"...the Imagination (or love, or sympathy, or any other sentiment) induces knowledge, and knowledge of an 'object' which is proper to it..."
Henry Corbin (1903-1978) was a scholar, philosopher and theologian. He was a champion of the transformative power of the Imagination and of the transcendent reality of the individual in a world threatened by totalitarianisms of all kinds. One of the 20th century’s most prolific scholars of Islamic mysticism, Corbin was Professor of Islam & Islamic Philosophy at the Sorbonne in Paris and at the University of Teheran. He was a major figure at the Eranos Conferences in Switzerland. He introduced the concept of the mundus imaginalis into contemporary thought. His work has provided a foundation for archetypal psychology as developed by James Hillman and influenced countless poets and artists worldwide. But Corbin’s central project was to provide a framework for understanding the unity of the religions of the Book: Judaism, Christianity and Islam. His great work Alone with the Alone: Creative Imagination in the Sufism of Ibn ‘Arabi is a classic initiatory text of visionary spirituality that transcends the tragic divisions among the three great monotheisms. Corbin’s life was devoted to the struggle to free the religious imagination from fundamentalisms of every kind. His work marks a watershed in our understanding of the religions of the West and makes a profound contribution to the study of the place of the imagination in human life.

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Thursday, June 17, 2010

Spiritual Body & Celestial Earth and the "Buyid Silks"

[ I update this early post from December 2008 with the addition of the entire essay by Blair, Bloom & Wardwell. For those who may have an interest, I have a high resolution image of the textile in question (on the left here), but was asked by the Cleveland Museum not to post it online (not sure of their rationale on that). I would make it available to anyone with an interest.]

The silk textile used as the Frontispiece to Corbin’s Spiritual Body & Celestial Earth (first published in French, 1960), was said to be among those found in Rayy outside of Teheran in 1925. It was attributed by Wiet (1947) to the Sasanian period. Along with many of the objects allegedly found at that site, this piece has since been determined to be a forgery. The story of the controversy surrounding what came to be known as the “Buyid Silks” is complex and of some interest to students of Islamic art. I provide here a few details from the larger narrative that are relevant to this “Sasanian silk” in particular as well as references to the literature.

Corbin’s description of the illustration is as follows (see my earlier post of Dec. 3, 2008):

“The design of the frontispiece is reproduced from a silk textile in the collection of the Cleveland Museum of Art, purchased from the J.H. Wade Fund. It also appears in a book by Gaston Wiet entitled Soieries Persanes (Mémoires de l’Institut d’Egypte, Vol. 52, Cairo, 1947, Pl. XI and pp. 55-63). The original figure on silk was discovered in 1925, together with many other extraordinary pieces, when certain graves accidentally came to light in the hills adjoining the sanctuary of Shahr-Bānū, not far from Ray (the Rhages of the Book of Tobias), a few miles to the south of Teheran.
It can be inferred from the place of the discovery that this was a precious material offered by friends or relatives for wrapping the body of the deceased person (cf. Issa Behnam, in Revue de la Faculté des Lettres de l’Université de Téhéran, October, 1956). It is said to date from the fifth century (eleventh century C.E.) and was found in a state of perfect preservation. Iconographically, it is interesting as a motif in the Sāsānid style on material dating from the great Islamic period. The site of the discovery makes it even more interesting, for, according to Iranian tradition, the princess Shahr-Bānū, daughter of the last Sāsānid ruler, Yazdgard III, became the wife of Husayn ibn ‘Alī. the Third Imam of the Shi’ites, and here we find an expression, iconographic and topographic, of the union of Mazdean Iran and Shi’ite Iran.” [Corbin, xxxi.]

The textile in question remains in the Cleveland Museum (CMA1962.264). (It is listed by Blair, Bloom and Wardwell [BBW] as Wiet IX, not “Plate XI” as in the English translation of Corbin.) It is one of two “Sasanian” textiles discussed in Wiet, 1947. He assigned the rest of the pieces to the Buyid and Seljuk Periods. (It is also said to be illustrated in D. G. Shepard, “Medieval Persian Silks in Fact and Fancy (A Refutation of the Riggisberg Report),” Bulletin de Liason du Centre International d’Etude des Textiles Anciens 39-40 (1974): 137ff., Fig. 1).

Cleveland Museum Accession Number: 1962.264. Medium: lampas weave, silk. Measurements: Overall: 171cm x 65cm. The entire textile is roughly three times the size of the section illustrated in Corbin’s book. There are three pairs of double-headed birds carrying human figures on the extant section of textile. Acquisition: Purchase from the J. H. Wade Fund. Inscription: on the wing of each small bird is an inscription: "al-rahmah" [mercy]. On the upper part of the arms of the small standing figure: "al-barakah" [blessing]. At top of textile, Kufic inscription: "baqayta amir al-mu'minin fa-innama baqa['u]ka hasan lil-zaman wa-tay-yib" [Thou hast remained Commander of the Believers, and indeed, Thy remaining is (a) handsome and good (thing) for the age].

