Vessel in the shape of a stag

Marlik, in northern Iran, is a particularly important site. Located between the Caspian Sea and Elburz mountains, the area benefited from a warm climate with wooded forests and dense vegetation favorable to civilization. Tomb excavations at the site of Marlik yielded fascinating reddish and gray hollow pottery figurines in the shapes of humans and animals with spouts. This reddish-brown stag’s head forms a spout, which was probably used for pouring rather than drinking. Its stocky, full shape with a wide back and four stubby legs would have made it easy to handle. The earthenware was burnished, which means that it was rubbed while damp with a spoon-like tool before firing. This process makes it smooth to the touch.

Wares such as this one are often called “Amlash” after a small Caspian Sea village in southeastern Gilan province. Amlash has been a point of entry for the international antiquities market and has been used to describe unprovenanced antiquities, whether from Gilan province or not.


This standing Buddha has the round face, broad shoulders, and full body inspired by the Tang international style prevalent in East Asia during the eighth century. The disproportionately large head, stern facial expression, and wave-pattern drapery folds over the legs are characteristic of eighth-century Korean Buddhist images. Two prominent knobs on the upper and lower back indicate that this figure was originally equipped with a body halo (singwang; Sanskrit: mandorla). Both hands appear to have been damaged slightly by fire.

This image probably represents the Amita (Sanskrit: Amitabha), the Buddha of Eternal Life, who held the most exalted position in Korean Buddhism during this period. Many small gold and gilded bronze Buddhist images have been discovered in Silla temple sites and pagodas, indicating that such images were pervasive during the Unified Silla dynasty. While large figures of this type were placed in important halls of major monasteries, small ones were used for private worship or as votive images.

Krishna overcoming the serpent Kaliya

When the serpent king Kaliya poisons the Yamuna River with his venom Krishna steps in to save the day. The serpent tries to crush Krishna in his coils, but Krishna escapes, overpowers the serpent, and tramples him under his dancing feet. The serpent and his wives beg Krishna for mercy. Krishna, instead of killing the serpent, swears it to stop poisoning the river and banishes him and his family to the ocean.

This episode connects to the current predicament of sacred rivers in the Indian subcontinent. The Ganges, the holiest river in India, and its tributary the Yamuna have in recent years have become heavily polluted. Echoing Krishna’s restoration of the river and acknowledging its religious significance, scientists, environmentalists, and religious leaders have taken action to begin restoration of these sacred rivers.

Vase with four-lobed body

This vase is a curious combination of forms covered with a thick, opaque turquoise glaze. What starts as a cup-mouthed bottle with a graceful long neck suddenly divides into a four-lobed body and terminates in a narrow base. Cup-mouthed vessels are standard fare for twelfth-century Persian potters exercising the capabilities of fritware, and they exist in monochrome as well as underglaze- and luster-decorated versions. The cup at the top of the neck is often left plain or adorned with a molded inscription such as the one here in kufic script, which bestows blessings and happiness upon its owner.

Although they can be quite decorative, cup-mouthed vessels are usually designed with practicality in mind: the wide cup is convenient for refills and the long narrow neck helps prevent one from pouring the bottle’s contents too fast. The body could take on a range of molded forms, but the four-lobed body of this vase appears to be unique and without a prototype in ceramic or metalwork. Perhaps not the most functional vessel, this bottle demonstrates the outer limits of creativity of a medieval Persian potter.

