In true Indiana Jones style in 1949 Russian archaeologist Sergei Rudenko uncovered evidence of a tomb in the Altai mountains of southern Siberia. It contained fragments of a woven textile dating from 500 years before the Christ event. Many objects considered precious and necessary were buried along with the body of the deceased and the local, very cold climactic conditions proved ideal for preservation.
The Altai nomads had maintained cultural and trading links with the peoples of Central Asia and the Near East, and other objects found in their burial mounds, include Chinese mirrors and silk. The so-called Pazyryk rug is now displayed at the Hermitage Museum in St Petersburg.
It is an amazing and very fine example of some of the knotting techniques practiced from antiquity until today.
The Pazyryk rug is also a testament to the high level of design and construction ancient people achieved in the manufacture of rugs at that point in history. It is reasonable to draw the conclusion they had been making them for quite some time in order to reach such a great level of sophistication.
The design has pairs of rosettes or lotus blossoms surrounding a solar symbol, which is thought to represent the ancient’s attunement with the sun. It is woven with fibres treated with natural dyes, created from local insects and plants, also an astonishing discovery. The design is full of dramatic scenes of animals and figures and is truly a ‘magic’ carpet.
Textiles have been a transmitter of wealth and status, as well as a measure for the development of society from its earliest beginnings when humankind was as one with the natural environment. The textile art of weaving is accomplished by using intertwining threads (warp and weft) usually by using a loom.
In chapter 88: verses 12 -16 of the Koran it says ” The gardens of Paradise shall be bounding in branches, therein fountains of running water and of every fruit there shall be two kinds. The believers shall find themselves reclining upon couches lined with brocade the fruits of the garden nigh to gather…and goblets set forth …and carpets outspread….”
In the Muslim tradition woven rugs replicated the design of the fourfold garden. The design consisted of a central watercourse, with tributary canals of various sizes, interrupted by islands or by ponds containing waterfowl and fishes, lined by avenues of stylized small trees and shrubs that surround flower plots, which are often shaded by great plane trees.
This style of carpet became part of a time-honored tradition in woven textile art that was practiced and recorded by many different cultural traditions before and after the birth of Christ.
One of the earliest documented accounts of a great woven garden rug we have today was one used in the garden of Khosrau 1, one of the Sassanid Princes who reigned in pre-Islamic Persia from 531 – 579. It represented a pleasure garden and contemporary descriptions say ‘it had ‘a wide border all round showed flower-beds of various colouring, the “ flowers” being blue, red, yellow, …’ The original was lost, or perished in the dust leaving records of it by admirers, many of who also attempted to replicate it.
By the sixth century wool and silk carpets from the eastern empires were renowned for the beauty of their designs and the intricate detailing of their weaving techniques.
Somewhere in the great scheme of things, carpets became a rare commodity in the west for centuries, although in the east they remained in contention constantly, bringing a great deal of colour and comfort to life and as an integral aspect of the expansion of cultural identity.
Exotic eastern manufactured rugs were brought back to England and Europe by merchant adventurers and explorers and were represented in some of the great collections of noble houses during the Middle Ages. Like many other influences from the east, the use of rugs came into mainstream Europe along the famous Silk Road (historical network of interlinking trade routes linking East, South and Western Asia) or via the Crusades, which lasted from 11th to the 16th centuries.
By the eleventh century traditions associated with weaving were firmly established in Europe and during the next three hundred years they would become a great symbol of status and influence.
By the second half of the fourteenth century, weaving had become an integral aspect of England and Europe’s societies and economies.
The exotic east always held great fascination in the west, and Cardinal Wolsey, Henry VIII’s adviser was offered a bevvy of Turkey rugs in 1540 by the Venetian ambassador. He was so bowled over by their magnificence he ordered more, and the Venetian traders obliged.
Wolsey then used them lavishly to decorate his new home Hampton Court, which was confiscated by the King who was jealous of him having such a well-designed house to live in.
So it is that from Wolsey’s time forward that carpets on tables and in the classiest homes ‘underfoot’ were ‘in’ so we have a lot to thank him for.
The Venetian traders who were responsible for ensuring that rugs from the east became fashionable in the west, although we must not forget that it was advantageous for them to do so. They helped the tiny trading port become immensely powerful for centuries, poised as they were in such a pivotal place between east and west.
Antwerp, the capital of the province of Flanders in Belgium was a bustling trading metropolis during the first half of the seventeenth century and part of the ‘Low Countries’.
It was from there that art lovers and members of the ‘haute’ bourgeoisie began filling their houses with paintings, tapestries and exotic rugs, which gradually found their way into the iconography of European paintings.
For several centuries both Persian and Turkey carpets were used like the one Dutch artist Peter Paul Rubens recorded, as a covering for tables.
Such fine examples of the art of weaving were considerably revered and putting them down onto a floor, not a consideration. We know this because Rubens painted the scene of the furnishings and arrangements of his own drawing room.
The year is 1620 and the floor bare, in direct contrast to the simply splendid gilt leather wall hangings composed of rectangular skins, joined to make up the area required and applied using separate borders as a frame.
The presence of a buffet and draw leaf table covered with a Turkish carpet, indicates the chamber was used for dining, as do the tall chairs arranged around the wall that were brought forward only when in use.
The Sultans of the Ottoman Empire in the early days of their dynasty after 1299, developed and produced in large workshops carpets for the court and export. Documents reveal that on at least one occasion in 1585, Ottoman sultan Murad III requested Cairene weavers, along with a quantity of Egyptian wool, be brought to the court at Istanbul. This event may explain the unexpected combination of materials, technique, and design often found in these carpets.
