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Carpets from the Islamic World

The "Seley" Carpet, late 16th century Probably Herat (present-day Afghanistan) Wool warp, cotton weft, wool pile, asymmetrically knotted pile.

The "Seley" Carpet, late 16th century Probably Herat (present-day Afghanistan) Wool warp, cotton weft, wool pile, asymmetrically knotted pile.

Under the Ottoman, Safavid, and Mughal dynasties, carpet weaving was transformed from a minor craft based on patterns passed down from generation to generation into a statewide industry with patterns created in court workshops. In this period, carpets were fabricated in greater quantity than ever before. They were traded to Europe and the Far East where, too precious to be placed on the ground, they were used to cover furniture or hung on walls. Within the Islamic world, especially fine specimens were collected in royal households.

In Iran, the carpet and textile industriesformed part of Shah Abbas’ 1587–1629) program for restructuring the economy and attracting European merchants to the country. He transferred silk merchants and weavers to the new capital of Isfahan and signed trade treaties with Spain, England, and France. Of the scores of carpets exported abroad at this time, the “Polonaise” type was the most popular; over 300 of them are in foreign collections, and many bear the coat of arms of the family that commissioned them. Vase and garden carpets were among the other common types. In each of these,vegetal motifsreplace thefiguralones of the previous century.

 

They were traded to Europe and the Far East where, too precious to be placed on the ground, they were used to cover furniture or hung on walls. Within the Islamic world, especially fine specimens were collected in royal households.

In Ottoman Turkey, weaving patterns and techniques changed in the early sixteenth century after conquests in Persia and Egypt. Anatolia had been known for carpets with stylized animal and geometric designs, but with these new cultural contacts, carpets designed around a central medallion and with flowingsaz-style vegetation came into vogue. Similar motifs also appeared on book covers, textiles, and in manuscript borders. The style of these Ottoman court rugs, first produced in Istanbul, then spread to other weaving centers in Cairo and Ushak,but never fully overtook the various regional carpet traditions. Caucasian and Armenian carpets retained their customary geometric patterns, and kilims (or flat-weaves) remained popular.

Carpet, Mughal, period of Shah Jahan (1628–58) India Wool on silk foundation.

Carpet, Mughal, period of Shah Jahan (1628–58) India Wool on silk foundation.

Before the time of Akbar (r. 1556–1605), it seems that few carpets were produced in India—perhaps because of the climate—but his court historians record royal workshops in the capitals of Fatehpur Sikri, Lahore, and Agra. Early Mughal rugs closely resemble those from contemporary Persia, and in particular those produced in Herat. Later in the seventeenth century, patterns changed as European engravings and illustrated books circulated at the court, and a Mughal idiom, distinct from the Persian manner of depicting flora, developed. With the work of European traders, Indian carpets traveled to the West and as far east as China and Japan, and were avidly collected in England and Portugal.

Many carpets now have no record of date or place of origin. Early scholars devised one dating system based on carpets that appeared in Italian and Flemish paintings, and some rugs are now known by the name of the artist in whose paintings they appear, such as Lotto and Holbein. More recent studies focus on the technical aspects of carpet production, such as material, dyes, and weaving structure, finding these to be important clues in determining where a particular carpet was made. While patterns were popular over wide geographical areas or were sent from court workshops to provincial production centers, each region had a characteristic style of weaving that remained the same over time. In Persia, for instance, an asymmetrical knot was most often used, and in Turkey a symmetrical one. Egyptian carpets are always fully wool, and Indian ones are recognized by their distinctive red hue.

 

Prayer rug, 18th century; Mughal Probably Kashmir, India Wool pile on cotton and silk foundation. Paradise in Islam is described as a walled garden filled with flowers and cypress trees. Depictions of paradise in Islamic art often include a colorful garden of flowers sheltered by an arched gateway symbolic of the entrance to heaven. This artistic metaphor appears on textiles, architectural tile panels, and other objects, but is an especially appropriate decorative motif for prayer rugs. It is a visual reminder of the pleasures of paradise awaiting the faithful who pray. Flowers burst forth from a single vase in the field of this carpet and fill a curved niche defined by flanking cypress trees and floral spandrels. The extremely fine weave of this pashmina wool prayer rug, with approximately 700 knots per square inch, gives it a luxurious, velvetlike appearance. This mille-fleurs type of prayer rug was produced in Mughal India and later copied by weavers in southern Persia.

