Human flight on a fabulous superbird : uplifting images between Sicily and Khurasan

Variant title
Lidský let na bájném ptáku : povznášející obrazy mezi Sicílií a Chorásánem (II. část)
Author: Kapitaikin, Lev
Source document: Convivium. 2019, vol. 6, iss. 2, pp. [98]-119
Extent
[98]-119
  • ISSN
    2336-3452 (print)
    2336-808X (online)
Type: Article
Language
English
License: Not specified license
Rights access
fulltext is not accessible
Abstract(s)
In a pair of apotheosis scenes painted in the wooden Islamic ceiling of the Cappella Palatina in Palermo (1130–1154), human figures are carried aloft by giant birds. Previous interpretations of these paintings range from Alexander's ascension or Ganymed's abduction, to Buddhist myths, to the Sasanian scenes illustrated in the Hermitage's famous Sasanian silver dish. This essay contends, instead, that the Palatina's flying birds conveying humans are to be identified as the fabulous avians of Islamic lore – either the Arabic 'anqā', the Persian sīmurgh, or the Turkic k. arā-k. uş/t.ughril. Anecdotes and tales about such super-birds' extraordinary powers, including their ability to fly humans, abound in Islamic, Turkic, and Persianate cultures, including Zāl's nurturing by the sīmurgh in the Iranian Shāhnāma, the black eagle transporting the hero in the Central Asian epic of Er-Töshtük, and Arabic sailors' tales-of-rescue by giant birds. The iconography of the Palatina apotheosis scenes – showing the hero tied by a rope to the super-bird – is traceable to tenth- to twelfth-century Iranian art, especially metalwork and textiles from Khurasan. The horned ears and double heads and/or prey of the Palatina birds (and in analogous Iranian scenes) derive from Iranian and Central Asian or Turkic traditions, connoting these legendary predators' might and cosmic mastery. Notions and images of apothesios were associated with the ruler in totemic signification and pictorial emblematization, as the fabulous super-birds depicted in the Palatina ceiling transport the princely couple to a symbolic heaven.
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