JIAAW, Minassian Collection
How was a processional standard like this one originally used? This curvilinear, bronze object is a seventeenth century processional standard (‘alam) that was found in Iran. When the standard was made in the seventeenth century, the powerful Safavid dynasty (1501 to 1736 CE) controlled Iran and surrounding territories in the Middle East. The Safavids were generous patrons of art and architecture, cultivating and supporting the production of masterful book arts, painting, textiles, and buildings.
The Safavids embraced Twelver Shiism, a major form of Shi’a Islam. Unlike the Ottomans to the west and the Mughals to the east, who practiced Sunni Islam, the Safavids subscribed to the belief that the leader of the Islamic world should be a descendant of the Prophet Muhammad. Shi’a religion greatly influenced the arts during the Safavid period, including the function and decoration of the bronze processional standard in the Joukowsky Institute collection. Followers of Shi’a would have used a standard like this one in processions, particularly during ‘Ashura, the tenth day of the month of Muharram. On this day, the Shi’a community remembers the martyrdom of Imam Husain, the grandson of Muhammad, in 680 CE.
The bronze standard in the Joukowsky Institute’s collection is shaped like a teardrop, with a triangular finial on top. In the center of the teardrop form and upper finial are Arabic descriptions of important Shi’a figures, such as Allah, Muhammad, and Ali. Religious proclamations also line the edges of the standard, revealing the religious function of the standard. A curved finial extends below the bottom half of object, though one half of the structure had fallen off before the object arrived at the Joukowsky. Processional standards like this one were often attached to poles and carried during ceremonies, as the round protrusion at the bottom of the standard suggests.
There are several other standards that can be viewed online. In 2014, Christie’s auctioned a remarkably similar object with a teardrop form, calligraphic inscriptions in Arabic, and a curvilinear border. The Christie’s standard dates to the sixteenth to seventeenth century, and its placement on a platform and pole suggest its original use in processions.
The Metropolitan Museum of Art also holds a similar object in its collection, along with the Aga Khan Museum and the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts. The ‘alam from the latter’s collection is from the Mughal Empire, and it was placed on top of a pole with cloth in Deccani Shiite processions.
Today, Muslim communities around the world continue to participate in ceremonies to mourn Imam Hussein during the sacred month of Muharram. In the ritual of Nakhl Gardani in Yazd, Iran, Muslims gather together in a large crowd and carry a large wooden structure called the Nakhl that is covered with shawls, fabrics, mirrors, and lanterns (Tehran Times 2020). The bronze processional standard at the Joukowsky Institute memorializes the art and architecture of the Safavid Dynasty while taking part in a long tradition of Shi’a ceremonial rituals.
-Kristen Marchetti ‘22
Read more about the Safavid Dynasty, processional standards, and Muharram at the links below (my sources of information, in addition to pages linked in text):