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Current time:0:00Total duration:5:17

Video transcript

(lighthearted music) Woman: These are just perhaps my favorite figures in the entire Metropolitan Museum of Arts' Islamic Collection. Man: I don't think I've ever seen anything quite like these. Woman: 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. Man: Stucco. It's this soft, cement-like material, it's not stone, and so it's pretty easy to carve. Woman: Oh, it's fantastic to carve. You can mold it and then carve it. The wonderful thing is it's light, it's easy to affix to walls. Man: Even though it's pretty soft stuff, it survived beautifully. These are in great condition. Woman: 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 aniconic. Man: Right. I had been taught that in Islamic culture, just like in Judeo culture, you don't represent the human body, you don't represent animals. Woman: That's true in a lot of cases, but that conception comes from one of the [hadeeds] 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. Man: This is a complex culture with subtle distinctions, and so making these kinds of broad generalizations really doesn't make sense. Woman: That's exactly right. We have figurative works in stucco. We have it on ceramics, on vases, and metal work. We have it in manuscript. We have it in painting. It's not like these are just one-offs, actually it's part of a much larger tradition, but these are just exceptional examples of it. Man: It's really all about context; so what do we think the context for these figures was? Woman: 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; 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 Bast in Afghanistan, and in Samarakan, as well, in Uzbekistan. Man: 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. Woman: 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 they would have been gilded as well. You have to imagine gold; they are bejeweled. They have earrings, they have necklaces. Man: I'm a little confused because you would think that these would be guards, but these are also royal figures. Woman: That is the big question that we have. Are these princes? 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 Sasanian kings. Man: This is a pre-Islamic empire. Woman: Yes, it was very, very powerful. 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. Man: 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. Woman: They have what's called the Turkic moon face. You can see that that's really under the influence of central Asia and the East. Man: 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? Woman: One turns up in the 1950s, and one in the 1960s. That is 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 are painted in the same way; these two came from the same context. Man: Almost 1,000 years later. Woman: They've been reunited, and still stand as this wonderful presence. Man: You had mentioned the polychromic; those blues and reds are so vivid. Woman: We have to remember that electric lights didn't exist for most of human history; and if you wnat 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. Man: Color itself could also be an expression of wealth, of power. Woman: Certainly, because obviously, gilding 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. The different types of materials that are used are very important, and another symbol of wealth. Not only is it the stucco, the crowns, the swords, but it's also even the materials. Man: I think these are now some of my favorite figures as well. (lighthearted music)