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
Author: Kapitaikin, Lev
Source document: Convivium. 2016, vol. 3, iss. 2, pp. 84-105
Extent
84-105
  • ISSN
    2336-3452 (print)
    2336-808X (online)
Type
Article
Language
English
License: Not specified license
Rights access
fulltext is not accessible
Abstract(s)
Painted on the great Islamic ceiling of Palermo's Cappella Palatina (1140s) is a pair of apotheosis scenes – two human figures carried in flight by giant birds. Interpretations of these paintings have ranged from Alexander's Ascension, to Ganymed's Abduction, to Sasanian and Buddhist myths illustrated in the famous Sasanian silver dish in the Hermitage. This paper argues, instead, that the Palatina's birds flying humans are to be identified with the fabulous avian figures of Islamic lore, either the Arabic ʿAnqāʾ, the Persian Sīmurgh, or the Turkic Tughril. Tales about such superbirds, their extraordinary powers, and their transporting humans abound in Islamic, Turkic, and Persianate cultures. Among these are Zāl's nurturing by the Sīmurgh in the Iranian Shāhnāma, the black eagle transporting the hero in the Central Asian oral epic of Er-Töshtük, and Arabic tales of sailors rescued at sea by giant birds. The distinctive iconography of the Palatina apotheosis scenes – the humans secured with ropes to the superbirds – is traceable to Iranian art of the tenth to the twelfth centuries, especially to metalwork and textiles from Khurasan (eastern Iran). The horned ears and double heads and/or prey of the Palatina birds and analogous Iranian scenes hail from medieval Islamic and Central-Asian or Turkic traditions connoting these fantastic beasts' cosmic potency. The well-documented travels of learned men, traders, and pilgrims in the area of Sicily, Iran, and Khurasan account for the transmission of this kind of imagery. The Cappella Palatina superbirds convey the princely couple to the symbolic heaven of the starry ceiling.
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