GAČ-BORĪ, plasterwork or stucco. Gypsum plaster has been used as a building material in Persia for more than 2,500 years. Originally it may have been applied as a rendering to mud brick walls to protect them from the weather, but it was soon exploited for its decorative effects, as it alleviates the bleakness of brick and rubble walls and provides a ground for applied decoration. A cheap and flexible medium of decoration, it can be secured to almost any material of construction used for exterior and interior surfaces and can be moulded, carved, and painted in a wide variety of ways. Stucco was also used for window and balcony grilles and to construct moqarnas (stalactite) vaults. In the hands of Persian craftsmen, this humble material reached unsurpassed heights of artistic creativity.
Gypsum, the mineral from which plaster is made, was widely available. Traditionally, the quarried gypsum was sent on donkey back to the kiln where it was burned, crushed with wooden mallets to the size of hazelnuts, and pulverized in a edge–runner mill (Wulff, pp. 124-26). Persian gypsum sets rapidly after being mixed with water, so to make it workable the mixture must be stirred constantly until it loses most of its setting power. This “killed” plaster (gač-e košta) is applied to walls and ceilings in several coats and does not set hard for forty-eight hours. For fine stucco work, the wet plaster is dusted with powdered talc and gypsum and then rubbed to give a high gloss. For painted surfaces, the plaster is soaked with linseed oil and coated with sandarac oil (Wulff, 1966, pp. 133-35).
Plaster, known as early as the Neolithic period, became common by Achaemenid times. Achaemenid palaces at Persepolis had brick walls rendered with a fairly thick coat of plaster, which was often painted with earth colors, and the columns of the Treasury Hall had a plaster coating applied to a layer of reed rope coiled around the wooden core (Schmidt, 1939, p. 53). The use of plaster rendering on walls and columns developed during the Hellenistic and Parthian periods. At the late Parthian site of Qalʿa-ye Yazdegerd, for example, the walls were covered with stucco moulded and carved in repeat patterns and repetitive figural compositions. Surfaces were divided into flat panels and bands of repeat designs suggestive of textile ornament, and the relief designs were painted in bright, even gaudy colors and executed in varying scales (Keall, Leveque, and Willson). This lavish use of plaster was a hallmark of Sasanian architecture, when columns were sheathed and walls encrusted with plaster that was carved and moulded in a wide variety of geometric, floral, and figural motifs, as the palaces at Tepe Hissar (Tappa Ḥeṣār) southeast of Dāmḡān (q.v.; Schmidt, 1937).
The Sasanian tradition of elaborate plaster decoration on walls and columns continued into Islamic times. Most of the polychrome stucco decoration from Čāl Ṭarḵān (q.v.) near Ray, including small figural relief plaques, large-scale human and animal reliefs and statues, probably dates from the Omayyad period (41-126/661-744) in Persia (Thompson, 1976). Stucco was the ideal medium to cover the vast mud-brick palaces erected in the mid-9th century by the ʿAbbasid caliphs at Sāmarrāʾ in Iraq, and the prestige of the capital province meant that stucco ornament was enthusiastically adopted throughout the Islamic lands. Three increasingly abstract styles (A-C) of carved and moulded ornament have been delineated (Creswell, II, pp. 286-88). In styles A and B, vegetal forms are still recognizable, but style C, the beveled style characterized by a distinctive slanted cut (Ger. schrägeschnitt), contains endless rhythmic and symmetrical repetitions of curved lines with spiral terminals. Carved stucco ornament in styles A and B covers most of the superstructure of the nine-domed mosque at Balḵ in Afghanistan (9th century; Golombek; Ettinghausen and Grabar, fig. 216). At the 10th-century Friday mosque at Nāʾīn in central Persia, exuberant stucco decoration carved in styles A and B covers the columns and motifs in the six bays in front of the meḥrāb, and the three–tiered meḥrāb itself is decorated in rich relief that is almost three-dimensional (Viollet and Flury; Flury, 1930; Survey of Persian Art, pls. 265-69; Ettinghausen and Grabar, figs. 210–13). The beveled style is first documented in Persia in the carved stucco panel above the meḥrāb niche in the shrine of Davāzdah Emām in Yazd, dated 429/1037 (Ettinghausen, 1952, p. 76; Survey, pl. 273B). The Islamic avoidance of figural imagery in religious contexts meant that most of the patterns in mosques and tombs are geometric, floral, and epigraphic, but secular buildings, such as the 12th-century Regent’s Palace at Termeḏ, show that figural and animal subjects were also used (Ettinghausen and Grabar, fig. 306).
