TEHRAN, June 22, 2009 -- About the time Ottoman carpets were first becoming popular in the West, a huge revolution in carpet design was beginning in Persia.
The revolution was a shift from carpets with geometric patterns towards carpets with floral motifs instead. And it created what has proven to be the most successful carpet format of all times: the Persian floral medallion carpet.
To envision a floral Persian medallion carpet, all one has to do is close one’s eyes and say the words “Persian carpet.” It is the design that most immediately springs to mind: a central medallion framed by four partial corner medallions on a garden-like field of flower petals, vines, or other tracery.
The reason the design is so familiar is that for hundreds of years now medallion carpets have been the unchallenged best-sellers of the global rug industry. They are woven in Iran, imitated by commercial weavers in half a dozen other countries, and are still the most frequently produced rug style in the world today.
But how did these carpets evolve?
The answer is one of the most fascinating stories in carpet history and takes one back to a period in Iran’s history that most people know little about.
That is the time of huge changes that came with the Turkic and Mongol invasions that began in the 11th century. The empires the nomadic invaders set up after the shock of their conquests were cultural melanges that mixed local art traditions with their own artistic values.
Because the eastern nomads had long lived on the edges of the Chinese world, they brought with them both Chinese influences and more direct access to Chinese textiles, painting, ceramics and other products. And these would have an immense influence on Persian art.
The effects first became clearly visible in Persia with the flourishing of the Timurid Empire, starting in the late 1300s.
The Timurids were the successors to Tamerlane, the Turkic prince who seized power in Samarkand in 1366 and then took over part of the empire carved out some 150 years earlier by Genghis Khan. Their holdings included Persia, western Afghanistan, and much of Central Asia.
This was shortly after the Ottomans’ rise in Anatolia, making the two empires both contemporaries and rivals.
The Timurids’ capital ultimately became Herat, in present-day Afghanistan, and there its court culture flourished.
The rulers attached special importance to miniature painting and it would be new styles developed in that art which would directly set the stage for Persia’s revolution in carpet design.
Timurid life is well recorded in the many miniature paintings that survive to this day. The paintings show a world where rich textiles hang on palace walls and carpets cover the floors.
So, it is possible to know what kind of carpets were made at the time, and what kind of artistic influences eventually changed them, even though no Timurid carpets remain today.
Unfortunately, the Timurid carpets exist only on paper.
Here is a detail of a painting Herat and dated 1429/30 that shows how much Timurid carpets resembled the geometric rugs being woven in the Ottoman Empire at the same time.
Some of patterns shown in Timurid paintings particularly show parallels to the small-pattern Holbein designs from Anatolia that are depicted in Italian Renaissance paintings.
All that probably should not be surprising. There was a shared Turko-Mongol culture behind rugs being woven across the region at the time and certainly rugs were traded back and forth and fashions spilled across borders.
But what is surprising is that the Timurid carpets should be followed by a radical change in carpet design when their Ottoman cousins were not. And the reason seems to be what is going on around the carpets in Timurid miniature art, as in this painting from Herat in 1429. It is a detail from an illustration for a manuscript of Kalileh-o-Dimneh by Abul Ma’ali Nasrollah.:
The carpet's design is abstract, theoretical, and geometrical. But around it are equally graceful, but very lifelike, depictions of people and plants.
This naturalist style became much more pronounced in Timurid painting than in earlier Persian and Mongol miniature art, and its “floral’” style seems to have eventually spilled over into Persian carpets as well.
Art historian Susan Day writes that in the Timurid era “Persian painters, subject to a new wave of Chinese influence, began to depict more naturalistically rendered spring landscapes peopled with animals, birds and mythical beasts enhanced by small individual flowering plants and trees.” (Susan Day, ‘Paradise Gained, Timurid Painting as the Mainspring of Safavid Carpet Design’ in Oriental Carpet and Textile Studies Volume V, Part 1, ICOC, 1999)
Just when and how a spillover to carpets happened is not known.
But some Timurid painters are believed to have also designed carpets, including the greatest of all, Kamal ad-din Bihzad in the second half of the 15th century. And certainly Timurid court culture was such that artists in different disciplines were keenly aware of what each other was doing and were often multi-talents, so cross-over would seem natural.
Timur’s grandson, Baysunghur Mirza who reigned as governor of Herat from 1413 to 1433 employed 40 craftsmen in his academy. Half of them specialized in tasks involved in producing manuscripts: calligraphy, painting, illumination, bookbinding and gilding. Other artisans designed tiles, marquetry and tents.