Prayer rug, 18th century; Mughal Probably Kashmir, India Wool pile on cotton and silk foundation. Paradise in Islam is described as a walled garden filled with flowers and cypress trees. Depictions of paradise in Islamic art often include a colorful garden of flowers sheltered by an arched gateway symbolic of the entrance to heaven. This artistic metaphor appears on textiles, architectural tile panels, and other objects, but is an especially appropriate decorative motif for prayer rugs. It is a visual reminder of the pleasures of paradise awaiting the faithful who pray. Flowers burst forth from a single vase in the field of this carpet and fill a curved niche defined by flanking cypress trees and floral spandrels. The extremely fine weave of this pashmina wool prayer rug, with approximately 700 knots per square inch, gives it a luxurious, velvetlike appearance. This mille-fleurs type of prayer rug was produced in Mughal India and later copied by weavers in southern Persia.

Kilim, 1774 Ladik, Turkey Wool, metal thread. This type of prayer rug, with a stepped mihrab niche supported by columns and a lamp or flowers suspended from the center, was created in the town of Gördes. In the late seventeenth century, other weaving centers took up production of this design as well; in Ladik, where the tradition continued through the eighteenth century, they were most often completed in red, blue, yellow, and green, the borders had stemmed tulips, and columns became even more tapered. An inscription on this carpet dates it to 1774.

Kilim, 1774 Ladik, Turkey Wool, metal thread. This type of prayer rug, with a stepped mihrab niche supported by columns and a lamp or flowers suspended from the center, was created in the town of Gördes. In the late seventeenth century, other weaving centers took up production of this design as well; in Ladik, where the tradition continued through the eighteenth century, they were most often completed in red, blue, yellow, and green, the borders had stemmed tulips, and columns became even more tapered. An inscription on this carpet dates it to 1774.

Medallion rug with a field of flowers, 17th century; Safavid Probably

Medallion rug with a field of flowers, 17th century; Safavid Probably Kirman, Iran Wool pile on cotton, wool, and silk foundation. Roses, hyacinths, narcissi, campanula, irises, carnations, and lilies are among the many types of flowers that blossom in the field and borders of this carpet, which is generally attributed to the seventeenth-century production of Kirman, Iran. The flora are arranged symmetrically in pattern and color around a central octagonal medallion and four quarter medallions in the corners. The art of illumination, especially that of book covers, might have provided the inspiration for the central and corner medallion design, which was woven into so many Persian carpets. The decorative theme of the medallion has Central Asian roots and was known in the Timurid period, but its popularity greatly increased during the rule of the Safavids and beyond.

 

Medallion Ushak carpet, first half of 17th century; Ottoman Western Anatolia, Ushak region Wool, about 90 symmetrical knots per square inch. Medallion Ushak carpets usually have a red or blue field decorated with a floral trellis or leaf tendrils, central medallions and a border containing palmettes on a floral and leaf scroll, and pseudo-kufic characters. In this example (partially restored), a typical white-ground field pattern is combined with the Medallion Ushak to form a new category of Ottoman carpet. Its spots-and-stripes pattern appears frequently in Ottoman art from the sixteenth century on tiles, paintings, bookbindings, and particularly on textiles and garments. The design may be a blending of an ancient tradition in which tribal elements have been adjusted to courtly taste. Unlike other white-ground categories, this field pattern never appears in European paintings of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries.

Medallion Ushak carpet, first half of 17th century; Ottoman Western Anatolia, Ushak region Wool, about 90 symmetrical knots per square inch. Medallion Ushak carpets usually have a red or blue field decorated with a floral trellis or leaf tendrils, central medallions and a border containing palmettes on a floral and leaf scroll, and pseudo-kufic characters. In this example (partially restored), a typical white-ground field pattern is combined with the Medallion Ushak to form a new category of Ottoman carpet. Its spots-and-stripes pattern appears frequently in Ottoman art from the sixteenth century on tiles, paintings, bookbindings, and particularly on textiles and garments. The design may be a blending of an ancient tradition in which tribal elements have been adjusted to courtly taste. Unlike other white-ground categories, this field pattern never appears in European paintings of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries.