A splendid Ottoman Court carpet now in the Met at New York is covered with feathery leaves, stylized lotus flowers, and tightly curled cloud?band scrolls, displaying characteristics associated with a group of carpets of debated provenance.
While the wool and weaving methods of this group are akin to carpets woven in Egypt, their designs probably were produced in Istanbul and also influenced by Chinese porcelain.
Carpets were woven in France from the reign of Louis XI (1423-1483) onward. He had first brought ‘Sarrasinois’ rugs back from the Crusades in the 13th century. They were named for their Saracen foes. An essential aspect of Persian art and culture, the court workshops of Persia under the rule of the Safavid dynasty during the 16th and 17th centuries also brought forth many amazing carpets. They revived the Persian Empire as an economic stronghold between east and west.
Henry IV the Great (1553-1610) revived the French carpet industry on his succession, because he wanted French gold to remain in France and so established artisan workshops with chosen craftsman.
Pierre Dupont, a former illuminator received royal patronage and obtained a license to use a workshop in the Louvre for the manufacture of carpets in 1596. He discovered the eastern technique for making pile carpets in silk and wool with grounds of gold thread, similar to the so-called Polish carpets.
In 1627 he took Simon Lourdet, a former pupil as partner, and installed himself in a former soap factory, hence the name Savonnerie.
Dupont died in 1640, the factory was taken over by his son Louis, and at this time carpets, such as this one for the Gallerie Apollon in the Louvre were made. The carpets had become so famous by this point they were no longer known as ‘tapis facon de Turquie’ but as ‘tapis facon de France.
The French nobility appreciated fine textiles and the Royal Manufactory of King Louis XIV (1638-1715) providing everything needed for the furnishing of a royal palace.
Throughout the period of Louis XIV’s reign the factory of Savonnerie produced the most important of all the carpets made in France.
Versailles became a giant shop window, and gained for France supremacy in the arts, which his first minister Colbert and Louis both believed should always serve the glory of France.
The Savonnerie factories only rival was the smaller factory of Aubusson, which had become established in Beauvais in 1580. Most of the workers were Huguenots or French Protestants.
While Aubusson may have never reached the renowned fine quality of Savonnerie, they nevertheless gained a wonderful reputation for high quality although their designs were very appealing, especially those inspired by the decorative works of artist Francois Boucher (1703-1770)
During this time in the east the Mughal Emperor Akbar (1556-1605) and his son Jahangir (1605-1627) were also busy establishing traditions that became associated with the very best of the court carpet workshops of India, although texts contain references to carpets being made long before his time.
Akbar however was responsible for bringing about centralized government with a strong administrative and bureaucratic tradition to support his dynastic ambitions as well as the military might that would help sustain and enlarge it and along with his carpet industry.
The highpoint of artistic achievement for the Mughal era lasted from the 16th to the 18th centuries. This was when the highest-grade Pashmina wool removed from Himalayan mountain goats was imported into India. It was obtained from very high altitudes and in the main, used for weaving their rugs.
This splendid material of choice had also been used in shawls being made in Kashmir since the 3rd century BCE and its from there that the term ‘cashmere’ entered the English language.
Soft and luxurious to the touch, fabulous Pashmina rugs were covered all over with naturalistic flowers and their so-called ‘flower style’ invaded all aspects of Mughal art. They had secular and sacred meanings and within an Islamic context conveyed ideas of abundance as well as spiritual and physical refreshment. They were an aspect of the gardens of paradise that every person might enter after death.
In 1620 when Mughal Emperor Jahangir (1569-1627), considered a keen observer, visited Kashmir in springtime he was taken aback with this ‘garden of eternal spring’.
He had the natural history painter Ustad Mansur, whom he had honoured with the title ‘Wonder of the Age’ render more than a hundred paintings depicting flowers that would be adapted to decorative use, although they were not an integral aspect of the ‘flower style’ that today highlight the traditions associated with Mughal art underfoot.
A painting from an album begun by Emperor Jahangir and continued by his son Shah Jahan now in the Met New York reveals realistic and masterfully drawn depictions of people, animals and plants. It was created for private viewing and study by the emperor.
The wide border that frames the painting contains precisely rendered images of flowers and birds. The flowers include narcissus, roses, poppies, and crocus, which are botanically accurate and also informed by the presence of European botanical prints at the court.
Jahangir had encouraged the study of flora and fauna, and the arrival of European books of herbals changed the depiction of flowers from the Persian style of endless scrolling vines.
Carpets covered with a pattern of scrolling vines and blossoms were highly prized in Europe and many copies were made.
They displayed a quiet elegance of line and a fine-weave finish that achieved balance and harmony of pattern and production.
Today only about 40 of the fabulous Pashmina Mughal carpets have survived, many only in fragmentary state and all of which are breathtaking examples of creative energy and beauty.
The weave was extremely fine and the style of the carpets, with their total reliance on floral forms, manifested itself also in the architectural decoration and manuscript margin illumination, especially when created by gifted artists at the court of Emperor Shah Jahan (1592-1658) the builder of the Taj Mahal.
While silk with its wonderful shimmering qualities was preferred in other rug cultures, Pashmina remained the Mughal era of carpet manufacturer’s first choice, with Silk only gradually becoming an aspect of some carpet’s foundations.
This caused many people examining them to mistake the textile for ‘velvet’ and also silk infused Mughal rugs being considered ‘sub-imperial’ by some scholars.
Akbar’s legacy includes magical Mughal carpet designs being recorded in illustrated manuscripts, which were printed during the 16th century. They eventually found their way into English and European libraries.
Carolyn McDowall, The Culture Concept Circle, 2013-2015