PRAGUE, July 12, 2009 -- European artists have long been interested in Eastern designs.
Just think of ethno trends today or the Orientalist paintings of the turn of the last century.
But if there was ever a peak period of Western artistic interest it was unquestionably the Renaissance.
For one hundred years, from 1450 to 1550, Europe's greatest painters were fascinated by the complex geometry of oriental carpet designs.
Artists included small or large parts of carpets in hundreds of their compositions and many clearly spent hours studying the details of the patterns to render them exactly.
Today, there are far more paintings of oriental carpets from the Renaissance period than there are surviving carpets themselves. And some painters are so closely identified with certain types of carpets that those designs are now called by the painters’ names.
Exactly why this happened is no clearer than how most fashions come and go spontaneously throughout history.
But there seem to be several things that oriental carpets represented to Renaissance Europeans that elevated them far above their usual role as household furnishings.
That they were furnishings, there is no doubt. As this Annunciation picture in the late 1400s by Pedro Berruguete shows, carpets and other luxurious textiles could make the richest palaces far more livable places than their cold stone walls might suggest to tourists today.
But the carpets also offered something hard to imagine in our globalized life today, and that is an extremely rare connection to the world beyond Europe. Merchants, diplomats, and soldiers saw parts of that world but the vast majority of people, even the richest, did not.
So, in a time when travel mostly meant listening to or reading a traveler’s tales, carpets and other rare imported textiles were powerful symbols. And it was as symbols that they were included in Renaissance painting.
In fact, the carpets with their mysterious eastern designs offered artists a partial solution to vexing problem. That was, how to give religious subjects more immediacy by portraying them in contemporary terms while still preserving their spiritual and historical distance from the viewer.
Again, this is a situation strange to us today. But the artists and their church patrons frequently chose to recast Biblical figures as modern people in modern settings. In this painting of the Annunciation by Andrea Previtali in 1508, just as in Berruguete’s picture above, the past is the present.
The presence of the rug, of course, is in line with the setting of a Renaissance noblewoman’s chambers. But, because the rug is from the East, it also helps place the scene simultaneously and more distantly in the Holy Land.
It doesn’t seem to have mattered that the carpet Previtali shows is an Anatolian carpet and has nothing to do with the Holy Land at all. That distinction would have been of no interest to any but a few very well-traveled individuals.
The design of the carpet was one that had only recently appeared at the time of the painting. Rug experts today refer to it as a 'small-pattern Holbein' after the Renaissance painter Hans Holbein the Younger who most famously painted several other rugs of this pattern.
Here is a 'small-pattern Holbein' from about the same time.
Art historian Rosamond Mack notes that representations in Persian miniatures indicate that such rugs had come into commercial production by 1410. (“Oriental carpets in Italian Renaissance paintings: art objects and status symbols,” Magazine Antiques, Dec. 2004.)
This suggests the 'small-pattern Holbein' was a successful design produced in the manufactories of Anatolia that was being exported to Europe around the same time Renaissance artists were depicting it.
But oriental carpets did not only enter Renaissance paintings as symbols of the East.
Many artists also used them to help draw the viewer’s eye immediately to the most important figures in the scene, much like we use red carpets at ceremonies today.
Here is a painting by Domenico Ghirlandaio entitled ‘Madonna and Child enthroned with Saints’, circa 1483.
The carpet is a 'large-pattern Holbein.'
Interestingly, the placing of thrones upon oriental carpets is a tradition that still continues in some places.
In Denmark, the 16th century Persian coronation carpet is used under the throne for coronations to this day.
This painting by Gentile Bellini offers another example. In his “Madonna and Child Enthroned” from the late 15th century, the subjects are clearly seated on a throne which itself is placed upon a carefully drawn carpet.
In Bellini’s picture, as in so many other Renaissance paintings, it again does not seem to matter that the carpet is from Anatolia and, in this case, is actually a Muslim prayer carpet.
A very similar carpet is this one from the late 15th to early 16th century.
The design, with its distinctive “keyhole” frame around the field, has since been named after Gentile Bellini as its most notable painter.
Eventually, the acceptability of prayer carpets did change with time.
Rug historians note that by 1530, prayer carpets cease to appear in Renaissance paintings, presumably as audiences became more familiar with the format and its close association with another faith.
