Seljuk figurines: golden age gypsum aliens
Gypsum sculptures found in the area of the Seljuk empire were called Seljuk statuettes. They were created during the “Golden Age” – between the eleventh and thirteenth centuries. Figures adorned the interior walls and friezes of the Seljuk palaces, along with other decorative plaster decorations.
The figures were painted in bright and often golden colors. They represented real people and served as symbols of power.
Islamic art of the Seljuks
The Seljuks were a Turkish dynasty of nomadic origin from Central Asia. The dynasty began to rule the eastern Islamic world after defeating Ghazni in the Battle of Dandanakan and the overthrow of the Bugid dynasty.
After bright victories, the Seljuks established themselves as new representatives of the Abbasid caliphate and Sunni Islam. In just half a century, they managed to create a vast empire that encompassed Iran, Iraq and most of Anatolia. It was under the Seljuks that Iran experienced a period of cultural prosperity. Architecture and art developed especially, which left a deep imprint on subsequent artistic trends.
The Seljuks used different materials to create the statuettes: clay, gypsum, stone, metal. In ceramics, small motifs were emphasized by glazing, glossy finish and polychrome paint. Metal objects were decorated with silver and gold inlay.
Also, Seljuk artists have developed many figurative motifs depicting animals, men and women. Moreover, the idea of anthropomorphic figures in medieval Muslim culture was very common. While in the early centuries of Islam, portraying people in sacred places, such as in mosques, was strictly prohibited, in secular places, portraying figures was still commonplace.
Plaster figures in Seljuk palaces
All Seljuk palaces have now become ruins. But excavations show that they were once decorated with tiles and embossed gypsum stucco with geometric figures on the walls.
In Lashgari Bazar, the ruins of the old palace of the Ghaznavi era, polychrome murals were found. They depicted 44 soldiers adorning the lower floor of the courtroom. All have the same round faces and almond-shaped eyes, traditionally associated with the Turks of Central Asia.
Plaster figures adorned the royal palaces in the courtrooms and in the courtyards. They were found in the great palaces of the Seljuk sultans, in the small royal courtyards of the vassals, and even in the residences of local heirs.
It is assumed that these figures can be part of a larger geometric ornament of gypsum, which hid the main wall behind it. An example of whole gypsum figures can be found at the end of the 12th century in the city of Paradise. One of them represents the Seljuk Sultan Tugril Bek (1194) sitting on the throne, surrounded by his officers. Similar examples have been found in Basta, Afghanistan, Samarkand and Uzbekistan.
These sculptures were painted in bright colors of red, blue, black and gold. This was done so that the figures stood out against the background of the walls in the dark palace rooms where they were located.
Plaster figures in Seljuk palaces
What materials did the Seljuks use
Most of the figures were made of gypsum, as it is a water-based material, which, after drying, is easy to process. The gypsum solution is plastic, easy to use. The finished product is light enough to fit on the wall. In dry conditions, gypsum is well preserved. Many 12th-century gypsum figures survived due to the dry desert climate, where they were found.
The stucco figures of the Seljuks were painted in bright colors of blue (lapis lazuli powder), red (ruby powder) and black and were gilded.
What did the gypsum figurines symbolize
Seljuk figures symbolized power. Everything that was surrounded by the royal palace was connected with the power of the empire, for example, the royal guard, the courtiers or the emir himself. During excavations, figures of warriors with swords were found. They were dressed in caftans, trousers, belts and boots with bright colors.
Royal figures were represented by crowns. For example, two figures stored in the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York have winged crowns – an ancient symbol of power, which was first imprinted on a Sassanid coin in the third century.
All gypsum figurines of the Seljuks have rounded faces with typical high cheekbones and almond-shaped eyes, reflecting the Turkic and Mongolian ethnic types. They were usually shown in the setting of royal ceremonies, emphasizing the pomp of the situation.