Painting Series: Islamic Carpet Motifs

As a textile and surface design enthusiast, I am fascinated by the process of stylization: where a motif comes from, why it’s developed for its particular use, and how it comes to look the way that it does. Rugs and carpets provide endless fodder for these questions, and I’ve turned my attention to a few historically notable Islamic examples for this painting series.

This act of documentation had dual motivations. For one, I have found drawing to be a powerful observational tool—rendering something requires long and close looking that inevitably leads to intimate familiarity. The reproduction enforces observation in the same way that teaching material enforces its absorption. However, I undertook these drawings not only to better observe these motifs, but also in painting them as finished works I have attempted to present the strength of their formal qualities for consideration in a way that I feel is often overlooked when the motif is part of a greater whole, as in a rug design. Labeling their attributions felt to me a necessity, otherwise when parted from these blurbs, the imagery could be mistaken as my own.

This entire project was conducted through my reading of How to Read Islamic Carpets by Walter B. Denny, who utilized the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s collection for its publication.

To begin, I painted one of the many deer that form one the borders of the Pazyryk Carpet, which is the oldest known knotted rug in the world.

Image from  How to Read Islamic Carpets  by Walter B. Denny, 2015.

Image from How to Read Islamic Carpets by Walter B. Denny, 2015.

pazyryk carpet.jpg

As you can see, the deer is incredibly well articulated and shows surprising anatomical details such as an aorta and urethra—something which is achievable through a very high density knot count. The level of skill demonstrated in this piece makes it a widely held belief that it was nowhere near to being the first one created. The carpet, which is roughly six foot square, is currently housed at the State Hermitage Museum in St. Petersburg.

Gouache and ink, 7½ x 9”. Copyright © 2019 Katy Rosenthal, all rights reserved.

Gouache and ink, 7½ x 9”. Copyright © 2019 Katy Rosenthal, all rights reserved.

Next I picked a lantern motif from a Bellini carpet, circa 16th-17th century Turkey:

Image from the Metropolitan Museum of Art.

Image from the Metropolitan Museum of Art.

This type of design is known as a ‘Bellini’ because of the paintings of Venetian artist Gentile Bellini (and little brother Giovanni), who depicted these rugs under the Madonna’s feet in paintings. However, they are in fact Islamic prayer rugs, with the arch providing mihrab (prayer niche) that points toward Mecca.

Gentile Bellini's Madonna and Child Enthroned, late 15th century. The National Gallery, London.

Gentile Bellini's Madonna and Child Enthroned, late 15th century. The National Gallery, London.

Gouache and ink, 7½ x 9”. Copyright © 2019 Katy Rosenthal, all rights reserved.

Gouache and ink, 7½ x 9”. Copyright © 2019 Katy Rosenthal, all rights reserved.

Attempting to cover a range of styles, I knew I wanted to include a ‘vase’ carpet, which get their name from the frequent inclusion of vase motifs, like this example in the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s collection (spot them all the way down at the bottom):

Vase+Carpet%2C+Met.jpg
Gouache and ink, 7½ x 9”. Copyright © 2019 Katy Rosenthal, all rights reserved.

Gouache and ink, 7½ x 9”. Copyright © 2019 Katy Rosenthal, all rights reserved.

However, vase carpets don't actually always include vases! As a category, they refer to the specific technique used to create them, which leads to a stiff construction and a nearly even vertical-to-horizontal knot ratio, enabling accuracy in matching a design from a knot plan. This time-consuming method of production came out of the Iranian city of Kirman in the 16th and 17th centuries and created a distinctive style that has been copied in many less-costly techniques since the decline of the original, highly expensive method. The vase carpet look, which consists of overall floral designs featuring large palmettes, remains one of the most popular in today's market. In fact, the highest price ever paid for a carpet was for a vase carpet: Sotheby’s sold a particularly exceptional piece with a rare red ground for $33.7 million in 2013:

A Sickle-Leaf, vine scroll and palmette 'Vase'-technique carpet, probably Kirman, Southeast Persia. First half 17th century. From Sotheby’s.

A Sickle-Leaf, vine scroll and palmette 'Vase'-technique carpet, probably Kirman, Southeast Persia. First half 17th century. From Sotheby’s.

Jumping to another category, ‘Dragon’ carpets from 17th century Transcaucasia demonstrate both the highly geometric style of village carpet weaving and the influence that Kirman weaving had on the area, especially in their commercial output—a Kirman vase carpet depicting similar dragon motifs predates this production (only small fragments remain). Dragons themselves had already been rendered in Islamic motifs thanks to exchange with China, but the standard version was much more sinuous.

Dragon Carpet, Met.jpg
Images from the Metropolitan Museum of Art.

Images from the Metropolitan Museum of Art.

Gouache and ink, 7½ x 9”. Copyright © 2019 Katy Rosenthal, all rights reserved.

Gouache and ink, 7½ x 9”. Copyright © 2019 Katy Rosenthal, all rights reserved.

Finally, an isolated scene from the "Morgan" carpet in the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s collection, so called because it was a gift of J. Piermont Morgan. The imagery is drawn from a vibrant mix of Safavid and Mughal influence, and includes a Chinese mythological beast, 麒麟 (qi lin). Palm trees and the dedication to naturalism with a single-perspective layout place it firmly in the Mughal style, while the subject matter of the battling ibexes, tigers, and qi lin is pulled from Safavid Persian miniatures. The border's cloud-banded cartouches and star-shaped medallions are also hallmarks of Safavid decoration. This confluence of styles indicates that the carpet was an early conception of the first workshops in the Mughal period. These were established by the emperor Akbar, who encouraged a strong Indo-Persian culture during his reign.

Image from the Metropolitan Museum of Art.

Image from the Metropolitan Museum of Art.

Gouache and ink, 9 x 7½”. Copyright © 2019 Katy Rosenthal, all rights reserved.

Gouache and ink, 9 x 7½”. Copyright © 2019 Katy Rosenthal, all rights reserved.

I hope this series leads you to further appreciation of the extraordinary designs woven into the carpets you have perhaps already admired. I know the process of selecting and painting these motifs did that for me!

These paintings, as well as digitally printed reproductions, are available on my Etsy.