"Polonaise" carpet, early 17th century; Safavid Iran Silk, gold and silver thread.

"Polonaise" carpet, early 17th century; Safavid Iran Silk, gold and silver thread. When, in 1878, a carpet similar to this one was exhibited in Paris, it was assumed that the coats of arms woven into the rug were Polish and that the rug was made in Poland. It was later recognized that this group, distinguished by a silk pile and metallic brocading, was Persian, made during and after the reign of Shah cAbbas I, beginning around the end of the sixteenth or early seventeenth century. The name, however, persisted, and more than 200 examples still bear the name. Many pairs of the type, as here, also survive. The type of design on this carpet has its roots in earlier Iranian carpets, but the rich silk pile, highlighted with gold and silver brocading, and muted but lively colors, signaled a change from the past. The tightly controlled overall pattern of compartments formed by overlapping cartouches in orange, yellow, red, green, and brown on a silver-and-gold brocaded ground is adorned by floral and leaf-vine systems with palmette motifs. Reports of European travelers mentioned the capital city of Isfahan as the center of Safavid court production. Probably many of the finest examples of Polonaise carpets were produced there for local patrons or on orders from the shah as special gifts or as commissions for export. The richness and elegance of the Polonaise carpets reflect the current taste of the wealthy Iranian court, and also the Baroque taste of Europe, where they were particularly admired.

 

The Emperor's Carpet (detail), mid-16th century Iran (probably Herat) Silk (warp and weft), wool (pile), asymmetrically knotted pile

The Emperor's Carpet (detail), mid-16th century Iran (probably Herat) Silk (warp and weft), wool (pile), asymmetrically knotted pile

The Emperor's Carpet (detail), mid-16th century

The Emperor's Carpet (detail), mid-16th century

The Emperor’s Carpet belongs to a group of carpets thought to have been produced in the eastern Iranian city of Herat, in the province of Khorasan. This group is identified by a purple-red ground, a blue or green border with touches of yellow, an elaborate floral pattern, scrolls, arabesques, and in early pieces, animals. The Emperor’s Carpet is decorated with all of these identifying features. The natural and fabulous animals include pheasantlike birds, spotted stags, chi-lins, lions, dragons, and other beasts, some alone and some in combat. The exterior border contains a scrolled vine pattern with various animal heads appearing within arabesques, cloud bands, and flowers.

These features are a testament to the exchange between Persian and Chinese models, which is most evident in illuminated manuscripts of the Tabriz courtly style. The inner border contains poetic verses in Persian, comparing the royal Safavid realms to a meadow, the sky, flowers, and gems, ending with praise for the shah. Symbolically, the design on the carpet recalls a garden in springtime, with its allusions to the divine Garden of Paradise.

The complex design of intertwining and intricately layered vine scrolls has connections to similar designs produced in other media during the Safavid period. Textual evidence of this period suggests that a centralized artists’ workshop produced a distinctive style of imagery which then was applied to works such as carpets, textiles, paintings, manuscripts, and bookbindings. The carpet consists of four mirrored and repeating quadrants, suggesting that the weavers made use of a large and elaborate cartoon, which may have been produced in such a workshop setting.

The Emperor’s Carpet takes its name from its former owners, the Habsburg emperors. According to tradition, a pair of Safavid-period carpets was presented to Emperor Leopold I of Austria by Czar Peter the Great of Russia in 1698. Both carpets later entered the collection of the Austrian Museum of Applied Arts in Vienna. Eventually, one was acquired by the Metropolitan Museum and today is known as the Emperor’s Carpet.

Source:Carpets from the Islamic World, 1600–1800 | Thematic Essay | Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History | The Metropolitan Museum of Art

  • islamic carpets
  • islamic carpet
  • mughal textile motifs
  • safavid rug

About the Author
Works at Department of Islamic Art, The Metropolitan Museum of Art
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