Monday, October 19, 2009

The Carpet Index

The Carpet Index consists of over 350 European paintings created between 1250 and 1550, all containing the common element of the oriental carpet. Surprisingly, early carpet paintings have never been systematically studied as a genre before,[1] nor have they been chronologically grouped and examined for what they can tell us about Renaissance relations with the Middle East. As such, the Carpet Index seeks to be an online catalogue raisonne of carpet paintings, complete with artists, locations, and references, intending to close this gap for all serious scholars interested in the earliest depictions of the oriental carpet in European paintings.

Eastern Carpets Before 1500: Too Many Unanswered Questions
Specifically, however, I am interested in carpet paintings before 1500. Since the 19th century, art historians have held that carpets in these early Renaissance works represent luxury items of Muslim manufacture.[2] A corollary tenet is that Italian or Flemish artists included carpets simply to enhance the richness of the domestic interior.[3] On the surface, these explanations satisfy us because they reinforce what we already know to be true about carpets in our own day.
Nevertheless, there are serious inconsistencies within these traditional explanations. For instance, how do we account for the so-called “banking scenes”? These paintings appear to depict the public life of merchants, outside the home and within the masculine workplace. [4] In addition, I’m hardly the first to note that the folk-art animal carpets found most often in early Tuscan Annunciations and religious paintings have never fit comfortably within the luxury carpet scenario: not only are they obviously crudely woven, but by their very nature they defy the Muslim injunction against portraying living creatures. Even if we could explain them away as a poor-relative sub-group of the luxury carpet (as one scholar suggested),[5] or the product of lax Anatolian Sunnis (as another scholar proposed), [6] how do we align these with the real animal carpet fragments that came on the art market in the 19th century? [7] These virtually identical fragments were said to have come from Tuscan or Umbrian church treasuries, hardly a logical repository for a coarse domestic item made by religious foes. [8]

The Iconological Problem of the Eastern Carpet
But these were small problems compared to the foremost flaw, as I saw it: that the oriental carpet had never been assigned an iconographic meaning within the historical context of these paintings. [9] We art historians specifically teach that everything included in religious works from this pre-Reformation period—from the blue of the Madonna’s cloak to the choice of specific flowers in the landscape—has a nuanced Christian symbolism. The only exception to this rule of intense theological scrutiny seems to be the oriental carpet.
Why is this? As far as I can tell, the answer appears to be sentimental, at best. At the very beginning of art history as a discipline in the 19th century, the Victorian pioneers in our field declared that the carpet had no iconographic or religious meaning, because, to the man, they were certain that the carpet was of Muslim origin, as was the case in their own day.[10] Since then, each succeeding generation of followers has continued to talk around the inclusion of the carpet in early Renaissance paintings or ignore its presence altogether (see Postscript). Yet there it sits, in over 350 paintings that I’ve catalogued so far. The oriental carpet appears to be the art-historical equivalent of Voldemort—the “he who must not be named” of the early Renaissance.[11] Why is the carpet included at all, if it has no meaning? I couldn’t think around this problem—the 800-pound carpet in the room, so to speak. I concluded that it was possible that we had missed some crucial symbolism by neglecting to look analytically at this singular and deliberately depicted item within this distinct body of work.

Questions I Wanted the Index to Answer
I began the Carpet Index to find answers to those questions. Once I started gathering carpet paintings, the Index grew exponentially (surprisingly, there were a lot more carpet paintings than I realized, to begin with, and more are being added as I find them). I formulated five basic cataloguing questions per painting that would lay the groundwork for a studied, systematic analysis of this genre: artist; date; original location if known, or in situ site; current collection; medium and size; any pertinent literature; notes on the work. Beyond that, I sorted and re-sorted the paintings according to standard art-historical criteria (i.e. Themes – as in, is this an Annunciation? A sacra conversazione? What saint is depicted here? Is this another banking scene, etc.). I was looking for groups or categories that these paintings might fall in to, seeing if I could identify some overall pattern or form.
In the end, I did find a form and the result was a massive, total surprise. Instead of reinforcing the prevailing theories with my new statistics, I found that the Carpet Index had undercut them quite badly. “Luxury items of Muslim manufacture, included by the artist to enhance the domestic interior” is just plain wrong, at least before the year 1500. This time-honored premise fails to hold up under even minimal scrutiny. The Carpet Index reveals that there were recurring iconographic themes among carpet paintings and these quickly became apparent as the entire genre came into focus.

