For the past 15 years “It’s all about Color” has been the predominant mantra antique carpet collectors have voiced. Before then it was “It’s all about Condition”.
While both of these are inarguable and entirely valid, depending on ones predilections, neither is omnipotent. Color and condition are important for obvious reasons, however, when referring to historical carpets, i.e. those that are prototypes and archetypes, they take the back seat in lieu of design, materials and structure.
The re-entrant prayer rugs examined by John Mills are in such a category and Mills’s thesis and its conclusions are based solely on design, as no technical aspects of these rugs are discussed.
His lack of attention to these details is understandable from a convenience viewpoint, as locating and confirming these details is quite difficult and time-consuming. However, their absence blows a big hole through his exercise. Why he and hali’s editors did not attempt to include this information is, in my opinion, unforgivable and, at the least, diminishes the value of this work.
But more importantly, it demonstrates the frailty of Mills’s premise and it’s conclusions.
Examining carpets solely on the basis of design and then drawing valid conclusions from them is possible but fraught with pitfalls, especially when the examiner is not aware enough of the intricacies of the examples he has chosen to examine.
Design is the most easily reproduced aspect of any weaving and unless the observer has a deep and thorough understanding of the multitude of examples in any group or cluster, those judgments are nothing more than ‘opinions’. They surely cannot be considered facts.
By comparing the relative ages he assigns to these weaving, which is the basis for his conclusions about them, it is very apparent to me that Mills may know a lot about paintings picturing carpets but he doesn’t know much about the carpets themselves.
In part I two of those rugs are pictured. Here are two more:
Again, I have strong reservations about the dates Mills assigns to these rugs. The one on the left, from the West Berlin Museum for Islamic Art, he dates as 15th-16th century and the other, from the Wher Collection, 16th century. But in this comparison at least Mills got their relative ages right – the west Berlin piece is older than the Wher example. As such, I would prefer to see the west Berlin example dated at least 50 years later to the mid- 16th and the Wher to the early or mid-17th.
Alright then, on what basis do I make such statements, considering I, too, am using only design as a basis?
Simply put, the only mantra which has any credibility in dealing with historical carpets compared on the basis of design is “It’s all about Proportion".
Nuance of design is the foundation Mills, and I must say all others who delve into these types of rug comparisons, use to hang their conclusions upon. However, as even the most novice student of carpets soon realizes, weavers are good copyists and the little zigs and zags of a design were not lost on some weavers who had the perceptions and skills to faithfully reproduce the designs formulated by previous generations.
But getting the proportions right and exact was far more difficult and demanding.
Duplicating the intricacies of the internal proportions of each design itself and the even more demanding chore of the proportional relationship between all the designs as a whole, while appearing simple, actually is an incredibly difficult task to accomplish -- it was achieved by very, very few weavers.
So while the designs might ‘look’ the same, in reality when they are minutely examined, they almost always prove to be quite dissimilar. And these differences are the significant clues that allow a relative age determination. In short: Proportion is everythingin design comparisions.
Of the four pieces so far illustrated, two in Part I and two here, the east Berlin example is, without a doubt the earliest and its proportions show the epitome for this type of re-entrant prayer rug. Go study them and you’ll see.
Personally, I am not very interested in Classical Carpets and even though I appreciate them and have a strong working knowledge of some types, particularly Ottoman examples like these, they don’t ring my bell as loudly as early village and other low-culture weaving types.
That said, some the earliest Classical Carpets can demonstrate facets of those qualities I find fascinating in non-classical types. The east Berlin piece is one of these.
Its design is powerful. Why? Because the design elements are boldly articulated and clear; the proportions dynamic, each element not only exists on its own but more importantly interacts with all the others – there is a synthesis of design.
Like a fine piece of machinery, all the parts work together – nothing is unnecessary. There is no design for design sake, nothing extra or superfluous – no fussy do-dads to muddy the picture. Border and field balanced, neither overpowering the other.
Again, while this might seem easy to do, it’s not and the weavers of the three other examples prove how difficult it is.
One last comment, notice the presence of two large lazy lines just above the medallion of the east Berlin piece. There are also two similar ones that begin at the center of the re-entrant design.
I would bet none of the others have this structural aspect.
When technicalities like this - just like other structural, dye and material differences that I am sure could be shown to exist in these four rugs – would be compiled, they would validate the assessments of relative age made here and not those forwarded by Mills.
Ok then, that’s it for Part II. Stay tuned for Part III when the antecedent examples for the re-entrant prayer rug design will be illustrated and discussed.