FRAME|WORK: A Relief of a Gift Bearer from Ancient Persia

FRAME|WORK is a weekly blog series that highlights an artwork in the Museums' permanent collections. This week, we feature an exquisite bas-relief of a gift bearer from ancient Persia, currently on view in the Hall of Antiquities at the Legion of Honor.


Relief of a Gift Bearer, Persian, Achaemenid Empire, Persepolis, Palace of Darius or Xerxes, ca. 490–470 B.C. Limestone. Museum purchase, gift of Lisa Sardegna, Albert P. Wagner Bequest Fund, William A. Stimson, Friends of Ian White Endowment Income Fund, Unrestricted Art Acquisition Endowment Fund, Volunteer Council Art Acquisition Fund, Ancient Art Trust Fund and Auction Proceeds, Mrs. John N. Rosekrans, Jr., Sande Schlumberger, Endowment Fund in Honor of Francesca and Thomas Carr Howe, Walter H. and Phyllis J. Shorenstein Foundation Fund, Tish and James Brown and various Tribute Funds. 2008.1

This artwork comes from the magnificently preserved, monumental site of Persepolis, the capital of the Achaemenid Persian empire from the 6th to the 4th centuries BC. The special glory of this site consisted of its exemplary stone reliefs that emphasized the role and the majesty of the Great King of the Achaemenid empire. The fabled site of Persepolis is well known for the sculpted stonework relief decorations on its massive walls and the stone staircases of its splendid palace.

This relief originates from one of the relief-decorated sides of one of these monumental stone staircases. It represents a particularly high moment in the history of Achaemenid Persian sculpture dating to between 490 and 470 BC. It depicts the profile of a royal servant who—were his lower half still visible—would likely be carrying food or some other valued item in a long procession of servants in service to his king. While only his head and shoulder remain, his bearded face is dignified. He wears a characteristically Persian headgear called a pleated bashlyk.

Under the rule of Darius the Great, the third king of the Achaemenid Empire, the city of Persepolis achieved great architectural heights, for which it remains famous today. Darius’s untiring military expeditions expanded the Persian Empire’s boundaries to include all of the Middle East, regions as far west as the Balkans, portions of north and northeast Africa—including Egypt—parts of Pakistan and India, and the Aegean Islands and northern Greece. Persepolis, the capital of this expansive empire during his reign, was known as the “City of Persians.” Despite Alexander the Great’s widespread destruction of the ancient city, Persepolis remains a marvel of art and architecture, archaeology and ancient history.

Relief of a Gift Bearer is currently on view in the lower level Hall of Antiquities at the Legion of Honor.

Join us this Saturday, March 10 at 2:00 p.m. in the Florence Gould Theater for a special lecture presented by Dr. Alexander Nagel, assistant curator of Ancient Near Eastern art at the Freer Sackler Galleries, Smithsonian Institution. Nagel examines the use of color in ancient Persian sculpture in a presentation entitled An Empire in Blue-Color in Persepolis: New Research on the Polychromy of Achaemenid Persian Palace Sculpture, ca. 520 to 300 BCE.

The lecture will be followed by a book signing in the Legion Store. David Stronach, Professor Emeritus, Near Eastern Studies at the University of California at Berkeley, will be on hand to sign Ancient Iran from the Air published by Philip von Zabern. Stronach co-edited this collection of photographs taken between 1976 and 1978 by Georg Gerster, one of the world’s foremost aerial photographers, who flew across the length and breadth of Iran to photograph the memorable landscapes, archaeological sites, and historical monuments that characterize this storied land, including the ancient capital of Persepolis. This will be a rare opportunity to obtain a signed copy in advance before it is released online and in stores.

Copies of the Ancient Iran from the Air will be available for purchase at this special event.