The Basic Findings: Fully 97% of the Paintings Have an Overt Christian ContextThe most important basic piece of information that the Index yielded is that, before 1500, virtually 100% of the paintings in it are Christian in context. Not just mildly Christian but overtly so: there are no Vermeer-like scenes of cozy domestic interiors with expensive carpets to be found at this early stage of carpet-painting history. Instead, the paintings with oriental carpets almost invariably include the Madonna and Child; or they depict a Christian sacrament being performed (most often marriage or alms-giving); or are included with a small, repeating set of Christian saints. Taken en mass, the Latin Christian nature of these paintings is hard to miss: secular domestic interiors with oriental carpets simply do not exist before 1500.

The Statistics Tell a New Story:Here are the statistics, as of February 2013, for the 353 paintings in the beta or initial version of the Carpet Index, to be released online in late February 2013: [12]

220 represent the Madonna and Child (some also include saints, angels, and donors with her), but 62 % of all images revolve around Mary and the infant Christ.

50 represent Christian saints without the Madonna and Child (14 % of all imagery)

23 represent at least one of the Seven Sacraments (for 7% of all imagery). N.B. Sacraments before the year 1500 are baptism; confirmation; Mass; alms-giving and penance; marriage; ordination; anointing of the sick and Last Rites. The most frequently depicted sacramental scenes with carpets are of marriage and alms-giving.

48 other religious scenes [i.e. Last Supper, Christ before Pilate, etc.]    (about 14%)

11 non-religious scenes [i.e. Men Playing Chess; Magical Practices, etc.] (about 3 %)

Initial Conclusion: The Oriental Carpet Signifies Holy Ground beneath Mother ChurchIndex statistics reveal for certain that the carpet had strong Christian iconographic meaning in western paintings before 1500. Specifically, by examining where it appears (in fully two-thirds of the paintings), it becomes clear that the oriental carpet was understood in Italy and the North to represent holy ground beneath the Madonna in her role as Mother Church. The role of the carpet in delineating holy ground in relation to the Latin church in general rises to an overwhelming 97% of the images when we add the remaining paintings of specific Christian sacraments and saints. Therefore, I can only conclude that before 1500, there is no way that these carpets were perceived by their European commissioners and viewers to be luxury items of Muslim manufacture. Within this exclusively Christian oeuvre, these painted carpets signifying holy ground had to have been perceived to be made by Christians.

These are Christian Carpets? How to Interpret this Carpet Index Conclusion Oriental carpets are one of the most contentious areas of art-historical study and my conclusion is bound to offend almost everyone interested in this subject. Most modern carpets are produced in the Muslim east, and they are not only of vast and intricate beauty, but they provide a significant stream of regional income. The heritage of their inclusion within Renaissance paintings in the west is a source of great national pride, not only in Turkey, but in carpet-producing areas of Iran, Azerbaijan, and Egypt--just check any online carpet site.[13] So to question the Islamic heritage of these carpets in Renaissance paintings is not to be undertaken lightly.

But stay with me awhile before dismissing this conclusion out-of-hand. If Muslim weavers were not the source at this early point, then who wove them? The only other category of non-Muslim weavers that could have provided these carpets before 1500 were the eastern Christians living in what we now call the Middle East. These were the Greeks, the Armenians, the Georgians, and members of the Church of the East[14] who lived in these lands before 1500. Other non-Latin Christians in the Mediterranean area who are likely candidates include the Lebanese and Syrian Maronites, Jacobites, and Melkites, and the Copts of Egypt and Ethiopia. [15]

Please note –I’m hardly the first to theorize that early carpets were produced by eastern Christians. This idea has been the subject of heated and partisan debate for the past century, especially in the past two decades as Muslim/Christian tensions have re-surfaced. The German scholar Volkmar Gantzhorn, with his groundbreaking documentation of strong Armenian participation in the craft of weaving, has ruffled many feathers. [16] But my work on the Carpet Index finally gives this theory of Christian origin solid backing, as it strongly supports this conclusion with measurable data. However, this is not a triumph for the pro-Christian faction either: when this data is interpreted within its historical context, it strongly indicates that another politically-loaded concept is at play here-- assimilation. I propose that carpet depictions in paintings before 1500 signify eastern acceptance of and assimilation within the Latin Christian church in Europe, not by a token few, but by significant numbers of Orthodox Greeks, Armenians, Georgians, Lebanese and Syrian Maronites, and other members of the Church of the East, not only in Italy but in northern Europe as well. How could this be?