The tradition of carving stucco in increasingly high relief can be traced in mehrābs from medieval Persia. In the finest examples, such as the meḥrābs at the congregational mosque at Ardestān (1135; Survey of Persian Art, pls. 312-24; Ettinghausen and Grabar, fig. 303), arabesques of stems and leaves on intersecting levels create a sense of movement and depth. This style continued into the 14th century, as in the superb meḥrāb added to the winter hall of the Friday mosque in Isfahan in 710/1310 (Blair and Bloom, fig. 12). From this period onwards, moulded stucco elements were also assembled in elaborate moqarnas vaults (e.g., the tomb of ʿAbd-al-Ṣamad at Naṭanz, 707/1307; Blair and Bloom, fig. 11), and the effect was often heightened by painted decoration (e.g., the tomb of Gowharšād, Herāt, 1432; Blair and Bloom, fig. 62).
Elaborate stucco revetments were popular under the Safavids (1501-1732), when palace interiors were decorated with moqarnas and niches intended for the display of porcelains and other wares (e.g., the music room at the ʿĀlī Qāpū palace, q.v., at Isfahan, early 17th century; Blair and Bloom, fig. 240). Window and balcony grilles were made of lattices cut from plaster boards and the openings filled with stained glass (e.g., Shaikh Loṭf-Allāh mosque at Isfahan, completed 1618-19; Blair and Bloom, fig. 233). From this period onwards, mirror-glass was also set in plaster in the technique known as āʾīna-kārī (q.v.), and elaborate carved and painted plaster remained the standard decoration in fine Qajar houses and palace (Bakhtiar and Hillenbrand).
Plate 1. Carved stucco hood in the meḥrāb of the Friday mosque at Nāʾīn. 10th century.
Plate 2. Moqarnas vault of moulded stucco in the tomb of ʿAbd-al-Ṣamad at Naṭanz, 1307.
Plate 3. Pierced stucco vaults in the so-called “music room” of the ʿĀlī Qāpū palace, Isfahan. Early 17th century.
A. A. Bakhtiar and R. Hillenbrand, “Domestic Architecture in Nineteenth-Century Iran. The Manzil-i Sartīp Sidihī near Isfahan” in E. Bosworth and C. Hillenbrand, eds., Qajar Iran: Political, Social and Cultural Change 1800-1925, Edinburgh, 1983, pp. 383-401.
S. Blair and J. Bloom, The Art and Architecture of Islam: 1250-1800, London and New Haven, 1994.
K. A. C. Creswell, Early Muslim Architecture, 2 vols., Oxford, 1932-40.
R. Ettinghausen, “The ‘Beveled Style’ in the Post-Samarra Period,” Archaeologica Orientalia in Memoriam Ernst Herzfeld, Locust Valley, N.Y., 1952, pp. 72-83; repr. in Islamic Art and Archaeology Collected Papers, ed. M. Rosen-Ayalon, Berlin, 1984, pp. 182-204.
R. Ettinghausen and O. Grabar, The Art and Architecture of Islam: 650-1250, Harmonds worth, U.K., 1987.
S. Flury, “La mosquée de Nayin,” Syria 11, 1930, pp. 43-58.
L. Golombek, “The Abbasid Mosque at Balkh,” Oriental Art 15, 1969, pp. 173-89.
D. Hill and O. Grabar, Islamic Architecture and Its Development, London, 1964.
E. Galdieri, Esfahān. ʿAli Qapu: An Architectural Survey, Rome, 1979.
U. Harb, Ilkhanidische Stalaktitengewölbe, Berlin, 1978.
E. J. Keall, M. Leveque, and N. Willson, “Qalʿeh-i Yazdigird: Its Architectural Decorations,” Iran 18, 1980, pp. 1-41.
J. Kröeger, Sasanidischer Stuckdecor, Mainz, 1982.
R. M. Riefstahl, “Persian Islamic Stucco Sculpture,” Art Bulletin 13, 1931, pp. 439-63.
E. Schmidt, Excavations at Tepe Hissar, Damghan, Philadelphia, 1937.
Idem, The Treasury of Persepolis, Chicago, 1939.
Idem, Persopolis, 2 vols., Chicago, 1951-57.
D. Thompson, Stucco from Chal Tarkhan-Eshqabad near Rayy, Warminster, U.K., 1976.
H. Viollet and S. Flury, “Un monument des premier siècles de l’hégire en Perse,” Syria, 2, 1921, pp. 226-34, 305-16.
H. Wulff, The Traditional Crafts of Persia: Their Development, Technology, and Influence on Eastern and Western Civilizations, Cambridge, Mass., and London, 1966, pp. 125-35.
(Sheila S. Blair)
Originally Published: December 15, 2000
Last Updated: February 2, 2012
This article is available in print.
Vol. X, Fasc. 3, pp. 242-244