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Vessel handle in the form of a winged ibex with its hooves resting on a mask of Silenus; 4th century BC; Silver, partially gilt; H. 27 cm, W. 15 cm, D. 10 cm; Purchased 1898; Musée du Louvre, Near Eastern Antiquities.
Vessel handle in the form of a winged ibex with its hooves resting on a mask of Silenus
The fine detail on the body of this winged ibex, a hybrid creature depicted on the point of leaping, has been achieved by use of the lost-wax technique. The elegant wings and huge horns underline the energy of the animal’s pose. Its back legs rest on a mask of Silenus, a figure associated with the cult of Dionysus and wine-drinking, alluding to the function of the metal vessel.
An ibex-shaped handle
This handle in the form of a winged ibex would have belonged to a metal vessel, forming its principal decoration along with another ibex symmetrically placed opposite it. This costly vessel was in the form of an amphora with a fluted body, a common shape for this type of recipient, along with the cup and the rhyton. The ibex stands on its hind legs, its forelegs drawn in and its wings outspread, as though captured on the point of leaping. The head, presented in three-quarter view, is surmounted by very large ringed horns, and some anatomical details are picked out in gilt. The hind legs rest on the head of a bearded old man with long ears, coiffed with a row of palmettes. This resembles both the god Bes and the Greek Silenus, which according to Roman Ghirshman may indicate that the piece came from a Greek workshop. This type of vessel, highly prized by Iranian craftsmen, was also produced in distant provinces of the empire, after models imposed by the central authorities. Complete vases of this kind have been found: one example is now in a private collection in Paris, and another in the Tehran Museum.
Sumptuous metal vessels
Fond of rich gold jewelry set with precious stones, the Achaemenids also had a highly developed taste for precious metal vessels decorated with animals sculpted in the round. Evidence for this is provided by one of the friezes decorating the great audience hall (apanada) of King Xerxes (486-465 BC), showing the ceremonial presentation of gifts by the twenty-three provinces of the empire. Among the offerings are vessels of a traditional Iranian type, with handles embellished with animal heads. The king and his court would take these gold and silver pieces with them on military campaigns. This enthusiasm for precious metal vessels with sculptural decoration ensured that painted ceramics were relegated to a position of secondary importance.
Some points of comparison
Vessels with fluted bodies and handles in the form of animals are found among the ceramics of the late Assyrian Empire. Such zoomorphic decoration was a widespread feature of Iranian art. Symmetrical pairs of leaping animals, with forelegs drawn in and heads looking forward or to the side, made their appearance very early on, in the second millennium BC, especially in relief sculpture. The fluting, which is characteristic of Achaemenid metal vessels, had moreover already been employed in Iran on terracotta vessels such as those found at the necropolis of Tepe Giyan (second millennium BC).
Conan J., Deschesne O., Le bitume à Suse : collection du musée du Louvre, Paris, Editions de la Réunion des musées nationaux, 1996, p. 323, fig. 393.