The Great Assimilation and its Impact on the Art of the West before 1550
It is historical fact that thousands of eastern Christian merchants, skilled craftsmen, scholars, their families and household servants, sought refuge in Italy and the Flemish North during several distinct periods from the 13th through the 15th centuries.

During these three centuries, when their ancient Christian homelands in the Middle East were becoming strictly Muslim enclaves, these relatively wealthy and skilled immigrants chose to leave and make a new life elsewhere in the west, rather than convert to Islam. Migrations west occurred during several distinct periods beginning with the 4th Crusade. In 1204, the Sack of Constantinople by the Crusaders seriously alienated the Greek Orthodox Byzantines, but sent many other eastern Christians, particularly Armenian, Syrian and Lebanese Christians who supported the Crusaders, fleeing west, to Italy in particular; [17] not coincidentally, I believe, San Miniato al Monte in Florence, dedicated to an Armenian saint, was revitalized during this period.[18]

The Mongol invasions of the Middle East by 1250 further disrupted Greater Armenia, Cilicia, and the Holy Land, and once again Christians of wealth and means sought refuge in Italy; this period of migration had an impact on the developing city-states of Florence (see the miracle carpet below), Bologna, Perugia and Siena. [19] The fall of Acre in 1291 to the Muslim armies put an end to European presence in the Holy Land and many of their eastern Christian supporters left and sought refuge in the west; [20] Now that pilgrimage to Jerusalem was severely curtailed, I suggest that Franciscan and Dominican missionaries (who had served these same constiuents in the east) helped many families of artists,craftsmen and merchants ettle in small towns in Tuscany along the pilgrimage roads to Rome. Some merchant groups also began resettling in the North.

The subsequent rise of the Ottoman empire in Asia Minor in the 14th century brought about the end of Armenian Cilicia and Cyprus, beginning with political turmoil in the 1340s.[21] The consolidation of the Ottoman empire in the 15th c. had disastrous results for the Greek Orthodox Byzantines, culminating in a new wave of famous scholars, humanist clerics and merchants and their families fleeing west in advance of the fall of Constantinople in 1453. [22] The surrender of Trebizond in 1461, as the last Christian city-state on the Black Sea, marked the end of the periods of Christian migration to the European west.[23] After that point, the Middle East was unquestioningly dominated by Muslims, with small, marginalized Christian minorities surviving throughout the area.

That significant migrations of eastern populations into Italy and the north occurred is little remarked upon in most historical studies. Nevertheless, this pattern of ethnic influx indelibly shows up in the genetic record: a 2005 study of the Y-chromosome (men) within the G haplogroup,-- the “G” marker is heavily concentrated in Georgia, Armenia and the Caucasian mountain areas —shows that up to 11 percent of Italian men might share this same genetic marker in their male line. [24] This scientific data supports, I suggest, my conclusion that the involvement of these transplanted eastern Christians in their new European communities is shown by the painted works in the Carpet Index. Especially, after each wave of immigration, I believe that religious paintings were commissioned and publicly displayed to reflect the embrace of church unity between east and west. With the inclusion of the oriental carpet -- depicting real eastern carpets brought by the émigrés — they signaled that the Latin sacraments were now accepted within their new homes.

