PRAGUE, July 15, 2011 -- Can viewing a rug be a metaphysical experience?
It can be if you see rugs as many are meant to be seen.
That is, as a patch of infinity.
The idea might not make much sense until you consider how many rugs have field patterns which do not seem to stop at the rug's border.
Instead, they have an endlessly repeating pattern which appears to spill under and past the rug's own borders.
And because the pattern seems to extend ever outward, it is easy to imagine the rug itself is just a small sample of an infinitely larger universe, like a patch of stars in the sky.
Just how this works can be seen in rugs from almost any era and from across the rug-producing East.
Here is an Ottoman court Usak Medallion carpet from around the 16th century.
The focal point of the rug is the central medallion but other, partial, medallions float above and below it, giving the impression that the patterns go on forever.
But if Ottoman court weavers seemed to enjoy creating such illusions of infinity, they were far from the only ones.
So did court weavers in Mamluk Egypt, Safavid Persia and Mughal India.
And so did -- and continue to do – many city and tribal weavers.
Below is a 19th century Turkmen tribal carpet – a Yomud – from Central Asia.
It, too, has a field made up of ever repeating elements that have no beginning and no end.
At the top of the carpet, the final row of field motifs is only half complete, as if they literally have been interrupted by the border only to continue again on the other side.
This Yomud rug is available to collectors from the Nazmiyal Collection in New York.
Interestingly, the appearance of the borders themselves often only helps heighten the sense of infinity.
Particularly on village rugs, weavers are likely to simply stop working on a rug when it reaches the desired length. The result is "unreconciled borders," where the repeat of the border motifs stops but does not clearly end, much like the field design itself.
The readiness of a weaver to stop "just-like-that" as she weaves suggests an artistic tradition very different from that of the West, where symmetry and a sense of completion are usually the rule in art.
So perhaps it is no surprise that some scholars have tried to explain where the tradition comes from and what it means.
Schuyler V.R. Cammann, a professor of East Asian studies who has written about rugs, puts it this way:
“We are accustomed to seeing patterns that fit neatly within trim borders or assigned frames, completely compact entities. To comprehend these infinite patterns, expressing a very different way of thinking, we must put asides our customary points of view and take a new look at some of the rugs we have come to take for granted.”
His remarks appear in the Textile Museum Journal, December 1972, in an article entitled "Symbolic Meanings in Oriental Rugs."
Cammann believes the answer lies in the way weavers in Muslim lands view the world and are inspired by the spiritual ideas and beliefs of their common faith.
As he notes, "we meet the concept of endlessness very frequently in Islamic thought. God – under the name of Allah – is described as having limitless transcendence, boundless power, infinite mercy and compassion."
But if the concept of infinity is central to Islam, he believes that Eastern artists' comfort with depicting the world in infinite terms can be traced to long before Islam itself.
Cammann notes that in the Louvre Museum there is a 7th century BC Assyrian carved stone slab which represents a carpet set before the throne in the king's court at Ninevah. Its central field, enclosed by a continuous floral border, also has a repeating pattern.
"These continuous patterns – so characteristic of Middle Eastern design and by no means confined to rugs – did not originate in the Islamic tradition, he concludes. "Muslim weavers took over this already ancient device to express some of their most fundamental beliefs."
If the artists who weave oriental carpets were content to express infinity in their work and stop there, it would already by interesting enough.
But some rug designs appear to go yet a step further and that is to try to suggest the "indefinability" of the world around us, as well.
That concept may seem more familiar when we realize that it already is a large part of what makes Islamic architecture so distinctive and instantly recognizable, such as this dome interior of the Sheikh Lotfollah in Isfahan.
On mosques, the walls and domes are often covered with arabesques and tile which break up the surface into myriad smaller patterns which make the solid structure of the building itself appear to be what it is not: airy and weightless.
In effect, matter is "dissolved," and that contradiction between appearance and reality powerfully evokes the indefinability of the divine, of the spiritual, and ultimately, of all creation.
Often the breaking up of a surface into smaller elements is done using a pattern which itself seems to endlessly repeat beyond the confines of the surface itself, further reinforcing the idea of the infinite, indefinable nature of the universe.
And it is this combination of techniques that can be seen at work in many of carpets which most famously have captured the imagination of Western rug collectors and painters.
Here is a photo of a Lotto carpet woven in a court workshop of the Ottoman Empire.
The Lotto design so captivated European Renaissance painters that it is the most frequently depicted classical Anatolian carpet of all, appearing this way or with variations in some 500 paintings.
But Lotto carpets are just one example. Cammann says the same principles can be seen in the earliest known rugs from Seljuk period and in the Mamluk carpets of pre-Ottoman Egypt.
And, again, they seem to be at work in many village and tribal rugs throughout history.
According to Cammann, the repeated stars and octagons and extra fillers in other shapes that break up the background of Caucasian rugs are not so much the result of a horror vacui, or fear of empty space, as many Westerners imagine, but an example of the dissolution of matter.
Here is a Shirvan carpet from the Caucasus, showing the use of such filler. It is available from Nazmiyal Collection in New York.
Many Central Asian rugs, including Yomud and Tekke, also combine the principles of infinity and dissolution of matter in their patterns.
It would be fascinating to know more about how and when weavers across the Muslim world began to introduce such intriguing ambiguity into their works.
But finding out is complicated by the fact that Muslim historians never paid much attention to chronicling changes in the arts.
The reasons for the absence of art history, interestingly, are much the same as those which made the artists allude to the indefinability of divine creation rather than depict subjects realistically.
If something is indefinable, it is not man's work to define it. The historians passed on to more worldly concerns, like politics, and left the artists' secrets to the artists themselves.
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