Geneva Anderson digs into art

This Saturday’s Scherman Lecture, by Dr. Alexander Nagel will reveal new information about ancient Iran’s brightly colored past and Professor David Stronach will sign “Ancient Iran from the Air,” at San Francisco’s Legion of Honor

Dr. Alexander Nagel, F|S assistant curator of ancient Near Eastern art, this year’s Scherman lecturer, will deliver his findings on polychromy in ancient Iran. Dr. Nagel is part of team that, in 2006, began a systematic investigation into the role of colors, pigments and other materials on the surface of the monuments and buildings excavated between 1931 and 1939 on the terrace platform of Persepolis. Photo: courtesy Alexander Nagel

Much of what we know of ancient Persia’s history has been informed by studies of the magnificent site of Persepolis, the capital of the Achaemenid Persian Empire from the 6th to the 4th centuries BC.  UNESCO world cultural heritage sites since 1979, these well-preserved ruins in Southwestern Iran constitute the most important examples of Achaemenid dynastic architecture in Iran.  Although it has long been known that these monuments and reliefs were painted, new research in the fascinating field of polychromy, or color, will be presented at this Saturday’s Scherman lecture at the Legion of Honor by Dr. Alexander Nagel Assistant Curator, Ancient Near Eastern Art, Freer│Sackler Galleries. Nagel will deliver “An Empire in Blue—Color in Persepolis: New Research on the Polychromy of Achaemenid Persian Palace Sculpture, ca. 520 to 330 BCE,” at 2 p.m.  The event, organized by FAMSF’s Ancient Art Council, is open to the public.  Following the lecture, David Stronach, Professor Emeritus, Near Eastern Studies, University of California at Berkeley and one of the world’s leading scholars on ancient Iran, will be on hand to sign hot-off-the press copies of his Ancient Iran from the Air, published by Philipp von Zabern, which  just arrived from Germany.  The book, co-edited by Stronach, is a remarkable collection of aerial photographs taken by Swiss photographer Georg Gerster between 1976 and 1978 of Iran’s arresting landscapes, archaeological sites, and historical monuments.  The book will not be available in bookstores until the fall but it will be sold at the Legion’s bookstore on Saturday.

Dr. Alexander Nagel collecting data for his research on polychromy at the Throne Hall built by Xerxes and completed by his son Artaxerxes I at the ancient site of Persepolis. Photo: courtesy Alexander Nagel.

New Insight on old Color:  Dr.  Nagel is what we might call a chromovore.  Fascinated with all aspects of color, he is at the forefront of contemporary research in polychromy, which is an exciting intersection of archaeology, anthropology, science, and conservation studies.  The emphasis is on using new technology to analyze old color and refining the actual meaning of color in the ancient world.  Nagel is part of a team that, in 2006, began a systematic building-by-building investigation into the role of colors, pigments and other materials on the surface of the monuments and buildings excavated between 1931 and 1939 on the terrace platform of Persepolis. During his great march across Asia, Alexander the Great was determined to see the end of the Persian Empire, the splendid Persepolis in particular, and he wreaked extensive destruction on its palaces, even setting the city on fire, but did not succeed in obliterating it.  Early travelers noted traces of paint on its stone sculptures and monuments, which has long fascinated researchers, but, prior to Nagel, no one has so systematically examined color and pigment.  Nagel will describe his research and will reveal how his results can change our perception of the ancient Near East,  as well as discuss a range of issues relating to restoring the polychromy of ancient structures.

The Legion’s treasured ancient Persian relief:   Following Saturday’s lecture, a small 4th Century B.C. stone relief from ancient Persepolis in the Legion’s lower level corridor cases, is bound to get a lot of attention as people try to imagine what this might have looked like in its original glorious color. The 5 by 8 inch relief of a gift bearer is the only ancient Persian relief in FAMSF holdings and is dated, in approximate terms, from between 490 and 470 BC.   It comes from one of the relief-decorated sides of the monumental stone staircases at Persepolis and is representative of a particularly accomplished moment in the history of Achaemenid Persian sculpture when the goal was to emphasize the role of the Achaemenid king.  Lord Curzon, 1st Marquess Curzon of Kedleston, wrote in 1892: “Everything is devoted, with unashamed repetition, to a single purpose, viz. the delineation of majesty in its most imperial guise, the pomp and panoply, of him who was well styled the Great King.”

Relief of a Gift Bearer, Persian, Achaemenid Empire, Persepolis, Palace of Darius or Xerxes, ca. 490–-470 B.C., Bituminous limestone, 2008 Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco, purchase from various gifts and funds. Photo: courtesy FAMSF.

“The dress and pose indicate that the depicted individual was a royal servant,” said David Stronach, Professor Emeritus, Near Eastern Studies, UC Berkeley, who admires the relief.   “He was almost certainly shown carrying food (or some other item) in a long procession of servants.  His face is one of notable dignity and he is shown wearing a characteristically Persian headgear called a bashlyk. In hot and often dusty conditions, this was a very practical form of headgear that consisted of a cloth band that was wrapped round the head and neck.”

