Saturday, February 13, 2021

Bust of a Priest with Silver Inlaid Eyes: Roman or Sasanian?

While I was researching the Cypriot ear spirals yesterday, I noticed this bronze bust of a priest with silver inlaid eyes dated from the 3rd - 4th century CE at the Miho Museum.  The museum identified it as late Roman but the museum's image had been shared on Flickr and I noticed that someone with the username eternal persia commented on the piece and insisted it was Sasanian.  He/she pointed to the monogram on the hat, clothes, hair design and leaves that decorate the bust and insisted these are Sasanian elements.

Intrigued, I researched the item a little further.  At first, most Sasanian portrait sculptures I reviewed were all bearded.  Then I saw an image of a relief depicting Kartir, a high priest and vizier serving during the reigns of Shapur I, Hormizd I, Bahram I, and Bahram II. Not only is Kartir clean shaven, he sports the corkscrew curls and crested hat worn by the priest of the bust at the Miho Museum.

Some scholars think Kartir may have been a eunuch, due to being depicted without a beard in the Sasanian reliefs. He first appears in historical records in Shapur I's inscription at the Ka'ba-ye Zartosht, which was most likely created between 260–262 CE. Kartir is the only religious bureaucrat mentioned in the inscription. Shapur I, termed a "lukewarm Zoroastrian", was known for his tolerance towards other religions. Although admiring the teachings of his own religion and encouraging the Zoroastrian clergy, Shapur I allowed the Jews, Christians, Buddhists, and Hindus to freely practice their religion. He was also friendly towards the founder of Manichaeism, Mani, whom he allowed to preach freely and even to be an escort in his military expeditions.

Shapur I's religious practices seems to have been somewhat unusual, though, with animal sacrifice being made for the soul of the kings and queens of the Sasanian family. Kartir, who "abhorred animal sacrifice" was unable to stop Shapur I from performing them. Shapur I died in 270 CE, and was succeeded by Hormizd I, who gave Kartir clothes that were worn by the upper class including the cap and belt (kulāf ud kamarband) and appointed him as the chief priest (mowbed).

Hormizd I died the following year and Bahram I, who was never considered a candidate for succession of the throne by his father, ascended the throne with the aid of Kartir, whose authority and influence had greatly increased. Bahram I then made a settlement with his brother Narseh who he asked to give up his entitlement to the throne in return for the governorship of the important frontier province of Armenia, which was constantly the subject of war between the Roman and Sasanian Empires.  Although Narseh held the title of Vazurg Šāh Arminān ("Great King of Armenia"), scholars think he probably still viewed Bahram I as a usurper.

Although previous Sasanian shahs had pursued a policy of religious tolerance towards the non-Zoroastrian minorities in the empire, with Bahram I's accession to the throne, and the rise of the authority of the Zoroastrian priesthood under the leadership of Kartir, this changed. When Mani, still the leader of the Manichaeists, arrived in the city of Gundishapur, Kartir and his cadre of Zoroastrian priest protested, viewing Mani as a threatening heterogeneous philosopher who presented an obscure perception of Zoroastrianism tainted by Jewish, Buddhist, and Christian ideas. Kartir pressured Bahram I to have Mani imprisoned and sentenced to death in 274 CE. Mani's death was followed by the persecution of his followers by Kartir and the Zoroastrian clergy, who used the persecution of religious minorities as a method to increase and spread their vast influence.  With the backing of Bahram I, Kartir laid foundations for Zoroastrianism's adoption as the state religion.

When Bahram I died, his son viewed Kartir as a mentor and granted him the rank of grandee (wuzurgan), and appointed him as the supreme judge (dadwar) of the whole empire.  Thereafter, Zorastrian priests were given the office of judge. Kartir's intolerance continued and his inscription at  Ka'ba-ye Zartosht boasts that he "struck down" non-Zoroastrian minorities, although modern scholars point out that Jewish and Christian sources makes no mention of persecutions during this period.

When Bahram III succeeded his father, Bahram II, something changed, however, in Kartir's relationship with the royal family.  Kartir inexplicably threw in his lot with Narseh and, along with a group of Sasanian nobles, supported Narseh's overthrow of Bahram III. But Narseh's reign  marked the return to the policy of religious tolerance which had been practiced by his father, Shapur I, all those years ago, and Kartir finally fades from history. 

Bust of a Priest with Silver Inlaid Eyes, Bronze and sliver, 3rd-4th century C.E., courtesy of the Miho Museum in Kyoto, Japan.

Relief of Kartir, the Zoroastrian high priest at Naqsh-e Rajab courtesy of Wikimedia Commons contributor درفش کاویانی.


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