Carpet Design and Pattern


The design of the oriental carpet must necessarily remain a mystery to the westerner, since his mind works so differently from that of the oriental. In spite of his developed faculty for abstract thought, witness the contributions of the Orient to mathematics and astronomy, the oriental apprehends reality through thoughts and feelings which to the westerner seem quite unreal.
Religion, mythology, superstition, legend and astrology, society and the tribe with its traditions, especially for nomadic and peasant populations, seem to have affected his art more than the development and expression of the individuality of the artist.

The design of the oriental carpet must necessarily remain a mystery to the westerner, since his mind works so differently from that of the oriental. In spite of his developed faculty for abstract thought, witness the contributions of the Orient to mathematics and astronomy, the oriental apprehends reality through thoughts and feelings which to the westerner seem quite unreal.

Religion, mythology, superstition, legend and astrology, society and the tribe with its traditions, especially for nomadic and peasant populations, seem to have affected his art more than the development and expression of the individuality of the artist.

The prohibition on the representation of living creatures, which was not enunciated by Muhammad himself but arose at the time of the schism, has had far-reaching effects. It was more strictly followed by the Sunnites in Asia Minor than by the Shi'ites in the other regions where carpets were made. It was responsible for a heightened development of ornament: the reduction, abstraction and geometricization of living creatures and plants into components of design, a process which the Turfan finds show was already happening in Central Asia before Islam; and with it that most original creation of the Islamic world, the arabesque. This element of decoration should also be seen as essentially ornament and not loaded with irrelevant symbolism, except in a few exceptional cases. Designers may in the first place have increased their repertoire of ornamental elements by adopting motifs with a symbolic significance from the culture and the cults of their own or other peoples (e.g. the cloud band from China), but they used them purely as forms of decoration. In the large manufactories in Persia the naturalistic design derived from the plant world and extended by the addition of animals was carried to perfection. Erdmann rightly appraises this development not as the climax but as an offshoot of the evolution of the carpet, and not to be set above the powerful stylization along which the art developed in other regions. In every oriental there lies dormant the memory of his ancestors' nomadic life. Even today he likes to pass his leisure hours sitting on a carpet like the Sasanian kings portrayed on ancient silver dishes. Life on cushions and mattresses gives the floor quite another meaning from our rooms with their furniture, in which the wall counts for more than the floor. It is not fortuitous that in the West it was wall hangings (gobelins) that were perfected while in the East it was floor carpets.

The carpet covering the ground signifies for the oriental a little fragment of infinity, where time and space flow together. Time itself is for him primarily eternal, unmeasured: cyclical. The carpet then must be confined within aesthetic limits, and the material and techniques used be in keeping with textile criteria. The vision of the oriental is not spontaneously naturalistic, and these limits are rarely in danger of being overstepped. Where exaggerated modeling and illusionistic perspective have nonetheless impinged there may occur pieces which have lost true character, with the qualities of painting or architecture inappropriately dominant.

Of course the westerner can appreciate and understand the rules of composition of a pattern, but he will never penetrate its deepest meaning or that of its constituents, in spite of his intellectual comprehension. Yet it is this mystery, this unattainable secret which exercises such a spell upon him over and above the aesthetic appeal. He is even able to distinguish the true from the false. As long as the patterns have their origin in the domain of the spirit he feels himself drawn towards them, even when superstition is manifest in them. The Anatolian Yuruk weave tufts against the evil eye into the prayer rugs that they make to glorify Allah, while the Persian nomads represent huge beasts of prey which almost burst apart the design, as a protection against the forces of nightmare, fear and terror (see fig. IOI). It is only sentimental designs, such as the drinking faun, which evoke that unfortunate after-taste of trash, that regret at the waste of so much skill and careful work and costly material. Unsatisfactory and bloodless too are the 'nomad patterns' constructed from tracings or sketches, entirely devoid of any original, earthy power—quite apart from the inadequacy of the understanding and imitation of the designs—and again those patterns inappropriate either to textiles or carpets in which other influences, such as miniature paintings or European patterns, predominate.

Exchange and admixture of patterns have always occurred as a result of migrations, wars, commissions from rulers, emigration or deportation of knotters into manufactories, tribes that migrate over vast distances, or marriage. They have been balanced by the instinct and conservatism of the peoples and tribes. In these days when large manufactories see it as their task to copy popular designs which originated thousands of kilometers away, even their best work can never transcend the quality of an imitation.

An exhaustive study of the motifs and symbols used in Caucasian carpets is in hand by L. Kerimov; a description and explanation of the hand-knotted and Kelim collections of the Turk-ve-Islam Museum is in progress. It is to be hoped that Iranian scholarship will set up similar studies for the Persian area. There is of course a dilemma, in that the original meaning of the motifs and symbols has become lost over the generations. In the twentieth century the designers and knotters are not all conversant with their significance. Where they do still remember, or did until recently, as in western and eastern Turkestan and China, close investigations are being made.

Here it is sufficient to give a survey of the most important motifs, patterns and symbols. For many of them, especially in so far as concerns the borders, European terms have become usual. While they allow a relatively exact definition they of course bear no relation whatever to the real content.