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Video transcript

these are just perhaps my favorite figures in the entire metropolitan museum of art supplement collection I don't think I've ever seen anything quite like these no well there really isn't anything else in the world like them they are two exceptional pieces carved and molded sculptural figures made out of stucco they are extraordinary stucco it's this soft cement like material it's not stone and so it's pretty easy to carve oh it's fantastic to carve you can mold it and then carve it and the wonderful thing is it's light it's easy to affixed to walls well even though it's pretty soft stuff it's survived it beautifully these are in great condition they really are probably one of the reasons why they're in such good condition is they were from the desert I love them because they are so alive they are so dynamic beautiful bright gorgeous and they also throw one of the great misconceptions about Islamic art out the window which is that Islamic art is an iconic right I had been taught that in Islamic culture just like in Judea culture you don't represent the human body you don't represent animals well that's true in a lot of cases but that conception comes from one of the hadith that says you basically shouldn't be making graven images not too different from the prohibitions in the Old Testament but what seems to happen is very early on in Islamic art that prohibition seems to be upheld in mosques in religious spaces but in the secular world all bets are off this is a complex culture with subtle distinctions and so making these kinds of broad generalizations really doesn't make sense that's exactly right we have figurative works in stucco we have it on ceramics on vases and metalwork we have it in manuscripts we have it in painting so it's not like these are just one offs and actually it's part of a much larger tradition but these are just exceptional examples of it so it's really all about context so what do we think the context for these figures was oh well that is one of the big questions we don't know what the context is but what we think is that they were probably in some type of reception hall and that they were affixed to the walls and so that when you were coming in to see a strong man or a new ruler because these were produced around 1200 somewhere in Iran which was a very unstable period that these and perhaps others would greet you because we have other examples of painted reception rooms where we have guards or royal figures standing we have examples in Boston Afghanistan and in some are can as well in Uzbekistan well they're clearly representations of power both of them are clutching swords they're armed and dangerous but even a clear expression of their power I think comes from their dress certainly because yes we have the swords we have this royal napkin that one of the figures is holding but the dress is really impressive this would have been blues reds black and he would have been gilded as well so you have to imagine gold they are bejeweled they have earrings they have necklaces I'm a little confused because you would think that these would be guards but these are also royal figures and that is the big question that we have are these princess kings of Kings Shahs of Shahs or are they royal guards they are wearing crowns one of the figures here is wearing the winged crown the winged crown in Iran is probably the oldest symbol of authority it was worn by the sustained Ian kings so this is a pre Islamic empire yes it was very very powerful so to take this symbol of authority is really an amazing thing to do because it is a symbol that is recognizable to almost anyone who walks into the room the figures themselves feel so Eastern not only in the complexity of their costume but also in their faces they have these beautiful round faces they have what's called the Turkic moon face and you can see that that's really then the influence of central asia and the east so we're looking at these two figures in the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York thousands of miles away from their original home do we have any sense of how they got here one turns up in the 1950s and one in the 1960s and that's amazing because that means they didn't get here together one would assume that they would have because they are clearly the same size they are decorated in the same way they're painted in the same way these two came from the same context and so almost a thousand years later they've been reunited and still stand as this wonderful presence you had mentioned the polychrome if those blues and reds are so vivid we have to remember that electric lights didn't exist for most of human history and if you want to make an impression you need vibrancy you need color because otherwise how are things going to stand out you may have natural light coming in but natural light and candle light are the only ways these things are illuminated and color itself could also be an expression of wealth of power certainly because obviously yielding something with gold is expensive also where are your Blues coming from if you're grinding up lapis lazuli that's from Afghanistan you have to trade for that you have to import that so the different types of materials that are used are very important and another symbol of wealth so not only is it the stucco the crowns the swords but it's also even the materials well I think these are now some of my favorite figures as well