The Religious Role of the Oriental Carpet in Europe before 1500: A Chronology by CenturyThe following four essays, backed by the visual evidence of the Index, will present four specific insights that have shaped my thoughts on the religious role of the oriental carpet in early Renaissance paintings: Namely, that beginning in the 13th century in Italy, carpets from the east were considered to be religious artifacts or even relics, not commercial domestic goods (although they were certainly bought and sold on a limited scale, more on that later in the essay) that were brought to the west by refugees; that by the 14th century, carpets depicted in religious works represented the acceptance by immigrants of the Latin sacraments; that during the military turbulence of the 15th century, carpets in early Renaissance paintings re-emphasized the holy ground re-uniting Mother Church in the aftermath of the Council of Florence of 1439; and finally, that as the carpet lost its religious significance in the first decades of the Reformation during the 16th century, we see the true beginning of the rise of the Islamic carpet as a luxury item so treasured by the Enlightenment west. I hope that these historical observations, presented chronologically by century below, will give renewed context to the paintings in the Carpet Index and contribute to the beginning of a new discourse and understanding of these works and their role in the early Renaissance.

Essay 1 : The Thirteenth Century
An Animal Carpet Appears in a Miracle Painting in Florence
As noted by Penny Howell Jolly and others, the first oriental carpet to appear in a western painting was an animal carpet included under the kneeling Virgin in a Florentine Annunciation. [25] This fresco, painted by a Fra Bartolomeo for the church of the Annunziata in the spring of 1252, marked a miracle. The story goes thusly: It was the evening of March 24, and Fra Bartolomeo was stressed by the need to finish the wall painting for the Feast of the Annunciation on the following day. Unaccountably, the monk fell asleep before completing the head of the Virgin. He awoke the next morning, only to find that the visage of the Virgin had been miraculously finished “by the brush of angels.” Upon telling his amazing story of the heavenly intervention to the authorities, a miracle was declared, and the church of the Annunziata became an overnight pilgrimage destination; significantly, it also became renowned as a place of healing over the following five centuries. Fra Bartolomeo’s miracle painting set the standard for the next three centuries for Florentine-style Annunciations that were painted throughout Tuscany: many of these included variations of the humble folk-style animal carpet that Fra Bartolomeo had depicted marking holy ground beneath the Virgin Annunciate.

Circumstantially, the source of this first animal carpet to be depicted in Italy is suggested by the date of the miraculous painting itself: the year 1252. From the early 13th century onwards, the Florentine Dominicans (and to a lesser degree, the Franciscans) had established a presence in the Greater Armenian province of Nachivan. Beginning in the mid-1240s, bands of Armenian holy men from this area traveled west to drum up support for eastern Christians besieged by the Mongols that were overtaking their cross-roads nation between the Caspian and the Black Sea. Matthew Paris noted these bands of holy Armenians as far away as England in 1248.[26] I propose that these small folk carpets were brought west initially by returning Dominican and Franciscan missionaries and their Armenian counterparts from this mountainous province in Greater Armenia.

The key to understanding the importance of the animal motif, I propose, is in the meaning of the word “Nachivan” – in Armenian it translates as “where he landed,” referring to Noah’s safe descent onto Mt. Ararat after the Flood. Animal carpets of this vintage typically depict pairs of animals in compartments, most often birds, often one black and one white, that in the 13th century would have been quite biblically suggestive of the animals two-by-two of Noah’s Ark, and the raven and the dove Noah sent to find dry land, returning with leaves from the Tree of Life. [27] The story of Noah and God’s Covenant with man (with the further theological link to Mary’s New Covenant with man through the Incarnation during the Annunciation) had great popular resonance in Europe in the centuries just prior to the Reformation. I suggest that animal carpets were first carried to the west, not as traveler’s souvenirs or as items of trade, but as specific relics -- reminders of God’s earliest covenant with man.

This explanation is more historically plausible than the traditional notion that these animal carpets were woven by scripture-defying Muslim weavers in western Anatolia and sold as commercial goods in the west—scholars have puzzled for years over the lack of merchant documentation or bills of lading for these rude items. [28] Rather, I propose that these carpets were brought west as religious objects, donated by visiting holy men from the very land where Noah came to rest, and I would wager that these simple folk carpets were quickly venerated by the recipient communities in the west. Many were probably displayed in dramatic re-enactments of the Annunciation and on other of the Virgin’s feast days in Italy, especially along sites on pilgrimage roads to Rome (where many appear in situ). Particularly in Florence and Siena, where carpet paintings are especially prevalent, it is clear that existing carpets were treated as venerated relics and preserved over several centuries: many of these carpets were repeatedly and identifiably copied in various paintings over two centuries (for repeating examples, see Relic Carpets set. I am also completing a paper on "The Relic Carpets of Tuscany," forthcoming). Further supporting evidence of relic status are the real animal carpet fragments that came on the art market in the 19th c., said to have come from church treasuries in Italy and elsewhere.

