Place of Origin: Qajar Empire (modern-day Iran)
Date: 19th Century
Overall Diameter: 480mm (19 Inches)
A highly unusual shield chased throughout its entire surface with magnificent decorative motifs, including the central array which depicts several zodiac signs.
Concentric borders composed of winding vine-stems separate larger panels housing a range of fascinating figures and motifs. The first sequence, nearest to the shield’s upturned brim, depicts seated characters – some with striking animal heads – alternating with calligraphic cartouches. The second and largest arrangement then is chased with scenes of different figures, each panel surreally separated by recurving arches formed as snakes’ bodies. The variety of the depictions is both extraordinary and endearing: some individuals shown are seated and seem meditative or in calm conversation, whilst others dance and strike dramatic poses within their panels.
Four fluted bosses form the corners of the shield’s central arrangement which depicts a lion and dragon in combat. The pair are surrounded by an array of zodiac signs. Some, such as the centaur or Sagittarius and the scales of Libra, are easily recognizable, but the Chinese snake is an unusual addition and well reflects the way constellational cultures can intersect and exchange symbols. The reverse of the shield is fitted with wooden struts and leather straps for the wearer’s arm.
Depictions of the zodiac have a long tradition in Persian metalware, such as can be observed in an inkwell dating to the early 13th century preserved at the Metropolitan Museum of Art (Accession No. 59.69.2a, b). Though such imagery is rare in arms and armour, a shield at the Brooklyn Museum (Accession No. 42.245.2) is decorated using a similar schema. The central depiction of the lion and dragon in combat also has an interesting history, as can be seen in a single-page drawing from Isfahan in central Iran (Accession No. AKM82) which – in its depiction of the same struggle between these creatures – shows the clear influence that Chinese artistic styles had on the Iranian artisans of the time.