques Export Fund: This group decided, based on aesthetic reasons, whether or not silverworks in Russia went to museums like the Hermitage or were sold or melted down to make that universal political necessity, money.

The plate entered the Hermitage Museum. When the Hermitage collection of Iranian metalwork was in danger of being sold or destroyed, Joseph Stalin intervened. Although the decision was more to prevent political disgrace in destroying such a valuable collection than an aesthetic appreciation for Sasanian silver, it is partly thanks to Stalin that the plate survives.

To get up close to the Shapur plate in person, visit the exhibition Feast Your Eyes: A Taste for Luxury in Ancient Iran, on view now in the Freer|Sackler.

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