About the style of early medieval art of Sogd

Issue #3-4 • 8594

Every art, either the Chinese landscape or Egyptian sculpture, exists once and never comes back together with its soul and symbolics.
O. Spengler (1, p. 391).

In 1913, the first samples of early medieval wall painting were discovered at the Afrasiab site. However, the true discovery of Sogdian culture began in the second half of 19th century when the magnificent wall paintings, sculptures and pieces of art crafts were found at the sites of Afrasiab, Varahsha, Pendjikent, Qalai Kah-Kaha, Budjikat, Kafir-Qala, Yali-Barzu and others. The silver products found in the Ural and Siberia were attributed as Sogdian, which were earlier related to the so-called “Sassanian metal”. The further archaeological excavations promoted the discovery of new sites with artifacts of southern Sogd. The sites of Nahsheb, Erkurgan, Djartepa and others gave a convictive evidence for advanced Sogdian culture. The art critical researches and interpretations of artifacts added the archaeological works. At the same time, the huge stratum of Sogdian art has not covered all aspects of the art critical analysis, including the identification of its artistic and stylistic originality.

Methodology. In order to understand the features of Sogdian art better, it is important to define the meaning of the word “style”. In the literature are two different approaches – the first is based on the wide art critical generalizations (L. Rempel) (2) and the second implies “specificity of craft tradition” (B. Marshak) (3), i.e. techniques of masters. Actually, they do not exclude each other but touch upon the different levels – the inductive (B. Marshak), required for the maximal structural definition of Sogdian artifacts, and the deductive (L. Rempel), which allows to reveal the specificity of the tonal and semantic content of art and its culturo-philosophical pathos. The last approach is typical of V. Darkevich though he does not accent it, especially in his works on Central Asian toreutics (4). Our task is to reveal the stylistic features of Sogdian art and crafts considering the pieces of painting, sculpture, toreutics, ceramics, coroplastics and zandanechi fabrics, which were attributed as Sogdian.

Area and structure of Sogdian art. Despite some historical diffuseness, the area of “Sogdian art” has quite definite chronological, territorial and morphological borders. It dates to the 5th-9th centuries. Most sites are located in the middle zone of today’s Uzbekistan (Samarkand, Bukhara and Kashkadarya regions) and in northwestern Tadjikistan (districts of Sogdian region), or were connected with the traditions of this region (toreutics). The traditions of steppe art and influence of Tan’s China are very strong in the area to the northeast from Samarkand Sogd (Ustrushana, Chach, Fergana). Hellenic influence and slightly weaker influence of Indo-Buddhist tradition is characteristic for the south (Bactria – Tokharistan). The west (Bukhara, Khorezm) reveals Irano-Sassanian influence. Sogd exposes unprece-dented complete morphological picture of medieval Central Asian art – the blossom of monu-mental painting, sculpture, stucco and wood carving (Afrasiab, Pendjikent, Varahsha), development of crafts – toreutics (silver with gilding), ceramics, coroplastics, weaving and jewelry. In the later periods, up to the 20th century, the sculpture and painting were not developed and architecture, crafts and miniature became dominant.

Tradition and style. Ethno cultural symbiosis. A relation to the tradition is of high importance in the style formation. On the one hand, the tradition is taken as the heritage of own local art and on the other hand, it is taken as the accumulated experience of the adjacent regions. In a whole, the relation of Sogdian art to the tradition was formed, mainly, under influence of the second factor. The contacts with different schools had much greater importance, than perception of its own local heritage. In Sogd, as earlier in Bactria (though, unlike Kushan art, Sogdian art was not so much influenced by Buddhist art), cultural tolerance was formed after religious tolerance. Sogd reveals the following forms of ethnocultural symbiosis: prevalence of Turkic-Sogdian and Sogdo-Iranian traditions as well as Sogdo-Chinese, Sogdo-Byzantine, Sogdo-Indian and Sogdo-Arabian art.

