Zoroastrianism is an iconoclastic religion which abhors veneration of symbols and religious images. Though these are visible during the Achaemenian dynasty, the Zoroastrian iconoclast movement during the early Sassanian period purged it completely. Prof. Mary Boyce observes evidences of this in the case of the cult-image of the temple of Anahita at Istakhr being replaced by a sacred fire which the Arabian historian Al-Masudi characterized as “one of the most venerated of Zoroastrian fires.” The association with Anahita persisted, however, and another prominent historian Al-Ṭabari says that the sanctuary was known as “the house of Anahid’s fire”. It was in the presence of this fire at Istakhr, that Yazdegird III was crowned king! This fire still continues to burn in the village of Sharifabad in the Yazd district.
With this background of iconoclasm, one often wonders who first drew the image of Zarathushtra which adorns most Parsi houses and have now become a standard object of reverence in all Agiaries and Atash Behrams. It is obvious that this drawing was an imagination of an artist – just as the picture of a person with a crown of thorns depicts Jesus of Nazareth and a dark blue skinned man with a peacock feather in his crown depicts Krishna of the Bhagwad Gita.
The lives of these spiritual people have been documented eons after their passing. The life of Zarathushtra, for example, has been recorded in various books, by various authors across the millennium; but no early visual images of Zarathushtra are known to have existed.
The oldest image that one can arrive at relates to a 2nd century CE frieze in the city of Dura-Europos, situated on the banks of the Euphrates River in Syria. This city, founded by the Seleucids in 303 BC had temples of Greek gods, local deities, and a shrine dedicated to Mithra.
A Belgian archeologist, historian and Professor at the University of Ghent, Franz Cumont’s paper “The Dura Mithraeum” was published posthumously in 1975. In it he postulated that the friezes of the seated figures in Parthian clothes, on each of the two supporting columns inside the Mithraeum represented the two primary images of Zarathushtra (Figure 1) and Ostanes. However, this hypothesis is now no longer accepted. It is generally agreed that the two figures are Palmyrene in their characteristics and are probably portraits of leading associates of that Mithraeum’s congregation.
It is good providence that a part of this shrine was transported and rebuilt at Yale University’s Gallery of Fine Arts during the last century. The site uncovered remarkable findings during its excavations, before it was severely looted by the terrorist group ISIS in the ongoing Syrian Civil War and demolished by them. According to satellite imagery, more than 70% of Dura-Europos has been destroyed by looters. National Geographic reports further looting on a massive scale by the ISIS in order to fund their aggressive devastation on the region.
No further images purported to be of Zarathushtra have been discovered through the centuries. Neither during the Achaemenian period nor during the consolidation of religious texts during the revival of the religion in Sassanian times, has any image of Zarathushtra come to light. It is therefore clear that until as recently as approximately 200 years ago, Zoroastrians in Iran and India did not have any image of Zarathushtra as their object of worship or adoration. However, it did not stop human imagination from taking flight.
Pictures of Zarathushtra as recognizable today are a consolidation of multiple frames, each derived from a separate source. For instance, this 19th century Indian-Zoroastrian perception of Zarathushtra (Figure 2) has been modeled on a bas-relief of Mithra (Figure 3, left) wearing a rayed-cap and holding a barsom in his hands. The barsom is a bundle of rods or sticks which are not bound together and are even today, used to solemnize Zoroastrian religious ceremonies. The bas-relief shows Mithra standing on a lotus flower. The picture of Zarathushtra is also shown similarly standing on a lotus flower, holding barsom in his hands and wearing a ceremonial headgear of a priest as he is said to have been a descendant of a priestly family.
In the academic literature of 19th – early 20th century, this bas-relief was earlier thought to be of Zarathushtra. This assumption is no longer valid today. It is agreed that it is Mithra who is a part of the panel which depicts the investiture of Sassanian king Ardeshir II by his predecessor Shapur II at Taq-e Bustan in Iran. Ardeshir II ruled from 379 CE to 383 CE. Despite enduring 1,700 years of wind, snow and rain the image is still clearly visible and can be considered to be a prototype of most illustrations of Zarathushtra, as being venerated by the community today.
