Chehel Sotoon Palace
The Pavilion with Forty Columns
This building - now a veritable museum of Persian painting and ceramics-was a pleasure pavilion used for the king's entertainments and receptions. It stands inside a vast royal park, but relatively near the enclosure, and was built by Shah Abbas II round an earlier building erected by Shah Abbas I. An inscription states that the decoration and frescoes were finished in 1647. Only two large historical frescoes date from the later period of the Zand dynasty.
Unfortunately, the Chehel Sotun has been badly damaged since then, especially when the Afghans occupied the town and covered the paintings with a thick coat of whitewash. It is now being extensively restored under the aegis of the Institute Italian Per il Medio Oriente.
This pavilion opens on the gardens by means of an elegant terrace, only a few steps high and supported by slender, delicate wooden pillars. In reality, there were never more than twenty columns, but they were reflected in the pool in the park, and so the Persians liked to call the building the "pavilion with Forty Columns" (besides, the number 40 had a symbolic meaning in Persia and expressed respect and admiration). Two rows of water-spouts and fountains in the shape of stone lions at the four corners carried water to the huge, elegant rectangular basin.
The terrace is a marvel of elegance. The slender pillars support a light wooden ceiling with wide fretwork louvres. Here we should note the influence of Eastern Asian architecture. Part of the sumptuous decoration-which is perhaps a little heavy-has disappeared. We must picture the back wall covered with mirros, the doors of rare carved wood, and the pillars, each cut from a single plane-tree trunk, with their fine veneer, their brightly coloured paintings, their mirrors and studs of coloured glass.
We still have the remarkable ceiling with its beams, its beams, its coffering, its painted wood louvres, and its careful inlay-work-rosettes and suns, stars, stylized fruit and foliage. The great wooden ceilings-a rare luxury in a country so lacking in trees-are among the finest achievements of secular Persian art. In the center of the terrace is a marble basin guarded by four lions which support the central columns.
Inside, the great hall, sometimes called the throne room, is covered by four cupolas which are no less outstanding than the ceilings. They have frescoes, stuccoes, and even brightly colored glass studs and mirrored. The base of the cupola and the honeycomb pendentives have outstanding rich geometrical and floral decorations with a profusion of brilliant reds and gold.
This hall is renowned especially for its frescoes, its panels of ceramics and miniatures.
The upper part of the wall is covered with large historical frescoes depicting court life and the great deeds of the Safavid princes. Above the entrance door, from right to left, there are a battle scene in which the armies of Shah Ismail, the founder of the Safavid dynasty, are opposed to the Uzbeks, a Mongol people, who threatened the northern frontiers of Persia; another battle, this time set in India and opposing Nader Shah Afshar and Sultan Mahmud, who is shown on a white elephant; a reception given by Shah Abbas II in honor of King Nader Mohammed Khan of Turkestan; and musicians and dancing girls. On the other wall, opposite the entrance door, we have, from right to left: a feast given by Shah Abbaas the Great, which is a clear and picturesque portrayal of the pomp and ostentations of the Court in Isfahan ; then comes the battle of Shah Ismail against the janissaries of Sultan Suleiman in which the artist has incorporated the legend of the marvelously tempered blade that could cut through a horseman from the head to the saddle; finally, Shah Tahmasp welcoming to his court the Hindu prince Humaiun who fled to Persia in 1543.
In contrast to these large official paintings, we find-on the lower part of the walls-small genre paintings which express a subtler, more delicate aspect of Persian art. These include ceramic panels in which predominantly rich colors are set against a deep ultramarine background; they are in shades of green and jade, ochre and gold. There are also much more delicate paintings in which browns and reds predominate. this is the art of the miniaturist, and we find in it all the subjects, costumes and attitudes dear to the Persian genre painters: young women and very effeminate young men, dances, entertainments, and flirtations, all in a setting of garden and orchards, shady cypresses and fruit trees, and grass studded with flowers.
This large state room is flanked by two smaller rooms, wide open to the garden and containing other paintings believed to be portraits of ambassadors. In the smaller rooms there are showcases containing an outstanding selection of fine items of Persian China-large soup plates, vases, ewers, large vases with fabulous decoration (imaginary animals, dragons); the blue decorations on a white ground are exquisite. Finally , there is a 15th century stained-glass window (1453) from the Darb-e-Imam mausoleum. This is a unique piece in rich and vivid colors.
Other remains of Isfahan buildings have been preserved and placed in the garden near the Pavilion with Forty Columns. Thus, at the south, in the town wall, we find the enameled portal of the Qothiyeh Mosques, dating from 1543, and several faience panels.