Sometimes the same work contains the different components (for example, the silver dish of the 9th-10th centuries reveals Sogdian, Byzantine, Arabian, Iranian and other components) (4). In all the cases, the Sogdian component is not absorbed, but represents forms of the cultural and artistic variety. The culture of Sogd brings together dynamics of steppe art and canonic statics of Sassanian art. Obviously, the process of cultural interactions played a significant role in the formation of Sogdian arts, at the same time preserving local originality. The degree of recognition or interpretation of the traditions depended on the field of art or craft, on a function of a product and at last on a place of manufacturing. The style was more graceful in central Sogd. On the periphery, it revealed quite archaic pictures and primitive forms. Wall painting, sculpture (5, 6, 8) and coroplastics (terracotta, relieves, ossuary tops and others reveal the local features most brightly. In the Samarkand museum are tens of ossuaries and more than 700 samples of small sculpture, which were created from the 2nd century B.C. to the 8th century A.D.) (7). As for toreutics, which products were subjects of trade and were rather mobile, the manufacture and, correspondently, local features of the Sogdian style seemed to be hardly localized. Due to researches of J. Smirnov, I. Orbeli, K. Trever, G. Grigoriev, L. Rempel, V. Darkevich and especially B. Marshak, the identification of the Sogdian artistic metalwork has become possible. The work by B. Marshak (2) demonstrates quite full classification, in spite of the author did not give a geographical localization of the schools – A, B and C. Nevertheless, considering the context, we can presume that A-school, the closest to Irano-Sassanian traditions, can be localized in Bukhara Sogd. B-school represents a core of Sogd – Samarkand region. As for C-school, its connection with Turkic steppe and Tan’s Chinese art allows to localize it in northeastern Sogd or Fergana and Ustrushana, being within the zone of quite pure Sogdian traditions. The table did not include a group of dishes with subject pictures, which were reliably localized in Sogd, wider – in Central Asia. Among them are the Anikov dish with the scene of a siege, the dish exposing the scene of a combat, the dish with the bird-maiden, etc. They were attributed by V. Darkevich in the later edition of his work (5).

The first stage of B-school, represented by the dishes from the Munchaktepa hoard (near Begovat) and Chilek (near Samarkand) (2, fig. 11-12), is very important for understanding of pure Sogdian traditions and features. These are the so-called spooned bowls. The variants of spooned medallions determine the features of this group (B-school). The analogous forms of the local ceramics proves that. The last is the spooned bowe from Nahshab (9, fig. 187, 1), which imitates the form of the earliest Sogdian silver bowl from Chilek. The tradition of spooned bowls goes back to the Achaemenid period. This form penetrated into Central Asia through Parthian art and settled in Sogd and Khorezm, not showing itself in Sassanian art.

Thus, though the cultural contacts of Sogd and the adjacent regions had a wide diapason, the known artifacts allow to define three dominant directions – the northeastern (steppe, Turkic components and traditions of Tan’s China), the southern (Bactria – Tokharistan, connected with Hellenic and Indo-Buddhist art) and the western (Khorezm, influenced, mainly, by Parthian and Irano-Sassanian traditions.

Motifs and subjects. Sogdian art represents a rich thematic repertoire – cosmogonic, astral and geometrical motifs, zoomorphic and floral subjects, anthropomorphic and subject compositions. The integrity of the style is determined by the presence of the same forms, subjects and motifs, interpreted similarly in different arts. This is that we can see in Sogdian art, which favourite motif was akhrar and a deer, interpreted differently depending on the material and iconographic origin. In Sogdian art, dynamism of the nomadic culture found the compromise with the steady majesty of Sassanian art. It can be seen in the pictures of animals on carved stucco of Varahsha and in the decor of Sogdian silver bowls.

The Sogdian artists willingly involved the images, atypical of their realities, which gave especially attractive originality to their products. Such is an elephant. The poetic exotics testifies to the predilections of Sogdian art and its contacts on the Great Silk Road where the Sogdians occupied the major positions. This iconography of the elephant was kept on the later products of northern China. The myth, exotics and reality merge and form the world amazing our imagination by synthetic Sogdian world vision.

Griffins, birds-maidens, dragons and other fantastic creatures promoted the formation of the unique artistic language. The leading place belongs to the winged camel – a local Sogdian symbol, having been formed under influence of Sassanian senmurv, as the scholars presume. The bird-maidens go back to the Hellenic tradition, being transferred through Sogd into Muslim art. The dish from Movarounnahr exhibits the interlacing of Arabo-Muslim (calligraphy), Irano-Persian (Persian verses), Hellenic (genesis of the image), Byzantine (iconography) and pure Sogdian (the form and elements of the ornament) features. The wall paintings of Pendjikent, Afrasiab and Varahsha demonstrate a secular and epic-narrative character along with obvious plastic originality and thematic variety. Thematically, it was reflected in the subjects from epos and parables, and plastically – in monumental forms and expressive color solutions. At the same time, the aspiration to embody the ideal of a king-knight is combined with the tendency to display the picture of the world in its thematic richness. Sogdian painting differs in a variety of aspects, plane but bright forms and graceful female figures, keeping dynamics even in seeming static posture. It is especially characteristic for the Pendjikent paintings. The representatives of the local pantheon dominate in the pictures of deities, but the cultic-religious beginning is not dominant in Sogdian art, which did not survive a pressure of this or that religion, as it was, for example, in Iran where Zoroastrianism obviously dominated.

