Plate Decorated with a Feline

  • Allegedly Iran
  • Sassanid or Eastern Roman period
  • 4th to 5th centuries
  • Silver gilt and niello
  • H-5.2 D-25
Catalogue Entry

Enclosed within a roundel in the center of this plate is the image of a feline, perhaps a leopard, stalking his prey. The feline's head is lowered and tail slightly raised, its body is close to the ground, and the impression is one of considerable realism and tension. Inlaid into irregularly shaped cavities representing the body fur are the remains of niello. There are traces of gilding in the grooves of the central circular border, and it is likely that the animal figure was gilded as well, although no traces remain.

In form, the vessel is a deep plate with a sharply upturned and distinctively flattened rim. On the reverse a line is chased below the rim, and within the small foot ring is a single compass point surrounded by two concentric circles.

Allegedly found in Iran, the plate lacks a certain provenance, and the determination of the date and the original place of manufacture is difficult. Features common to this vessel and to central Sasanian silver vessels are such non-decorative tool marks as the exterior rim line and double concentric circles on the exterior center. The flattened rim of the plate and the decoration, a central medallion surrounded by a molding, are also characteristic of early Sasanian silver vessels decorated with images of noble and royal male and female personages.1 Some of these features, notably the central medallion decoration and modulated frame, are derived from the Hellenistic and Eastern Roman world and appear on vessels found in Anatolia and Syria as late as the seventh century A.D.2 Moreover, the realism of the feline's stance and irregularly depicted fur are more typical of artistic styles in the West and further east in Bactria than in the Sasanian world. The presence of niello inlay on silver vessels is common as early as the fourth century on Roman silver but occurs with some frequency in the Sasanian east only in the fifth to seventh centuries.

The medallion image as a type of decoration is rare on late Sasanian silver vessels (fifth-seventh century A.D.). A unique example in the Shumei Collection (cat. no. 49) has a central medallion in which the image of the Sasanian king Khosro I (A.D. 531-79) appears. The border of the medallion generally corresponds to the modulated frame surrounding the medallion on the plate with a feline; but the profile of the vessel, flat rather than bowl-like, is different. The plate decorated with the royal Sasanian image is a work influenced by the art of Late Antique Anatolia and Syria, where both the central medallion motif and the wavy-line pattern on the exterior are more commonly found on sixth- and seventh-century silver vessels than on those from Mesopotamia or Iran.

The significance of the image of the feline is difficult to assess without knowing the cultural context, Sasanian or East Roman. In an Iranian context the feline might have been intended simply to represent the hunt or game park, primary royal symbols of the Sasanian world.

Throughout the Sasanian period, but particularly in the third and early fourth centuries and again in the sixth and early seventh centuries, diplomacy and conquests led to intense interaction between Sasanian Iran and Mesopotamia and the neighboring lands to the west, Syria, Georgia (Caucasus), and Armenia. The craftsman who produced this plate decorated with a stalking feline was familiar with artistic styles current in both the western Sasanian and eastern Roman worlds. In western Mesopotamia, Syria, Anatolia, and the Caucasus Mountain region, the cultures of Rome and Persia met, and artisans familiar with both traditions produced prestigious works of art for their royal clients. The similarity of this plate decorated with a stalking feline to the Sasanian medallion bowls of the third and early fourth centuries, in form, decorative details, and techniques of manufacture, may point to a date as early as the fourth or fifth century for this vessel made in the tradition of the Eastern Roman and Sasanian worlds.

1. Harper and Meyers 1981, pls. 1, 3, 4, 6, 7.
2. Strong 1966, p. 111, pls. 48b, 49; Mango 1986, pp. 273-74; Toynbee and Painter 1986, pl. XV, nos. 33, 34; pl. XVII, no. 38; pl. XX, nos. 48, 49; pl. XXI, no. 53.