The entire surface of the Ardabil carpet is covered by a single integrated design – an impressive feat in view of the great size of the carpet. The basic design is relatively simple, and its components are well-balanced. Richness and variety are added by the use of contrasting background colours and the subtle differences between the filler patterns.
The border is composed of four parallel bands. It surrounds a huge rectangular field, which has a large yellow medallion in its centre. The medallion is surrounded by a ring of pointed oval shapes, and a lamp is shown hanging from either end. This centrepiece is matched by four corner-pieces, which are quarters of a similar but simpler composition, without the lamps.
The two lamps
The lamps shown hanging from the centrepiece are of different sizes. Some people think this was done to create a perspective effect – if you sat near the small lamp, both would appear to be the same size. Yet there is no other evidence that this type of perspective was used in Iran in the 1530s, when the carpet was made. What is more, the lamps themselves are shown as flat shapes rather than as three-dimensional objects.
Another view is that the difference is a deliberate flaw in the design, reflecting the belief that perfection belongs to God alone.
The filler patterns
Each part of the design is filled with one or more types of scrollwork set with fantastic flowers or leaves. In some there are also symmetrical snaking forms that represent clouds.
The largest and most complex of these patterns covers the dark-blue background of the main field. Here two sets of scrolls are laid one on top of the other. As with the lamps, however, there is no attempt to create a sense of depth.
The flatness of the pattern matches the flat surface it decorates. This harmony between shape of an object and its decoration is characteristic of Islamic art, and it is something that the founders of the V&A greatly admired.
Comparisons with other carpet designs
Chelsea carpet from Iran is a little older than the Ardabil carpet, and it is also very beautiful, but its design was created in a very different way. The Ardabil carpet is covered by a single, integrated design, whereas the pattern on the Chelsea carpet was loosely assembled from many different elements.
The main field of the Chelsea carpet has two X-shaped arrangements of medallions with dark backgrounds. The large gap in the middle is filled with a round fish pond flanked by two huge Chinese-style vases. Half of this composition is repeated at each end of the main field. The rest of the field contains many relatively small motifs: trees in flower or in fruit, pairs of animals in combat or grazing, and sections of a fantastic scrollwork pattern.
The presence of animals in the design suggests that the Chelsea carpet was made for a secular setting. There are no animals in the design of the Ardabil carpet, which we know was made for use in a religious building.
The large Uşak carpet from Turkey is a little older than the Ardabil carpet. The medallions in its design are so large that they have become the dominant element.
The design of the Ardabil carpet is more successful. The ring of pointed ovals and the two lamps increase the size of the centrepiece, allowing it to fill the available space. At the same time, though, the gaps within it ensure that the centrepiece does not become so dominant that it overwhelms the rest of the design.
History of the Ardabil Carpet
Why the Ardabil Carpet was made
One of the main sights in the town of Ardabil in north-west Iran is the shrine of Shaykh Safi al-Din Ardabili, who died in 1334. The Shaykh was a Sufi leader, who trained his followers in Islamic mystic practices. After his death, his followers remained loyal to his family, who became increasingly powerful. In 1501, one of his descendants, Shah Isma’il, seized political power. He united Iran for the first time in several centuries and established the Shi’i form of Islam as the state religion. Isma’il was the founder of the Safavid dynasty, named after Shaykh Safi al-Din.
The Safavids, who ruled without a break until 1722, promoted the shrine of the Shaykh as a place of pilgrimage. In the late 1530s, Isma’il’s son, Shah Tahmasp, enlarged the shrine, and it was at this time, too, that the carpet was made as one of a matching pair.
The completion of the carpets was marked by a four-line inscription placed at one end. The first two lines are a poetic quotation that refers to the shrine as a place of refuge:
‘Except for thy threshold, there is no refuge for me in all the world.
Except for this door there is no resting-place for my head.’
The third line is a signature, ‘The work of the slave of the portal, Maqsud Kashani.’ Maqsud was probably the court official charged with producing the carpets. He was not necessarily a slave in the literal sense but called himself one to express humility, while the word for ‘portal’ can be used for a royal court or a shrine. Perhaps Maqsud meant both, as in this case the court was the patron of the shrine.
The fourth line contains the date 946 in the Muslim calendar, which is equivalent to AD 1539 – 1540.
The Ardabil Carpet and the V&A
The two Ardabil carpets were still in the shrine of Shaykh Safi al-Din in 1843, when one was seen by two British visitors. Thirty years or more later, the shrine suffered an earthquake, and the carpets were sold off, perhaps to raise funds for repairs. The damaged carpets were purchased in Iran by Ziegler & Co., a Manchester firm involved in the carpet trade. Parts of one carpet were used to patch the other. The result was one ‘complete’ carpet and one with no border.
In 1892, the larger carpet was put on sale by Vincent Robinson & Co. of London. The designer William Morris went to inspect it on behalf of this Museum. Reporting that the carpet was ‘of singular perfection … logically and consistently beautiful’, he urged the Museum to buy it. The money was raised, and in March 1893 the Museum acquired the carpet for £2000.
The second, smaller carpet was sold secretly to an American collector, and in 1953 it was given to the Los Angeles County Museum of Art. The Ardabil carpet hung on the wall in this gallery for many years. In 2006, the Museum created the extraordinary case in the centre of the gallery so that the carpet could be seen as intended, on the floor. To preserve its colours, it is lit for ten minutes on the hour and half-hour.