Essay 2 : The Fourteenth Century
The Oriental Carpet as a Sacramental Marker of Civic Pride
After the 4th Crusade of 1204, in which Greek Orthodox Constantinople was overrun and looted by the marauding European Crusaders, and administrative control of Constantinople itself was taken over by the west until 1261, relations between Europe and the Greek Christians was strained and did not really recover until the rise of the Ottomans in the late 14th c. , an event that made both east and west reconsider a pragmatic military alliance and religious reunion in 1439.

Between 1100 and 1400, however, a much firmer relationship developed between the non-Byzantine Christians in the Levant, who often had had little love for their Greek Orthodox overlords in Constantinople.[29] Early east-west contact with these communities was fostered by the first Crusaders themselves, who intermarried with Armenian and Syrian noblewomen.[30] It was strengthened by the missionary orders of Franciscans and Dominicans who founded outposts in these surrounding eastern Christian lands, and forged strong bonds in 13th century with Christian communities that dotted the Mediterranean seaboard. These useful contacts ranged from Palestine through Lebanon and Syria; through Armenian Cilicia and Cyprus; and all through the Byzantine Greek territories. [31]

On another crucial level of east-west contact, merchants from Genoa and Venice who followed the Crusaders to the Holy Land were linked to these very same eastern Christian communities. Particularly, intermarriage among the wealthy and well-connected merchants of Armenian Cilicia (in what is now modern southeastern Turkey) and in Crusader strongholds such as Syrian Edessa took place over several centuries. These commercial and familial links fostered reciprocal trade concessions which had vast implications not only for the eventual resettlement of eastern Christians, but for the dissemination of the Christian carpet into specific communities in the west – these same Genovese and Venetian merchants also had reciprocating trade and familial links with Bruges and the Burgundian north.[32]

Eastern Christians Emigrate to Florence and Siena
After the Mongol incursion into the Middle East around 1250, successive waves of skilled and often wealthy Armenian, Greek and Syrian Christians fled persecution and settled in Italian cities.[33] There is circumstantial evidence that the new communities thrived, often with support from the same missionary orders that ministered to them in the Levant: for instance, in Bologna, with the presence of the Dominicans, we know that an Armenian scriptorium practiced book illumination, which I believe may have inspired Cimabue (in fact, the entire maniera greca should be re-examined, since the west was at odds with the Byzantines for much of the 13th-14th centuries—far more likely these “Greek” painters in Italy were other eastern Christians – look again at the Syrian and Armenian MSS from that time). In Perugia there were more Armenian book illuminators. In lesser numbers, merchant family groups (probably from Cyprus and Armenian Cilicia) also found their way North, especially concentrating in areas of Burgundy and Flanders, following the trade and intermarriage links mentioned above. Armenians are documented as selling textiles and carpets on the steps of St. Donation by 1350, among others. [34]

Specifically, Florence with its cloth-dying trade, and its miraculous Annunciation pilgrimage site, and its long link with Armenia (see note #) and Siena, a major pilgrimage and hospice site, attracted eastern newcomers. The newly-arrived eastern Christians did what most citizens do in a new land: after establishing local communities and securing a living for themselves and their households, they enthusiastically subsumed themselves in local civic life. In Florence, as in Cilicia, the Armenians were drawn to the cloth-related guilds, such as the Calimala, the dyers and cloth makers.

I believe that this transition from refugee status to involved citizenship took place within one or two generations in the 14th century, and I propose that it is documented by the rise of the sacramental image within the Italian guild communities. The Seven Sacraments in the late Middle Ages were the public markers of the Latin Christian faith: baptism, confirmation, celebrating Mass, alms-giving and penance, marriage, ordination, and healing the sick and Last Rites. I propose that images illustrating the sacraments, often shown with oriental carpets, are further indications of the civic spirit of these new citizens from the east. That these paintings also signify their public acceptance of the sacramental duties of the Latin church is indicated by their most commonly depicted themes: to wit, alms-giving and marriage, the two most community-oriented of the Latin sacraments. By including an eastern carpet marking holy ground under Mother Church, the paintings bear witness not only to a willingness to fit in, but a pride in an outsider heritage within the new community.