Of the silks that Weit discussed, Blair, Bloom and Wardwell write, “It was later revealed that the textiles had first been acquired by ‘a Mr. Mattossian, a wealthy Cairene tobacco merchant who traveled frequently to Persia, collect[ing] objects for his own interest and apparently …also not averse to selling some of them occasionally.’ During the war the textiles were in Cairo, where Wiet studied them, and then Mme. Paul Mallon brought them to New York.” [BBW, 2] These objects were then acquired by a variety of museums in the US, Europe and in Karachi. Florence Day pointed out in her review of Wiet’s book that “[t]he unknown provenance and history of these textiles made them unacceptable historical documents.” [BBW, 3]


Day, Assistant Curator of Near Eastern Art at the Metropolitan Museum in New York, in a scathing review of his book, “challenged virtually everything Weit had written about the silks.” [BBW, 2] She argued that there was no reason to think that any of them came from the sanctuary of Shahr-Bānū, and that the iconography and style of the “Sasanian” silks was inconsistent with that attribution. She pointed out that some of the pieces, including the one of interest here (Wiet IX, CMA1962.264), were long enough to suggest that they “had just come off the loom.” [BBW, 3. Weit IX is 171 cm]. And finally, as Blair, Bloom and Wardwell summarize her conclusions: “the dull color schemes of the doubtful pieces compared unfavorably with those of such genuine silks as the St. Josse Shroud, which has distinct, clear, and contrasting colors.” [BBW, 3]. In a subsequent reply to a response by Wiet published in the same volume as her review, Day wrote “The heart of the matter is style. The very ugliness of these silks, and their peculiar style, completely unrelated to Sasanian art, or to Islamic art either before or after the Buwayid period…first aroused my doubts.” [Day, “Miss Day’s Reply].

In their own epigraphic analysis Blair, Bloom and Wardwell write as follows of CMA1962.264: “An almost complete silk cloth with two-headed eagles carrying human figures has a verse by the Arabic poet al-Buhturi congratulating the ‘Abbasid caliph al-Mutawakkil (r. 847-61) on being saved from drowning: ‘You remain the Commander of the Faithful and your preservation is a handsome and good [thing] for the era.’ ” [BBW, 9-10] Although it seems there is nothing essentially suspect about this particular inscription, they conclude their analysis of the large group of questionable textiles by saying “A study of the inscriptions on the ‘Buyid’ silks thus raised grave doubts about the date of many of the pieces.” [BBW, 10]

The investigation by Blair, Bloom and Wardwell was requested by the Cleveland Museum in 1989. Central to their project was radiocarbon dating of 17 “Buyid” textiles. CMA1962.264 was not among those selected for analysis. Their general conclusions are as follows. The silks fell into four groups on the basis of radiocarbon dating. Those in Group A are unquestionably medieval, dating from the 10th to the 12th centuries. Two textiles comprising Group D are without question forgeries made after 1950 (on the basis of the presence of radioisotopes produced by atomic bombs). The largest set, Group C, dated between the early 16th or mid-17th century and 1950. Though the radiodating range is large and imprecise other evidence is highly suggestive. On the basis of stylistic, iconographic, paleographic and epigraphic evidence “It…seems likely that they began to be produced as forgeries in the early twentieth century, certainly before their first appearance in the literature of the 1930’s and presumably after the original finds at Rayy in 1924-25.” [BBW, 17] Finally two pieces in Group B remain problematic, but were dated between the mid-15th and mid-16th centuries. Like Group C however, stylistic and other evidence suggests they are unlike other objects known from this period.

To conclude: Among the “Buyid” textiles under scrutiny, there were some that were indeed medieval, but there were also two groups of forgeries: “those produced between ca. 1930 and 1945 and those made after 1950. While both groups of forgeries were undoubtedly made to deceive collectors and scholars, the textiles of the first group show a far more sophisticated knowledge of the style and epigraphy of textiles actually made in Iran in the medieval Islamic period.” [BBW, 18]

We are left in doubt about the origin of CMA1962.264 other than the fact that it was made prior to 1945, since Wiet studied it during the war in Cairo. Day’s conclusion that it is among what has been shown to be a large group of 20th century forgeries is beyond question on stylistic grounds, and it has been accepted as such by the Cleveland Museum.


Blair, Sheila S., Jonathan M. Bloom and Anne E. Wardwell, “Reevaluating the Date of the ‘Buyid’ Silks by Epigraphic and Radiocarbon Analysis,” Ars Orientalis, Vol. 22, (1992), 1-41. [BBW] See below.

Corbin, Henry. Spiritual Body & Celestial Earth: From Mazdean Iran to Shi'ite Iran. Translated by Nancy Pearson. Princeton: Princeton University Press, Bollingen Series XCI: 2, 1977.
_____ Terre céleste et corps de résurrection de l'Iran mazdéen á l'Iran shi'ite. Paris: Buchet/Chastel, 1960.

Day, Florence E. Review: “Soieries persanes. By Gaston Wiet,” Ars Islamica 15-16 (1951): 231-44.
_____ “Miss Day’s Reply,” Ars Islamica 15-16 (1951): 250-51.

Wiet, Gaston. Soieries Persanes. Cairo: Institut français d’archéologie orientale, 1947.

Blair, Bloom & Wardwell

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