Dish with horse and cheetah

A cheetah stands with regal poise, its paw resting on the mane of a noble steed, who lifts his hoof high and bows his head on this extraordinary dish. Cheetahs were used in Iran and India in much the same way as dogs for hunting game. Persian ceramics often depict hunters and their hunting cheetahs and horses. The fact that the hunter is missing on this dish is not important since the combination of the cheetah and horse effectively symbolize the hunt. The upside-down creature under the horse is perhaps the prey. The expressive enthusiasm and extraordinary attention to detail on this dish set it apart from other polychrome buffwares of the tenth century. Vegetal motifs in relief transform the black horse into a fantastic creature that is decorated all the way down to its hooves. Although there are losses in the area of the cheetah, its colorful patterning can be discerned. The cheetah is related to fantastic creatures depicted in ancient Persian ceramics and metalwork that combine different animal attributes. The rest of the dish’s interior is filled with familiar decorative motifs from the repertoire of the buffware potter: abstract geometric, floral, and vegetal motifs, as well as decorative motifs that resemble kufic-style Arabic script. Two dotted borders along the wall and on the rim of the dish frame the highly original composition. This large dish would have been sold as a luxury item and was not intended for everyday use.


This small box has traits in common with famous large boxes from the Goryeo dynasty (918–1392); those earlier boxes were made to store handwritten and printed Buddhist sutras (sacred texts). Like the Goryeo boxes, this one is rectangular and has a beveled lid. The principal decorated area—whose primary motif consists of simplified lotus flowers constructed of large pieces of mother-of-pearl—is surrounded by bands of jewels. This box’s style and design reflect the taste of the ruling gentry during the first half of the Joseon dynasty, as they valued the Confucian virtues of simplicity and restraint.

Miniature shrine with the Hindu deity Vishnu sleeping on the cosmic ocean

The universe has been destroyed. In the interval before it is recreated, nothing is left but limitless ocean. On this ocean floats Vishnu, lying on a serpent, asleep. The universe now persists, like a dream, within the sleeping god. When the time is right, he will put forth from his navel the god Brahma, who will reconstruct the universe, and the cycle will begin again.

This form of Vishnu, asleep on the cosmic ocean, is the central image of one of the most important Hindu temples in southern India, the Shri Ranganatha Temple at Shrirangam. This miniature shrine is an abbreviated representation of that vast temple. Its general form recalls the temple’s towers, and the dome shape in its upper part recalls the superstructure of the temple’s central building. In front of the dome-shaped element in both the miniature and the real building is an arched panel with a standing half-figure of Vishnu in a special form as the ultimate supreme deity. Below the reclining Vishnu is another standing Vishnu flanked by his consorts, a pair of door guardians, and other figures.

The Bonpo deity Kungsang Galwa Dupa

Kunsang Galwa Dupa, the principal tranquil deity in the pantheon of the Bonpo religion (which coexisted with Buddhism in Tibet), has five heads and ten hands. He sits with the soles of his four feet facing upward. The hands in front of his chest hold sun and moon discs inscribed with the Tibetan letters A and Ma; these symbols help us to recognize this image as Bonpo rather than Buddhist. Among Kunsang Galwa Dupa’s symbolic implements is the swastika, the Bonpo equivalent of the Buddhist thunderbolt, symbolizing indestructibility and good fortune. The square pedestal below the lotus throne is guarded by a dragon, an elephant, a lion, a horse, and a peacock. This image wears a type of five-leaf crown peculiar to western Tibet. The modeling of the body and the silver inlay in the eyes show a distinct influence from the art of Kashmir in northern India and Pakistan. Images from the Bonpo religion are rare in museum collections.

The Hindu deities Krishna and Satyabhama riding Garuda

Here Krishna rides the splendid Garuda, frequently described as king of the birds. The two share qualities of immense strength, courage, and wisdom. Garuda is depicted as part eagle and part man and is shown with Vishnu in many forms. Krishna, being an incarnation of Vishnu, is also seen riding Garuda.

Many Hindu gods and goddesses have a vehicle (vahana), an animal that serves the deity as a mount. These animals, mighty beings in their own right, possess qualities shared in some ways by their corresponding gods. For example, Shiva rides the bull Nandi, a symbol of the god’s masculine power and sexuality. Shiva, the greatest of all ascetics, also rides the bull in the sense of controlling that unbridled energy. Certain half-animal gods, such as the elephant-headed Ganesha, also have animal vehicles. Ganesha is revered as the remover of obstacles, and similarly, his rat companion has the ability and nimbleness of wit to get through any hindrance.