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'Shield' Carpet
Shirvan region, eastern Caucasus, 17th century
171 x 349 cm (5ft 8in x 11ft 6in), wool pile on a silk foundation


During the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, the weavers of the Caucasus developed their own distinctive style. This outstandingly beautiful carpet, from the Emirate of Shirvan on the western side of the Caspian Sea, is a masterpiece of their art. At this time the Caucasus was continuously fought over by the Safavid Persians and the Ottoman Turks, but true control of the area was in the hands of a number of wealthy and powerful emirs who paid homage and allegiance to their great neighbours. The art of weaving during this period was clearly influenced by both the Safavid and Ottoman cultures. It is difficult therefore to fully understand or appreciate the magnificence and importance of this extraordinary carpet in isolation from other examples of this pattern.

The 'Shield' group of carpets - named after their principal design feature of ascending shield-like palmettes flanked by two large leaves - are the earliest known carpets from the Shirvan region, and the oldest seven of them are believed to date from the middle of the seventeenth century. These particular carpets are amongst the finest-woven examples from this region, and most of them have a silk foundation and a blue background. It is often muted that they were special commissions. In the first issue of Hali in 1978, twenty-six Shield carpets were published and thoroughly discussed. Since then eight further examples have come to light, each of which has shed more light upon this rare and extraordinary group of carpets. They have been divided into seven design sub-groups, three with 'shields' as the principal motif.

The first and earliest sub-group is represented by three examples: one in the Musée des Art Décoratifs, Paris; one in the Hermitage, St. Petersburg; and the third in the Victoria & Albert Museum, London. The shields and curved leaves tend to be more curvilinear than examples in other groups. They each have some ornaments typical of Persian Safavid court designs and others typical of Ottoman court designs. The second group is made up of fragments from three different carpets - no complete examples exist. They are certainly the finest woven. The outlines of the shields are less curvileanear than those of the first group, but more so than the third. Sections of two of these carpets are in the Kestner Museum, Hannover; and parts of the other are divided between the Islamic Museum, Berlin, and a German private collection.

The magnificent example presented here, from a private collection in Paris, forms a link between the first two groups and the third. It has the same extraordinarily fine quality weave as the first two groups and a most beautiful border pattern that is, to date, unique. In outstanding condition, with remarkably fresh and vibrant colours and lustrous wool, it is a joy to behold.

The third group contains sixteen carpets. Six have a fine meander and arrow border, including one in the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York. Another has a border of flower shrubs. Six have a border with a large meandering stem with curled leaves and double crosses: one of these is in the Benaki Museum, Athens, and another is in the Textile Museum, Washington DC; another example from the same collection is missing its borders. Two others have red grounds: one in a private collection in Switzerland, and the other in the Royal Ontorio Museum, Toronto.

Eleven other carpets can be divided into four further groups by their field designs; they use three different main border designs. Most of the field designs do not include actual 'shield' motifs, but they do have many of the ornaments found on the traditional Shield carpets and were clearly made in the same workshops. The field design of group four, of which only two examples are known, is composed of rows of hexagonal medallions alternating with curled leaves; both carpets have the typical curled leaf border. Group five, of which five examples are known (one of which is dated to around 1719), repeats a pattern seen at the ends of the Paris and St. Petersburg carpets: a floral stem with large tulips, chrysanthemums and curved leaves that are similar to those flanking the shields seen on the carpets of the first three groups. The three examples of group six have palmettes and forked leaves on the stem. Group seven is represented by a single example, a carpet of the same construction as several others cited earlier but with a field design in the manner of the famous Graf 'dragon' carpet, except that small shields and curled leaves have been added.

Much of the early development of the pattern can be seen through the close study of the three first-period carpets. The in-fill design of the shield motif is probably derived from sixteenth century Safavid silk textiles that depict a winged angel, hori, seated upon a square box and flanked by a pair of trees. The St. Petersburg carpet clearly depicts the hori, while the example in London only has vestiges of the wings and the hori is replaced by a cypress. Typical of Persian design is a central cypress flanked by other trees. In the field of the Paris and St. Petersburg carpets are the large tulips and flower forms characteristic of Ottoman art. The form of the shield itself may well derive from palmettes in Persian carpet design, but it can also be seen in Ottoman tiles and silks of the sixteenth century - both may well have shared a common heritage.

ref : 19372
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