Oriental rugs designs.
A basic knowledge of oriental rug design is essential, not only as an aid to identification, but also as an important means of gaining insight into the rich and infinitely varied religious and cultural heritage of the weavers themselves. Unlike their Western counterparts, who usually strive for individual expression and the creation of a new visual language, oriental textile artists are more content to reproduce the time honored designs of their ancestors and seek to express a collective rather than an individual view of their world. This is particularly true of nomadic groups, who have hardly changed their repertoire for generations and who still seek to weave the beliefs and inspirations of their rugs, as a testament to their way of life and tribal identity.
The collective expression of an individual nomadic group, village region or even an entire country is, however, modified by the wider unifying influences of culture, religion and ethnic origin. The result is a fascinating and poignant tapestry in which each rug is both the unique expression of an individual tribe or group and, at the same time, an integral part of the wider forces that have been shaped the carpet making world.
Identifying rugs by their color and design
It is a common mistake to assume that oriental rugs can be identified by their designs alone. While it is true that certain designs are closely associated, even synonymous, with specific localities or weaving groups. centuries of trade, migration, intermarriage and inspired plagiarism have resulted in a gradual spreading of compositional traditions. This is specially true today, due to the substantial number of high quality copies coming onto market from India, Pakistan, and China, and it would take an exceptionally brave or foolhardy person to identify a rug without confirming their opinion by carefully checking the weave, materials and dyes.
However, the design can be a useful, if not a definitive, indicator of a rug’s origins. Armed with a basic knowledge of the major compositional schemes, the prospective collector or student should be able to recognize many of the more distinctive contemporary rugs and limit the less obvious ones to a few possible sources. This degree of knowledge will not guarantee immunity from mistakes or deceit at the hands of unscrupulous dealers, but it will help to combat the more obvious attempts at misinformation, far more likely than outright deception, and assist in assessing the integrity of any dealer or expert whom one may need to rely on for advice.
Identification, even by experts, is largely a process of elimination based on the knowledge that certain countries and individual weaving groups tend to produce only certain types of design. Therefore, if you are confronted with a rug decorated in an intricate and curvilinear floral inspired scheme, it is reasonable to assume that it probably originates from a workshop group in one of the limited number of countries which specialize in these designs. Identifying the specific weaving group is, of course, far more difficult, and you would have to gather a considerable amount of information on the individual variations in weave, color and composition before hazarding a guess.
The first and most important step is to identify the weaving category, because this will automatically preludes those countries which do not produce, for example, nomadic or village rugs. Next, by relating the plates and line illustrations to the individual designs, you can use the information contained under each heading in this section to limit an item’s probable origins, e.g., hunting design rugs are usually only made by workshop groups in Persia, India, or Pakistan.
After making a general attribution based on design, you should next take into account the color scheme and tonal qualities of the rug. This is particularly useful in distinguishing an authentic Persian or Turkoman rug from a good quality copy made in India or Pakistan. The designs may be almost may be identical, but, with a few notable exceptions, Indian and Pakistani rugs tend to favor paler, more pastel shades. So if our hunting rug employs pastel rather than the rich shades it was most probably not made in Persia, but in India or Pakistan.
The origins of rug designs
It is impossible to say with any degree of certainty exactly where, when and how the majority of rug designs were first evolved. Some are clearly rooted in religious and mystical symbolism. Others are obviously drawn from a wide range of vegetal, animal and architectural forms; the diverse influences of mythology, folklore, history and other decorative arts can also be seen. Equally evident is the use of “heraldic” emblems, or tribal coats of arms, and it is not uncommon to find magical and totemistic motifs in a number of tribal and Chinese rugs.
The origin and symbolic meaning of some individual motifs and designs are well documented, but the majority can not be traced to any undisputed source, and a number of conflicting mythological have grown up around them. The situation has been further complicated by the constant interchange of religious, culture and decorative ideas; in common with other artists, the makers of oriental rugs are not averse to adopting a design, or incorporating its most attractive elements into their own compositions, simply because it appeals to their aesthetic tastes.
