Great weaving traditions of the past brought forth the distinctive design worthy carpets precious to the history of design, most of which now dwell in museums. There they receive the careful handling and consideration they must if they are to continue to contribute to the wealth of design history we share as humanity keeps marching forward.
By the sixth century the wool and silk carpets of the east had become renowned for the beauty of their designs and the intricate detailing and complexity of the weaving techniques employed to make them.
In the Muslim tradition woven rugs often replicated the design of the fourfold garden with a central watercourse, tributary canals of various sizes with islands or ponds containing waterfowl and fish and avenues of stylized small trees and shrubs surrounding flower beds shaded by great plane trees.
This style of carpet became part of a time-honoured tradition in woven textile art that was practiced and recorded by many different cultural traditions before and after the birth of Christ.
The Metropolitan Museum in New York has recently conserved six of its most precious classical Persian Carpets, making it now possible to display these precious textiles for the first time in decades. Damage had been caused by a variety of factors over 400 to 500 years and proceeds from the Museum’s annual gala celebrating the Persian New Year, Noruz at The Met (2013), and the support of the Iranian-American community, have made possible for a conservation team to address losses, remove old repairs, and stabilize the structures.
Carpets for Kings: Six Masterpieces of Iranian Weaving is an exhibition made possible by The Hagop Kevorkian Fund that will open on March 3, 2017 at The Met Fifth Avenue. Acquired 1910-1951, the six carpets on show were originally part of the extensive collections from The Royal House of Saxony and other notable individuals.
The Textile Conservation team at The Met in New York who have prepared the carpets for display, safeguard approximately 36,000 textiles with ‘analytical equipment and methodology’ used together with traditional methods for studying and researching to ensure good results.
One of the earliest documented accounts of a great woven garden carpet described in the historical annals of Muslim scholar, about one used in the garden of one of the Sassanid Princes Khosrow 1, King of Persia who reigned in a pre-Islamic land from 531 – 579 but because of his achievements was held up as the model of a ruler to be emulated by Muslim princes.
Khosrow is remembered as a patron of arts and scholarship and known as ‘Khosrow of the Immortal Soul’. The famous carpet reputedly made for his Ctesiphon Palace represented the flowering spring, its design imitating a glorious garden was said to have been abundantly embellished with silk, gold, silver and jewels.
Treasured in winter when real gardens were inaccessible due to bad weather, when the Arabs captured Ctesiphon in 637, his garden carpet reputedly measured about 84 square feet (7.8 square metres) and was lost when cut into fragments and distributed to the troops as booty.
Travelling to the west along the trading route of the Silk Road to Venice or coming home with many of the Crusaders to the Holy Land, stunning Persian carpets revered over the centuries in the royal courts of Europe, helped to inspire and innovate the future of western industry.
By the sixteenth and seventeenth century in Europe fine sophisticated imported carpets being used for covering tables were wonderful examples of the art of weaving.
Stunning colours from natural dyes meant that putting them onto a floor was not a consideration.
The colours and dyes used in Iran for Persian carpets were obtained from either plants or insects, with the predominant red extracted from the roots of the madder plant.
The secret was in the setting of the dye with metallic salts called mordants. They were the key to a successful process, combining with the dyes to form an insoluble compound on natural fibres.
An essential aspect of Persian art and culture, the court workshops of Persia under the rule of the Safavid dynasty during the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries brought forth many amazing carpets, reviving the Persian Empire as an economic stronghold between east and west.
A central medallion, arabesque designs and peacocks in the field, leaves, scrolling vines, hunting and animal scenes are all elements of Safavid court design, with most animals also engaged in combat, symbolic of royal power.
By the time carpets did reach the floor, there was a multitude of flowers underfoot as well. Two carpets have been dated by the style of the men’s turbans on a group of merrymakers seated around a duck pond to the second half of the sixteenth century.
Three seventeenth century carpets were made in Esfahan of silk and precious metal threads. They have had their once-brilliant colours restored so the palette, materials, and design will once again dazzle viewers today, just as they did when they adorned palaces during the reign of Shah ‘Abbas the Great (1587–1629).
The designation “Polonaise” carpets given to this trio reflects the (incorrect) nineteenth-century belief carpets of this type were manufactured in Poland, where many were first found.
Founded on a base of cotton with silk sometimes used in the weft, they were often bold, coloured to a point in taste we may today describe as ‘gaudy’, enhanced as they were by the glimmering gold and silver wrapped threads of silk that gave them life and status.
Carpets made in Iran were shipped into Europe, some bearing the coats of arms of European families while others were brought from abroad by ambassadors to the Persian court or were gifts, commissioned by visiting Europeans.
The tree of life symbol was also often used with garden and prayer rug designs, the small rug designated for prayer providing a clean spot for worship wherever a Muslim may be.
It incorporated an arched shaped niche known as a Mihrab into its design as well, emulating a niche in the wall of a mosuqe, at the point nearest to Mecca, towards which the congregation faces to pray.
The one on display features Qur’anic inscriptions in different styles of Arabic script, along with cloud bands and stylized flowers.
It is of the type renowned for its technique of warps, wefts and knots combining to provide a strong resilient structure, with silk wrapped in metal threads forming the inscriptions with extracts from the Koran.
Carolyn McDowall, The Culture Concept Circle, 2017
Carpets for Kings: Six Masterpieces of Iranian Weaving
March 3 – August 27, 2017
The Hagop Kevorkian Fund Special Exhibitions Gallery
Floor 2, Gallery 458