This lesson explores the artwork of one of the most powerful and expansive empires in history: the Persian Empire. Persian artwork contained vivid imagery that recorded the success of the Persian kings in battle and their cultural tendencies.
An example of the palace gate art in Persia
Many of us have heard of the early civilizations like Egypt and Mesopotamia. In these regions, civilization began with the invention of writing, creation of beautiful works of art and development of urban cities. As cultures emerged, fighting for land and resources became common. The most successful cultures became empires with control over vast areas. One of the most successful empires in the Near East, however, was the Persian Empire. The empire's lifespan was from around 539 BCE to 651 CE. Persia was situated in modern-day Iran. The empire spanned from Egypt to Turkey. The expansion occurred under the rule of rulers like Cyrus II, Darius and Xerxes. Extending its boundaries into culture-rich areas like Egypt and Greece, Persia influenced and was influenced by many of the surrounding native groups.
The Achaemenid Era
Now we will learn a little more about the time period on which we are focusing. After being under the rule of the Median Kingdom, Persia took control under Cyrus II the Great in 539 BCE. As Cyrus came to power, he made peace with the Medians, creating an alliance and becoming ruler of the Achaemenid Empire. This time period came to be known as the Achaemenid Era in Persian history. During this time, works of art were heavily influenced by Egypt, Greece and Mesopotamia. For example, Persian palaces contained statues at their gates of animals meant to protect palace inhabitants from harm.
Architecture and Reliefs
Now that we know a little bit about the time period, we can learn more about architecture. Achaemenidian kings created majestic royal cities with monumental palaces. As many kings before them had done, Persians built elaborate structures in an attempt to out-do their predecessors. Within the massive palaces could be found reliefs depicting images of royalty and supernatural creatures. In this time span, artists developed the ability to show movement and life within their reliefs.
Bas-reliefs were created to honor the king.
Sculptures were generally found only in the palaces, but they could also be found among the routes within the empire. Bas-reliefs, carvings in which the figures are barely more prominent than their background, have been found along roads to glorify their king. Persians were inspired by Greek columns. The column became a very popular structure in Persian architecture. The number of columns included was generally a multiple of four. Cyrus' palace at Pasargadae held columns that were surmounted by bulls' heads.
Locations of Ancient Persian Architecture
Pasargadae is home to a fire temple. Fire temples were used for ritualistic ceremonies performed by Magi, Medians who were specially trained in magic. King Darius the Great built onto a palace in Susa, once the capital of a country called Elam. There, artists created bricks from chalk and sand. The bricks were partially baked before receiving the addition of a blue glaze. The glaze created the outline of figures that would later be colored after the final baking. Each brick would contain only a portion of the figure to be depicted. When the bricks were ready, they would be positioned to create the full figure.
The ancient city of Persepolis was built to contain numerous palaces. Many buildings have been uncovered, though their specific purposes are not clear. Structures also included a grand staircase with double ramps, cut rock for terrace gardens, barracks and a fortress. Xerxes built a palace in the area of modern-day Shiraz. This palace was known as The Gate of All Nations. It consisted of a grand hall with four columns, an entrance and two other doors opening in different directions.
The Persians created ornate pieces of jewelry out of gold and stones.
Bronze was a popular choice for many parts of buildings, such as doorways. Gold and silver were also used to create elaborate ornaments like rhytons (a horn-shaped vessel used for drinking) and other dishes. They were also used to make handles of vases. The handles would be shaped to represent the head of an animal or its body. Persia was also the home of exquisite pieces of jewelry. Bracelets, rings and earrings made of gold held colored stones. Some jewelry and miniature amulets were also made of other materials like turquoise and a vibrant blue stone called lapis lazuli.
As you can see, although the Persian Empire reigned for a short amount of time, its influence on other nations was very strong. The artistic elements they borrowed from their neighbors help us understand how vast this empire was. The degree to which the Persians created their massive structures also tells us that not only were they very powerful but very proud. Architecture and other forms of artwork showcased their success in battle and as an empire.
After you've completed this lesson, you'll be able to:
- List some ways in which the Persian Empire's art was influenced by surrounding regions
- Describe Persian architecture, sculptures and bas-reliefs
- Explain where Persian temples and palaces were found
- Identify materials that Persians used to make jewelry and metalwork