Figurative and non figurative
All oriental rug designs can be broadly divided into those which employ naturalistic representations of living forms and those which employ either totally geometric forms, or naturalistic forms that have been so abstracted that their origins are no longer recognizable. As general rule, Turkoman, Afghan and Anatolian rugs are predominately non figurative, whereas those from the other producing countries often use realistic, if sometimes highly abstracted, plant, bird, animal and human forms. Experts most frequently explain this regional division by pointing to conflicting interpretations of the hadith (the sayings attributed to the Prophet Mohammed) by the different Islamic sects. The Sunnite Muslims, who are dominant in Anatolia, Afghanistan and among the Turkoman nomads, forbid the depiction of living forms, whereas the Shiite Muslims of Persia, and, of course, the Hindu, Taoist and Buddhist cultures of India and China, are not bound by such doctrinal restraints.
This theory is, however, open to debate. The presence of minority groupings of Shiites in Turkey and Afghanistan, and pockets of Turkish speaking Sunnites in Persia and the Caucasus ( not to mention the ubiquitous Christian Armenians and nomadic tribesman scattered throughout the region) ensure that there are numerous exceptions to the rule. Equally, political and commercial considerations should not be underestimated, particularly in the major rug making centers, where the workshops have proved adept at modifying their product to suit the buyer’s requirements. Nevertheless, even allowing for these exceptions, the traditional division into figurative and non figurative regions is largely valid, and you should be extremely suspicious if offered an Afghan or Bokhara rug that contains human or animal forms.
Geometric and Curvilinear
A similar, although less consistent, regional division can be made with regard to geometric and curvilinear schemes. This is partly due to the different religious and cultural traditions, but is also influenced by the fact that it is extremely difficult to produce curved and flowing lines unless the knotting is reasonably fine. It is therefore not surprising to find that most nomadic and village groups produce predominantly geometric schemes, while the more sophisticated workshop groups of the major urban centers tend to show off their skills by weaving sensuous, curvilinear schemes. Although the division between nomadic and urban cultures has diminished in recent years, most of the older, more established weaving groups have retained their traditional allegiance to either geometric or curvilinear designs.
Consequently, the vast majority of temporary rugs made in Afghanistan and Caucasus remain faithful to their tribal heritage and employ predominately geometric schemes, despite being often of workshop origin. Similarly, the individual groups in Persia and Anatolia have generally retained their traditional repertoires. With a few notable exceptions, curvilinear designs are preserve of the major workshop groups and geometric schemes are found on village and nomadic rugs. This rule can not be applied to rugs from newer weaving countries, China, India, and Pakistan, which produce workshop versions of almost any type of designs.
Anatomy of a rug
Medallion - Any large central motifs used as the focal point a design.
Field - Main area of the rug within borders.
Spandrel or corners - Architectural expression used to describe the space between the curve of an arch and its enclosing molding. In rug making it refers to the contoured areas at the four right angles of of the field adjacent to the borders, usually only found in rugs employing a central medallion.
Main border - The largest, and usually the central border.
Minor border - Smaller, supplementary borders, usually arranged in equal numbers on either side of the main border.
Guard strips - Narrow stripes within the border arrangement. They can be either plain or patterned, and are often indistinguishable from the minor borders.
Ground - Sometimes used as an alternative expression for the field, but generally applied to the underlying or background color of any part of the rug.
Motif - Any single form or cohesive group of forms (e.g., a bunch of intertwining leaves) which constitutes part of the overall design.
Open field - Undecorated or monochrome field, usually only found in compositions with a central medallion.
Variegated field - One in which an otherwise uniform all over or repeating design continues over different colored grounds.
Paneled designs - The field is divided into panels or compartments.
Repeating design - A single motif or group of motifs is repeated across the entire field.
Endless repeat - Another term for a repeating design, which some experts have suggested is symbolic of eternity and the all pervading of Allah.
Dyer’s palette - The range of colors and tones in particular rug or group of rugs.
Persian and universal designs
It is open to debate whether or not all the designs traditionally ascribed to Persia are in fact Persian in origin, and these is some evidence to suggest that a number may have had earlier links with Anatolia, India or Central Asia. What is not disputed, however, is that their current degree of refinement and decorative panache is primarily the result of the skill and artistry of the 16th and 17th century Persian weavers and designers, who took a number of hitherto rather simple motifs and compositions and turned them into some of the most beautiful, elaborate and awe inspiring examples of textiles art the world has ever known.