Artist not known, Swat Valley, Pakistan Late 1200s
12 ft. X 20 ft.
Bj Averitt Islamic Art Fund, 1993.1
Photograph © Denver Art Museum 2008. All Rights Reserved.
This architectural façade comes from the palace of Sayyed Akbar Shah, the first and only ruler of the Kingdom of Swat. The king’s palace was located in a town called Saidu, one of the main towns in the Swat River valley of present-day Pakistan. Although we do not know the names of the artists who made this door, or even how many artists there were, we can make a few guesses about them. We know that they were very skilled woodworkers, and that they were probably Muslim. We also know that they worked for a very powerful individual, the king, who most likely made some of the design decisions himself. Because of the size of the façade, and the amount of detailed carving covering the surface, there were probably a number of people who contributed to the process of creating it.
The façade formed one-third of a formal entrance to the king’s palace. Because this entryway faced the street and would be seen by many people, the king would have wanted an elaborate design that would reflect his status and power. The woodworkers filled every available space with different shapes and patterns, leaving no area of the surface untouched. They probably followed the Muslim belief that no human or animal forms should be used. Instead, they used geometric and organic, or natural, forms. The amount of time that would have been required for such detailed carving illustrates the incredible skill of the artists who worked on this façade.
Originally, the palace façade had three sections with a central portal large enough for mounted elephants to enter (not that any did). The section now in the Denver Art Museum stood to the left of the main entryway; it was mirrored on the right by a nearly identical doorway. The elaborate palace entrance opened onto an inner courtyard, where separate wings housed the men’s and women’s quarters.
Variations in Surface Decoration
Notice the variations in the treatment of the eight lobed shapes in the squares on the two side doors. The shapes at the top of each door have the most surface decoration, and those on the lower section have the least.
Depth of Carving
Some areas of carving are more molded than others. In the detail to the left, the eight-lobed shape is relatively flat, while the flowers that fill the corners are carved with more depth and shape.
The whole door was originally painted. The color lasted mostly in the areas of lower-relief.
Lower Door Panels
The lower panels on each of the side doors are probably the plainest part of the façade. However, even here a combination of rectangular and circular carved spaces creates a pattern of diamonds and squares—patterns inside of patterns.
Organic & Geometric Shapes
Organic shapes are derived from natural forms and are usually composed of curved or irregular lines. Geometric forms are made up of shapes such as circles, squares, and triangles. The artists who carved this door used a combination of organic and geometric shapes.
A website all about the life, culture, and arts in Swat Valley, including links to other resources.
A great web resource about many different aspects of the land and people of Swat Valley.
Kalter, Johannes. The Arts and Crafts of the Swat Valley. London: Thames & Hudson Ltd., 1991.
A study of the history of the region and social structure as illustrated by daily artifacts and arts and crafts, complete with an analysis of recurring motifs.
Pye, Chris. Relief Carving in Wood. East Sussex: Guild of Master Craftsmen Publications Ltd., 1998.
A practical introduction of how to begin relief carving in wood, including handling tools and carving techniques.
Funding for object education resources provided by a grant from the Morgridge Family Foundation. Additional funding provided by the William Randolph Hearst Endowment for Education Programs, and Xcel Energy Foundation. We thank our colleagues at the University of Denver Morgridge College of Education.
The images on this page are intended for classroom use only and may not be reproduced for other reasons without the permission of the Denver Art Museum. This object may not currently be on display at the museum.