Saturday, 14 November 2009

Romania: Transylvanian Carpets and Gothic Churches

BRASOV, Romania; Nov. 17, 2009 -- One of the greatest collections of Ottoman-era rugs in the western world is kept in what might seem one of the unlikeliest places.

That is Transylvania, the region of Romania best known since 1897 as the remote home of Bram Stoker’s Count Dracula.

The rugs have been there for centuries, hanging from the walls and behind the side pews of a handful of German-built Gothic churches that dot the mountainous countryside.

How they got there, and remain on display today as a national treasure, is one of the great stories of rug collecting.

But first, it’s helpful to give a few details about the number and range of the rugs in Transylvania to suggest just how extraordinary this story is.

There are almost 400 rugs in the region’s churches and museums and they include many of the rugs that once most fascinated Renaissance Europe’s painters, such as Holbeins, Lottos, and white background Chintamani and Bird carpets.

There are also rugs with Ottoman-era designs that are virtually unknown outside of the samples preserved in Transylvania.

These rugs – ranging from single and double niche formats, column formats, to various prayer rugs -- are today simply called “Transylvanians” for lack of any better way to classify them.

Here is 17th century carpet from Transylvania. The carpet is available to collectors from the Nazmiyal Collection in New York.

So, how did so many carpets, all woven between the mid-15th to mid-18th century, get here? And why were they given such importance in the churches that they were so carefully preserved?

The answer takes the form of a series of actors taking their place on a stage in a remote corner of Europe where one would hardly expect them to meet.

The first are German-speaking colonists who came into Transylvania at the invitation of the region’s Hungarian rulers. The immigration was intended to revive the area’s economy and bolster its defenses, particularly after the Mongol invasions of the 13th century.

The Germans, known locally as Saxons, built towns for themselves whose central feature was a church surrounded by massive walls that could double as a citadel.

The area they inhabited came to be called the Siebenbürgen or “Seven Citadels” after these distinctive redoubts.

Pictured here is the citadel in the town of Cincsor.

All of this might never have connected to rugs except for another development some 300 years later -- the Protestant Reformation.

Most of the Transylvanian Saxons gave up Catholicism to embrace the new creed of Martin Luther and, as they did, they threw out the traditional, baroque Catholic furnishings of their churches.

That left the churches open to new decorating ideas. And the ideas arrived with the next actors taking their place on the stage at about the same moment, the Ottomans.

Just how suddenly the Ottomans arrived in Europe after conquering Constantinople in 1453 is worth taking a moment to mention.

At the time, no army in the world made greater use of artillery and musket firepower than the Ottomans. So their opponents, who in Eastern Europe relied mostly upon the massed charge of heavily armored knights, were routed in terrible massacres.

The Hungarian nobility, which still ruled Transylvania, was eliminated at the Battle of Mohacs in 1526, along with Hungarian King Louis II.

Immediately after the battle, the victorious Sultan Suleyman (right) summoned the hastily crowned new Hungarian King John to his camp for a lesson in wealth and power. The Hungarian royal chaplain, George Szerémy, described the scene:

“Along the short mile the King traversed to go to the Emperor, Turkish and various fine carpets were laid on the earth as far as the Emperor's tent.”

The Ottomans occupied Budapest but did not bother to take over Transylvania. They let Transylvania pay tribute instead as a self-ruling vassal state on the periphery of their Empire.

The fact that the Ottomans never occupied Transylvania defied the odds at the time.

Every year throughout the 16th to 18th centuries, the Ottoman Empire launched a military expedition to expand its holdings.

Sometimes the army, which assembled in Istanbul, marched toward Europe, sometimes toward Persia, North Africa, or Arabia. Eventually, they went in every direction.

Pictured here is an Ottoman miniature of the Siege of Vienna in 1529.

Andrew Wheatcroft explains the Ottoman’s expansionism in his book ‘The Ottomans’ (1993). He notes that war was essential to the economy because it brought in revenue and tributes that funded the state. But it also gave the state, army and people a sense of higher purpose:

“A common faith provided the cement that held the Ottoman host together. It was the duty of every Muslim to extend the ‘Domain of Peace’ – the dar ul Islam, the lands where Islam reigned supreme – into the ‘Domain of War’ – dar ul harb – where Allah was not honored,” he says.

“Since the wars were driven by the demands of an advancing faith, the enemy was also clear, and unvarying. In the west, and at sea, it was Christendom; to the east, it was the heretic Shiah empire of Iran.”

Given all this, one might have expected the Transylvanian Saxons to have lived in such dread of the Ottoman Empire that they would have tried to remain as isolated from it as possible.

But, in fact, trade flourished between Europe and the Ottomans. The same kinds of rugs that had lined the road to Suleyman’s camp became highly desired imports and wealthy Saxons, like Europeans elsewhere, sought them for their homes.

Just where the Saxons’ got their unique idea of festooning the walls of their Gothic churches with Ottoman rugs is unknown.

But the tradition seems to have begun with rich parishioners bequeathing their valuable rugs to the churches when they died.

Here is the interior of the Black Church, in Brasov.

Romanian carpet expert Stefano Ionescu notes that some rugs had the function of identifying the pews of individual families, like place markings. Describing the rugs in his article ‘Transylvanian Tale’ in Hali Magazine (Issue 137), he says:

“In the austere and aniconic spirit of the early Reformation, they were considered decent, and indeed suitable, decoration for recently denuded (former Catholic) churches. And when used by parishioners to mark out their personal space in the church, they also subtly hinted at the wealth and prestige of their owners.”

Interestingly, the Saxons’ custom bore a curious resemblance to the Turkish custom of bequeathing carpets to mosques. Such gifts have made layers upon layers of rugs build up on mosque floors in Anatolia over the centuries. In Transylvania, too, the endowments resulted in huge collections of carpets, far more than could be displayed.

Today, the Black Church in Brasov, and the Brukenthal Musuem in Sibiu hold the most important collections in the region. The History Musuem of Transylvnia in Cluj-Napoca also has a less well-known collection.

Rug collectors often debate whether the most unique among rugs in these collections – the so-called “Transylvanians” – could have been woven in Transylvania or elsewhere in Eastern Europe, rather than in Anatolia.

Rug historian Charles Grant Ellis has proposed that some of the rugs might have been produced in the Balkans under Ottoman provincial rule.

But Ionescu argues that “ever since the rugs in the Black Church were first catalogued … in 1898, they have been considered of Anatolian origin and that is still the opinion of most experts.”

He adds that “attention is rarely drawn to the fact that rugs of this type, in all its familiar variants (single and double-niche, prayer and column rugs) are also to be found in museums in Turkey, as well as in Beirut and Cairo.”

This carpet is a single-niche Transylvanian from the mid 17th century.

Many experts thing that the “Transylvanian type” will ultimately be traced to an as yet unidentified region in western Analtolia, not far from Izmir, Usak, Kula, Ghiordes and Milas.

But that is a task for future rug scholars to pursue.

(Photo at the top of this article is of downtown Brasov around the Black Church.)


Related Links

Antique Ottoman Rugs in Transylvania, edited by Stefano Ionescu

Ottoman Miniatures, Bilkent University




Sunday, 1 November 2009

Ottoman Court Prayer Carpets: The Mystery Of The Ballard Rug

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.