125. Silk Heraldic Animal Rug

Probably Kashan, Iran, 16th or 19th-century
Size: 198 cm × 116 cm

This rug has many interesting stories to tell. When first I saw its photograph I was intrigued, having never seen anything like it. On seeing it, I thought it must be 19th century, made in Iran, but because of the disappointment of the owner, I agreed to have it carbon-dated at Oxford. Carbon-dating, by the way, has proved over the years to be the most reliable test of organic materials that we have. To my surprise, the analyses of pile, warp and weft, indicated that the rug dated from the late 15th or 16th century. A notable expert of carpets examined it and had no doubt whatever that the carbon dating was correct, and came up with a series of collaborative evidence from his own examination. At this point the rug became the most exciting new discovery in the field of carpets, and several eager buyers emerged. To conclude a sale it was first necessary to subject the rug to dye tests at a laboratory in Belgium, which determined that some of the dyes could not date from earlier than the 19th century.

It was at this point that I decided to buy the carpet. Whether it was made in the 16th or 19th century seemed somewhat irrelevant. A painting by Delacroix or Matisse is not necessarily less significant than a Titian or a Tintoretto; the important element is the quality of the work of art, not its date. And this carpet is, it seems to me, a masterpiece, whenever it was made. In its field are 98 different animals, heraldic, realistic, abstract, and almost cartoonish. Who imagined such an ensemble, and who had the skill to realise it in the knots of a silk carpet? It is an extraordinary achievement, whatever it is, although to see it as such it is necessary to view it outside the canon of classical carpet weaving that we have been taught. Late medieval bestiaries are the obvious place to look for the iconography, but they fail to match most of the models. Two late medieval textiles in the National Museum of Sweden provide a mysterious clue, with almost identical matches for three of the animals, but how do these rarely published images relate to a Persian rug, and where does the rest of the menagerie come from? It remains a puzzle. The only consistent thing about it has been the reaction of visitors to my studio during the months it has hung there. They have invariably commented on the impact of its unique design, and the extraordinary quality of its weaving.