Later variations of this image, shows Zarathushtra holding a stick having 9 knots known as the “Navgreh” or “Navgar”. The special stick having 9 knots is used in the Bareshnoom ceremony. Other images show him holding a glowing ball of fire which does not burn the hand of the righteous. This spiritual fire is Adar Burzin Meher. In some images he is shown holding a mace, the “Guraz”, usually stylized as a steel rod crowned by a bull’s head which the priests carry when they are ordained during the “navar” ceremony. Similar to most other Indian Zoroastrian images of Zarathushtra, the facial features have been influenced by the depictions of the bearded Jesus Christ. Most show the Prophet looking slightly upwards, as if beseeching. In most of these, his right hand index finger points upwards.
During the 15th century CE, as Europeans speculated about their intellectual past, the famed Italian Renaissance artist Raphael Santi (1483-1520 CE) painted his masterpiece fresco “The School of Athens” (Figure 4).
In the lower right corner of this fresco he portrayed Zarathushtra in a white robe (Figure 5), holding a luminous globe of the stars, conversing with Ptolemy. Painted between 1509 and 1511 CE in the Vatican, in Rome, this fresco depicts the subject Philosophy as nearly every great ancient Greek philosopher can be found in this painting.
While Socrates, Plato, Aristotle and many others are easily identifiable, the identity of a few others can only be speculated. In the center of this fresco is Plato (Figure 6) with his right hand index finger pointing heavenwards and his student Aristotle on the right, his hand gesticulating downwards.
The impression of this right hand of Plato has been copied in many Zarathushtra’s portraits (Figure 7). Thus the esoteric philosophy of Plato representing a sense of timelessness and his very influential treatise on the cosmos has been incorporated into Zarathushtra’s image by later Parsi-Zoroastrian artists!
Eventually both images, that of the Sassanian rock relief and the painting of Plato’s right hand, were fused together to depict Prophet Zarathushtra with rays of light emerging from a halo pointing his right forefinger toward heaven. This particular image remains extremely popular in fire temples and homes, although most Zoroastrians do not know of its origins.
A German painting of Zarathushtra is another image found in a few Parsi homes. In this the Prophet is shown as an old sage standing in an archway, in a robe covering his head, holding a chalice in which burns a sacred fire.
Besides these, in some images he is also shown holding a book in hand, presumably the Avesta, whilst in others he is depicted performing some deed of legend. Many Zoroastrians who are a part of the Freemasonic brotherhood believe there are hidden signs painted in the clothes which Zarathushtra is portrayed in. For instance, the inverted 4 right-angled “tiri” (the Masonic square) prominent in most images may convey an emblem of virtue to an eye trained in semiotics (study of signs and symbols). In general, all portrayals present him in white garments which are also worn by Zoroastrian priests.
A sculpture of Zarathushtra at the Rockefeller Memorial Chapel in the Campus of the University of Chicago stands amongst other prominent religious figures. Another sculpture representing the ancient Persian judicial wisdom – the law of the Medes and Persians as Herodotus called it – stands atop the Appellate Division of the Supreme Court of New York on E. 25th Street and Madison Avenue in Manhattan.
Whether all these images have been divinely inspired or not, it is certain that much thought has gone into portraying them. Even as expressions of human fancy these images are culminations of the efforts of various artists through the centuries, producing the image of a man who brought to humanity the first revealed religion, Zoroastrianism.
The sublime message of Zarathushtra remains as fresh today as it was when revealed. Other later revealed religions imbibed many of its characteristics which then went on to shape the world as we know it today. Whether we look upon these images of Zarathushtra as objects of reverence and adoration or shun them as iconoclasm, the choice depends upon the belief structures of his followers.