Myth and reality, gods and people – Sogdian anthropology. The realistic picture of the world with its anthropological priorities prevails in Sogdian art along with attention to symbolics, myths and religious-cultic subjects. The Turkic symbolics serves as an instrument to form an image of a hero (B. Marshak). The absence of the state religion promoted secularization and tolerance of Sogdian art with its accented anthropological character. Ornamental motifs in the interior or forms of household products did not lose their semantics and did not transform into pure decorative means though this tendency occurred by the 8th century. The mythological realism, based on local religious, cultic and epic ideas, synthesized the traditions of own heritage and innovative influence, forming the unique art phenomenon and stylistic ground.

Sogdian art gave the samples of synthesis of painting and sculpture. The decor of the Varahsha palace brightly illustrates that. According to V. Shishkin, these could be hardly connected with any of popular religions of that time. This is a secular aesthetics. The subject motifs (a king on a throne, fighting and hunting scenes), finding analogies in Sogdian toreutics, were aimed to idealization of a king and had a representative character. This is the same hero-making, which was taken by Sogdian art from the Turkic didactic tradition. The scholars logically noted the features of the steppe animal style in Varahsha wall paintings, especially in the scenes with griffins. In spite of some Hellenic influence, the traditions of the steppe and ancient classical East were stronger in Sogdian art.

All the above classical samples of Sogdian art represent its elite stratum. The crafts formed more democratic field of Sogdian culture. Artistically, it represented the slightly primitive urban or nomadic tradition. The originality of this stratum of Sogdian art is also obvious. In this context, the last researches of the Uzbek archaeologists in southern and central Sogd gave the interesting materials, which revealed the new sides and features of Sogdian cultural space in general.

Sogdian art in the context of history of arts. Sogdian art differs from the art of the other regions of Central Asia – Tokharistan, Fergana, Chach, Khorezm, Margiana and Semirechie. The Tokharistan school is the closest stylistically, in spite of Buddhist subjects, so popular in the south of Uzbekistan, are almost absent in Sogdian art. The genesis of Sogdian painting was probably connected with northeastern and southern directions of cultural contacts as the wall painting and sculpture of such scale were not revealed in early medieval Iran. Essentially, this was Sogdian art that formed the basis of the future Muslim style in art and architecture of the region. The Muslim iconography absorbed the images of fantastic anthropomorphic birds and winged sphinxes, widespread in bronze products of Movarounnahr and Iran in the 11th – early 13th centuries. The Sogdian tradition developed the motif of throne sitting or royal feasting, which became very popular in Muslim crafts. We can see the evolution of this plot on the Movarounnahr dishes, where the Turkic king is represented with the branches of the vak-vak tree above and with the heads of leopards (11, 179). In this case, the Turkic (balbali – idols) and Muslim mythological traditions (speaking vak-vak tree) were synthesized on the Sogdian basis. The plot had lost its semantic content and turned into a decorative element. The same could be related to such themes as hunting, also popular in Sogdian art and transformed into the decorative patterns in Muslim art. The Sogdian epic tradition rendered the great influence on Muslim aesthetic. The recognizable subjects from “Shah-nameh” on the bronze casket of the 11th-12th centuries from the Samarkand museum are very characteristic in this respect.

Many products testify that Muslim crafts borrowed the forms as well. That belongs to such bright samples of Sogdian art metal and ceramics, as spooned bowls and bronze jugs, slightly modernized and widespread in Islamic art (11, ill. 181, 193 and 194). Sogdian painting played an important role in the formation and development of Oriental miniature painting. Many facts give the evidence that its birth was genetically connected with the traditions of Sogdian wall painting. The wall paintings of the 11th-12th centuries, recently discovered at the Afrasiab site (the beginning of the 2000s), revealed the stylistic affinity with miniature painting and so filled up the missing chronological link in this hypothesis.

Spiritually and stylistically Sogdian art was connected more with the previous antique time than with the subsequent Muslim Middle Ages, though the latter rendered great influence on the further development of Central Asian art. Therefore, in the context of the evolution of the art, this period could be identified as the late antiquity, though Soviet and post-Soviet historiography defined the 5th – 8th centuries as the early Middle Ages.

Author: Akbar Khakimov

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