Timurid tile work also shows a fascination with more fluid, lifelike forms. Faience mosaic, or ‘tile mosaic,’ became the signature mark of Timurid architecture along with patterned brickwork. Huge surfaces were decorated with glazed tile work like this which survives on the Friday Mosque in Yazd, Iran.
Beyond the Timurid lands, rival courts in many other places were equally huge patrons of the arts, and they too may have contributed to the floral revolution in carpet design.
One great center was Tabriz. In the late 1400s, it was the capital of the “White Sheep Turkomans,” the Ak-Koyunlu, whose court astonished a Venetian ambassador with its brilliance. Giosofat Barbaro noted in his official report the beauty of the carpets he saw when he visited in the 1470s but, unfortunately, he gave no details about them.
Here is what Barbaro says about the carpets he saw at one court ceremony. The quote is from a translation of his travelogue that appeared in English in the 16th century:
“The day following I prepaired to him [the king] into a great feelde within the towne, wheare wheate had been sowen, the grass whereof was mowed to make place for the tryomphe and the owners of the grounde satisfied for it. In this place were many pavilions pight [erected], and as sone as he pceauned [perceived] me he comaunded certin of his to go with me, and to shew me those pavilions, being in nombre about [one hundred], of the which I pused [perused] [forty] of the fairest. They all had their chambres whinfoothe [interior rooms], and the roofes all cutt of divers colors, the grounde being covered with the most beautiful carpetts, betwene which carpetts and those of Cairo and Burse [Bursa] there is as much difference as betweene the clothes made of [fine] Englishe woolles and those of Saint Matthewes [cheap and low quality woolens sold at the San Matteo market in Florence].”
The Tabriz region had earlier been part of the Mongols’ powerful Il-Khanate – the most westerly division of Genghis Khan’s vast empire – and had a cultural heritage very much like that of the Timurids.
Here is a miniature painting believed to show the Ak Koyunlu ruler Ya'qub Bey (1478 to 1490) with his court sitting on a carpet that is again similar to a small-pattern Holbein but again also is set against a heavily Chinese-influenced floral landscape.
Overall, it was a time of great artistic competition across the Turkic-Mongol world as rulers maintained academies of artists, competed with each other to attract the best talents and even captured artisans in their military campaigns and took them to their capitals.
The pre-eminent miniaturist Bihzad, for example, eventually joined the court of the Safavids, the next great empire to arise in Persia after the collapse of the Timurids around 1500. And it is from the Safavid period that we have the first surviving Persian floral carpets.
As this picture shows, Safavid textiles in general could look almost as naturalist as miniature paintings themselves. This is a detail from a silk fabric showing horsemen and animals among flowers and trees.
But the move to floral carpets was not the only way carpets and carpet making changed during the Timurid times.
As Day notes, “the second half of the 15th century also corresponded to a revolution in carpet manufacture. The first large format carpets made on wide looms date from this time.”
So does the use of silk and the weaving of more intricate carpets executed from cartoons created by court artists, she says.
At some point in the middle of this ferment the elements came together that would define Persian carpets once and for all: the fusion of floral design with a central medallion.
Just where the central medallion design originated is impossible to know.
Many rug scholars point out that the format of a central medallion framed by quarter medallion corner pieces is simply a detailed excerpt or blowup of a staggered allover medallion pattern. Thus it is something that weavers may have played with in some form or another from time immemorial.
Day discovers an example of its use as a central motif (but without the corner medallions) on this carpet in a miniature from 1445 or 1446. It is an illustration for Nizami’s Khamseh and painted by Khwaja Ali al-Tabrizi.
But she says central medallions can be traced back as a decorative device to long before that.
Throughout the Islamic world, centralized circular medallions set off by corner quadrants are one of the oldest motifs used to embellish bookcovers.
In textile design, medallions can be found in Persia as far back as the Sassanid period, where they appear as decorative roundels. The Sassanid Empire preceded the conquest of Iran by Arab Muslims in 651.
And, looking still farther back, rug book author Jon Thompson suggests that “the theme of the central medallion is an old one with ancient religious and metaphysical roots in the art of central Asia. Its ultimate origin is probably in the Far East.” (Jon Thompson, ‘Oriental Carpets: From the Tents, Cottages, and Workshops of Asia,’ 1983.)
Placed on a floral field, the central medallion format would not just revolutionize Persian carpet design. Its attractive power would prove so great that the floral revolution behind it would soon also spread to the Ottoman Empire, changing the look of Turkish carpets, too. But how that happened is another story.
The Timurid Empire – University of Calgary
Art Arena: The Timurids
Weaving Art Museum: Masterpiece Persian Carpets
Nazmiyal Collection: Timurid Dynasty Carpets and Rugs
Bihzad and Persian Miniatures
A Brief History of Persian Miniature Painting