Still, the adoption of Anatolian carpets into so many Christian religious paintings shows that - where art is concerned – people are often able to overlook seemingly profound differences.
One of the cataclysmic events for Europe at this time was the Ottoman conquest of Constantinople in 1453, which opened the way to the occupation of Christian south-central Europe. But trading between West and East soon resumed and both sides influenced each other.
Curiously, the Ottoman sultan who conquered Constantinople, Mehmet II, was a great admirer of Renaissance portrait painting. He asked Venice to send an artist to his court and the Venetians sent one of their most famous, Gentile Bellini himself.
Here is a portrait of Mehmet II painted by Bellini circa 1480. The European portrait style went on to profoundly affect Turkish miniature painting.
There are many more carpet designs that appeared in Renaissance religious paintings from 1450 to about 1550.
Always, the designs were almost exclusively geometric, as though painters relished the challenge of rendering their unfamiliar shapes as a test of their talent.
It didn’t matter that newer and more floral designs from the Ottoman court were also working their way westward. They are first represented in 1534 in the painting ‘Return of the Doge’s Ring’ by Paris Bordone. But they never got the same level of attention as the geometric carpets.
One, the most frequently painted of all the geometric rugs appears in this picture, “The Alms of St. Anthony,” by Lorenzo Lotto, 1542.
The rug in the foreground, which is named “Lotto” after the painter, is considered to be a variation of the 'small-pattern Holbein' style.
Shortly after this picture was painted, oriental rugs kinds began to disappear from Christian religious art altogether as new trends in painting took hold.
Artists and the public appear to have lost interest in the supreme effort at detail that the earlier altar scenes showed and new kinds of religious imagery became popular.
Increasingly the settings and trappings for Biblical stories were drawn from the classical period of ancient Rome.
But carpets continued to appear in portrait paintings, which became increasingly popular after 1475. And it is during this period that carpets became the status symbols that they have often been regarded as by later generations.
Here is a picture or two diplomats entitled 'The Ambassadors' by Hans Holbein the Younger in 1533.
The carpet is placed on the table for prominence, as it is in most portraits except those of royalty. For those the carpet was placed – as so often in religious painting – on the floor.
The central place given to the carpet in this picture shows how much oriental carpets were considered rare and valuable possessions. The message was that those who had them were successful men of the world.
In this picture, the carpet is a 'large-pattern Holbein,' again named after the painter.
The level of detail with which Holbein shows the carpet is astounding, as can be seen here.
The move of carpets into portraits also reflects a major changes in how people were coming to regard their homes and interior decorating as Renaissance Europe, both south and north, prospered.
Mack notes that “new Italian attitudes toward domestic furnishings must been foremost among the factors that propelled the oriental carpet into a display object and status symbol.”
She observes that “it became fashionable to display fine art and luxury goods, both locally produced and imported, in the marital bedchamber and the gentleman’s study” and that the “variety of objects and the number of families acquiring them increased steadily through the sixteenth century.”
The Renaissance is the first time in Europe’s history that people cared enough about interior décor for artists to painstakingly show every detail of the furnishings in a room.
The fact that they included carpets in their pictures for so many decades leaves us an unparalleled record of what styles were prominent in Europe and when.
Here is another detailed carpet, this time in a painting by Hans Memling in 1480. The carpet style, with its characteristic “hooked” motif – the 'Memling gul' -- is named after him.
What is missing in all the Renaissance paintings, of course, is any exact details about where the carpets were woven.
Carpet experts assume most of them came from Anatolia but – because of many variations in similar designs – also assume that some of them are copies of Turkish designs produced in Spain, the Balkans, or elsewhere.
The lack of details about the carpets origin is what prompted giving individual styles the names of the artists who painted them in the most detail or the most frequently.
This system, in fact, is a very recent invention.
It began with Dr. Kurt Erdmann, who was the director of the Islamic Department of West Berlin State Museums until his death in 1964. And it remains until someone finds something more accurate.
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Rosamond Mack – “Oriental carpets in Italian Renaissance paintings: art objects and status symbols,” Magazine Antiques, Dec. 2004.
Wikipedia: Oriental Carpets in Renaissance Paintings
Medieval and Renaissance Material Culture