The relief’s journey out of Iran most likely occurred in the 19th century when a number of small-scale reliefs (often showing servants or guardsmen) were removed from the ruins at Persepolis. When these reliefs reached Europe, they were frequently trimmed to leave a neat, square shape suitable for framing.  As a rule, little more than the face and headgear were left in view.

Dr. Renée Dreyfus, FAMSF curator of ancient art and interpretation, is proud of the 2008 acquisition, not only for its exceptional detail but because it completes a gap in the museum’s collection.  “I wanted it for the collection because it gives visual expression to the Achaemenid style and iconography created for Darius and his successors and because it represents a stepping stone in the transition of figural art from the “Winged Genius” of the museum’s Assyrian wall relief to the figural art of classical Greece, and subsequently our Western tradition.  We learned of its existence through a dealer in New York.  A team of experts had examined the relief’s provenance and ascertained that it had been purchased by its original owner long enough ago to allow us to acquire it without issues and, even more remarkable, we had several ofdonors who gave significant sums to help us purchase it.”

Georg Gerster’s aerial photograph of the Sassanian City of Gu/Firuzabad, Iran. The city is divided into 20 parts, radially structured and extends over a plain crossed by pathways, drainage ditches, and irrigation channels. The tower at the heart of the city was essential for measuring the radial lines and also had a symbolic significance, as did the city’s circular shape. Photo: Georg Gerster.

“Very few such pieces with a long and well documented history of prior ownership outside Iran usually come on the market,” explained Stronach.  “The FAMSF are to be congratulated on the acquisition of this unusually fine, representative piece of Achaemenid sculpture.  It adds greatly to the distinction of the holdings in the Legion of Honor.”

More About Ancient Iran from the Air:  Between April 1976 and May 1978, Swiss photographer Georg Gerster flew across Iran, photographing the memorable landscapes, archaeological sites, and historical monuments that characterize this storied land—the Sassanian city of Bishapur, the Sassanian imperial sanctuary at Tak-kt-I in Suleiman, Luristan, and Cheqa Nargesm in Mahidsasht, Iran—to name a few. Most of his photographs were safely stashed away in his archives in Switzerland.  Quite recently, David Stronach, Professor Emeritus, Near Eastern Studies, University of California at Berkeley and Co-Director, UC Berkeley-Yerevan State University Excavations at Erebuni, working with Gerster and a number of reputed specialists in the art and archaeology of Iran, arranged to have these images published.  Ancient Iran from the Air provides—from a distinctly novel angle—a fresh appraisal of the greater part of the long history of the built environment in this crucial part of the ancient Near East.  (Read ARThound’s previous coverage of Dr. Stronach, Georg Gerseter and Ancient Iran from the Air, here.)

Dr. Alexander Nagel, F|S assistant curator of ancient Near Eastern art, examining pigments left on a squeeze (a multidimensional mold) from the inscriptions of the façade of Darius I (d. 486 BCE). By analyzing the raw incidental artifacts that were picked up as molds were being made, Nagel, was able to identify the paint pigments left in the squeezes. Photo: courtesy Smithsonian Institution.

More about Alexander Nagel: Originally from Germany, Alexander Nagel earned his PhD from the University of Michigan, Ann Arbor, with a focus on the art and archaeology of ancient Iran. His dissertation, completed in 2010, is titled Colors, Gilding and Painted Motifs in Persepolis: The Polychromy of Achaemenid Persian Architectural Sculpture, c. 520–330 BCE.   Nagel has helped organize numerous international conferences, including the landmark 2009 workshop The Color of Things: Debating the Current State and Future of Color in Archaeology at Stanford University.  He has authored several articles on his research, and has lectured in Europe and the United States on polychromy and the archaeology of the ancient Near East. In 2009, he was the University of Michigan Freer Fellow in residence at the Freer and Sackler.  I n fall 2010, he joined the Freer|Sackler staff as assistant curator of ancient Near Eastern art.  Nagel’s’s first F|S exhibition, Ancient Iranian Ceramics, opened in July 2011.

The Scherman Lecture Series is sponsored by the Scherman Family Foundation.  This lecture is held annually and followed by a reception for all attendees.

The Ancient Art Council is one FAMSF’s many specialized groups and offers regular programming, including lectures and tours, for those who share an interest in ancient art and the preservation and promotion of antiquities and culture of the ancient Mediterranean and Near East.

Details: “An Empire in Blue—Color in Persepolis…” by Dr. Alexander Nagel is at 2:00 p.m, Florence Gould Theater, Legion of Honor, San Francisco. The lecture is free to the public.

Please RSVP by sending an email with subject “RSVP Scherman Lecture” to or phone 415 750 3686

March 8, 2012 Posted by | Art, Legion of Honor | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment