Zsuzsanna Gulácsi and Jason BeDuhn, The Religion of Wirkak and Wiyusi: The Zoroastrian Iconographic Program on a Sogdian Sarcophagus from Sixth-Century X’ian


Sarcophagus of Wirkak and Wiyusi, 579 C.E. , Chang’an, Northern Zhou Dynasty (557–581 C.E. ), Xi’an Municipal Institute of Archaeology (after Yang 2014, figs. 81, 55, 80).



This study focuses on a large and luxurious, house-shaped sarcophagus in the collection of the Xi’an Municipal Institute of Archaeology (Xi’an, Shaanxi province, PRC) that was made in the capital city of Chang’an in 579 C.E. for a Sogdian merchant couple—Wirkak and Wiyusi—and decorated with an array of originally painted and gilded bas-reliefs of biographical and religious scenes concerning their lives and Zoroastrian beliefs about the afterlife. During the past decade, the religious carvings of this funerary monument have been subjected to a number of studies that introduced Manichaean interpretations to a set of isolated motifs whose Zoroastrian identification offered greater challenges. Through a systematic contextual analysis, the authors of this study (1) examine the individual motifs in question and (2) consider them within their overall scenes. Based on literary and artistic evidence, the authors demonstrate not only that the previously-hypothesized Manichaean explanations do not hold up to critical assessment, but that their respective motifs harmoniously fit within the overall Zoroastrian eschatological complexes consistent throughout this remarkable work of art. These newly identified details are essential to better understand the Zoroastrian iconographic program of this sixth-century sarcophagus. Since its images date 300 years before the earliest surviving substantial Zoroastrian literature, this work of art is highly significant for the study of Sogdian religion and culture, as well as Iranian studies in general. The sarcophagus of Wirkak and Wiyusi therefore provides critical, visual documentary evidence for a popular version of Zoroastrian eschatology that exhibits many points of contact with the later “orthodox” Zoroastrian literature of Iran.