NEW YORK, November 1, 2009 -- Perhaps the best known prayer rug in the world is this Ottoman court carpet woven in the late 16th century.
It is the so-called Ballard rug, named for the American collector James Ballard, who bequeathed it to the Metropolitan Museum of Art in 1922.
It is an amazing rug for several reasons.
First, it is the only surviving example of its kind. All of its sisters and brothers have disappeared with the passage of time.
And second, the origin of the pairs of columns in the design is one of the great mysteries of carpet history.
The mystery comes from the fact that the pattern is clearly inspired by architecture. But it is not the architectural style of the Ottoman Empire or even of any building on Ottoman soil that the weavers might have seen.
Walter B. Denny, a historian of Seljuk and Ottoman art, notes that “in the entire history of Ottoman architecture, from the 14th century onward, there is neither a tradition of slender-paired columns nor is there any tradition of faceted-column bases, nor round arches such as these.”
The main border of the carpet, however, is another story. Its tulips, carnations, rosettes, hyacinths, and leaves very much reflect the Ottoman court style of its time.
But if the architecture of the rug is an enigma, there could be at least one possible explanation.
Denny writes in his book ‘The Classical Tradition in Anatolian Carpets’ (2002) that “there is one place in the Islamic world with architecture that bears significant resemblance to that of the Ballard prayer rug.”
That place is at the other end of the Mediterranean from Anatolia, on a hilltop in Grenada, Spain. It is the Alhambra, and specifically, that Moorish citadel’s famous Court of the Lions.
The Alhambra was completed in the 14th century, one hundred years before the rise of the Ottomans. And by the time the rug was made, Grenada had already long been conquered by the Spanish kingdom of Castile and Aragon. So, the Alhambra hardly seems like something many Ottoman designers would have seen.
Still, the resemblance of the rug to some of the columns in the Alhambra’s courtyard is uncanny.
The courtyard, whose center is a fountain surrounded by small statues of lions, is itself surrounded by the pavilions. And the pavilions have the rug’s same triple-arch pattern that includes pairs of slender columns. The only difference is that the columns are arranged in a different order.
The idea that an artistic model for an Ottoman court rug could travel over time and space from once Moorish Spain to Turkic-ruled Anatolia might seem far-fetched.
But Denny sees it as just another possible example of how widely artistic inspirations can travel.
Carpet weaving in Moorish Spain, and in Catholic Spain for some time afterward, was heavily influenced by designs from Anatolia and, beyond that, the Silk Road as far as China.
“If artistic ideas could travel from east to west,” Denny asks, “then why not in the opposite direction?”
But who could have carried the ideas east?
The answer may be impossible to know. But there were people in motion at the time who could have provided the link.
They were Spanish-speaking refugees who began arriving in Istanbul, Salonika, and Sarajevo at the beginning of the 16th century as they fled the Inquisition.
Denny notes that many were Sephardic Jews and that this community had a connection with carpets. Some synagogues in Spain and in Italy had the practice of covering the Torah ark with a pile carpet that served as a “parokhet,” or curtain. The carpets were made on commission by Muslim weavers and the designs could be very different from the usual vocabulary of patterns the weavers knew.
The missing link between the Alhambra and the Ottoman court conceivably could be a prayer-rug sized parokhet like this one found by Italian carpet historian Alberto Boralevi in a synagogue in Padua, Italy.
The carpet is an intriguing blend of cultures. One of its most striking features is that the columns are drawn as in an Italian Renaissance painting -- from a single point of perspective. The makes the carpet a vivid example of ideas flowing into it only from different corners of the Mediterranean but even from different art forms.
Denny suggests that the Ballard rug may reflect a similarly complex Mediterranean synthesis unique to the 16th century.
He notes that the Ballard rug includes, in part, “elements of Ottoman court design (the borders and flowers in the field), Ottoman architecture (the small domes above the parapet), Ottoman adaptations of Egyptian dyeing and weaving techniques (the materials and construction), Islamic iconography (the hanging lamp and the triple gateway to Paradise), Italian one-point perspective (the column bases) and an adaptation of Spanish Islamic architectural forms that traveled east (slender coupled columns) perhaps in the form of a now-lost embroidered or woven parokhet brought to the Ottoman empire by Jewish refugees.”
If so, all this would make the Ballard rug a fitting symbol for the Ottoman empire at the height of its power in the 15th and 16th century.
The empire did not just physically straddle Asia and Europe, in many ways it did so culturally, too.
Mehmed II, who conquered Istanbul in 1453 was not only a warrior, but also an aesthete and scholar who spoke Greek, Latin, Persian, and Arabic, and maintained an extensive library. He was an enthusiast of both the Eastern and Western art traditions and had his own portrait painted by the Italian artist Gentile Bellini.
By the 16th century, the century in which the Ballard carpet was woven, Ottoman rule extended over the Balkans from Greece to the border of Austria, over Hungary and Crimea, over the Arab East and North Africa, and at times covered parts of Italy, Sicily, Poland and Ukraine.
One result was that craftsmen came to the court workshops of Istanbul from all corners of this far-flung empire and Ottoman patronage tended to reflect the diverse taste and styles of both Eastern and Western cultures.
Interestingly, many of the cosmopolitan and extremely sophisticated court designs these craftsmen produced went on to have a major impact on the folk art of Anatolia.
The Ballard carpet offers a superb example. Town and village weavers, taken by its graceful and exotic colonnade, adapted its design to their own rich tradition of geometric patterned prayer rugs.
The first adaptations spawned further generations of modifications and over time produced many distinctive village prayer rugs that were highly prized by European collectors in the 19th century.
This antique prayer rug was woven in Karapinar, not far from Konya in south-central Anatolia. The carpet is available to collectors from the Nazmiyal Collection in New York.
Denny offers this insightful description of how the Ballard carpet design entered popular weaving:
"The chain of stylization from the prototype to village weavings in the late 19th century is one of the most fascinating art historical metamorphoses in the Islamic world," he says.
“A sophisticated architectural idea, replete with Corinthian columns, faceted column bases, a parapet with flowers between the crenallations, small rumi split-leaf forms in the arch spandrels, and small domes on top of three half-round arches, gradually changes into a more formulaic type of rug. Finally, it succumbs to the creativity of village weavers who knew almost nothing of columns and arches but a great deal about color, and whose desire for top-to-bottom symmetry obliterates both the form and the meaning of the original design.”
Any discussion of the Ballard rug would not be complete without a few words about Ballard himself. His own history is no less amazing than the carpet that bears his name.
Ballard (1851 – 1931) was the son of a wealthy family in Ohio. But rather than enter his father’s timber business, he chose to join the circus and travel the country at a young age.
A natural entrepreneur, he soon moved on to starting drug stores and then manufacturing medical products. One of the most famous of his products continues to be a common product on drug store shelves today. It is Campho-Phenique, a salve for cold sores, and blisters.
In 1905, while waking down Fourth Avenue in New York City, Ballard passed an oriental carpet shop. A small piece caught his eye and he made his first rug purchase. He was 55.
Over the next 15 years, he amassed a collection of over 300 carpets, buying at auctions, from dealers, and traveling the world. By the end of his life, he had traveled over 470,000 miles through Southeast Asia, China, the Caucasus Mountains, India, Northern Africa, the Middle East, and all over Europe, mostly due to his interest in rugs.
As his collection grew in value, he first kept it in a fireproof and burglarproof vault in his home and then added a full-time guard. But his intention even from the start seems to have been to ultimately give his collection to museums.
Ballard’s gifts to the Metropolitan Museum of Art and to the St. Louis Art Museum in the early 1900s created two of the finest public collections of oriental rugs in America.
He put his reasons for collecting this way when he published a book on Turkish Ghiordes prayer rugs from his collection in 1916:
“It would seem to me that every many and woman should have a hobby of some kind – something sufficiently interesting to make it possible to forget for a time, the everyday cares and worries and get the mind into a new environment.”
As far as is known, Ballard never collected anything before oriental rugs and never collected anything after.
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