The Sacramental Images Are the Most Commonly Misinterpreted
The sacramental paintings of the 14th and 15th centuries are the images that are most frequently misidentified by modern art historians. Marriage paintings with carpets are invariably described as luxurious domestic interiors, such as in the Arnolfini Marriage Portrait of 1434, although both Panofsky and Meyer Shapiro were on to something when they noted that marriage itself is deeply sacramental in nature (they mention the shoes being off, but not the carpet as holy ground). Unlike in our own day, where the symbolic meaning of the carpet has been lost, I suggest that the carpet in wedding scenes was a widely understood symbol in the early Renaissance, not needing to be told that it indicated the holy ground of Mother Church. Inclusion of small animal carpets in festive scenes on wedding cassone in Florence is further indication of familial pride in this community-strengthening sacrament. Marco Spallanzani (per note 28) documents that carpets were for sale or for loan in Florence during this time: I theorize they were bought or borrowed by assimilated eastern Christians to commemorate weddings or other sacramental rites. Spallanzani himself notes that a business associate of the Medici family imported two carpets that he gave as a wedding gift to young Raffaello de'Medici in 1501; on page 23 he says "It is particularly interesting to note that a merchant from Florence...considered it worthy of being a wedding gift to a Medici," although he might consider exploring the ethnicity or family background of the Florentine merchant. Even today you will hear Armenians of a certain age remark: "She was married on the same carpet as her mother."

Another sacramental theme that is completely misinterpreted today is the “banking scene,” paintings of which are invariably described as depictions of everyday financial activity in the masculine workplace. In fact, these paintings typically depict the giving of alms, a major civic sacrament. The largest proportion of the “banking scenes” actually depict the Calling of St. Matthew, at the moment when the tax-collector was bidden by Christ to give up his worldly goods to follow him (see Orcagna at Orsanmichele and Gerini in Prato). Another famous “banking scene” with an animal carpet depicts St. Elegius, the jeweler, who gave away all of his wealth to follow Christ (Prado). As such, these paintings illustrate civic instances of the sacrament of alms-giving and penance in action, and serve as models to the assimilating community of proper Latin Christian behavior (or conversely, these predella panels serve as prideful reminders to their viewers of how much money the “new” population was already donating to the existing community).

The Carpet as Relic:I suggest that each new wave of immigrants carried their own variety of carpet with them from their old communities in the Middle East, and this might be a valuable way to chart the movements of distinct populations of eastern Christians taking up residence in the west. I propose that the carpets in these earliest paintings represent existing carpets that became venerated as relics within their new communities, similar to the animal carpets explained above.

The role of the relic in early Renaissance community life has only within the past few decades begun to attract serious scholarly attention again, after being dismissed for the past five centuries as superstitious nonsense. This denigration of the communal importance of relics began early in the Reformation and has been vehemently articulated since the 19th century, mostly by Protestant art historians. (Full disclosure: I am the daughter of a Protestant minister and a practising Episcopalian, married to a Roman Catholic). We now know that, not just Crusaders, but well-connected refugees brought relics from the east that they donated to their new communities -- notable objects include the holy girdle of the Virgin brought to Prato in the 12th century as the dowry of a Syrian bride who married an Italian merchant, and vast multitudes of holy relics that came into Siena via middlemen in Constantinople in the 1360s. That oriental carpets were among these objects of veneration is circumstantially confirmed by in situ depictions of eastern carpets in shrine sites along the pilgrimage roads to Rome. In Italy at least, the oriental carpet literally became a part of the religious fabric of 14th-century Christian life.

That carpets were considered to be relics is supported by the Carpet Index, which reveals that a number of these carpets are repeatedly depicted over time in similar religious paintings. In one interesting early instance, in the Sienese painting Marriage of the Virgin (Buonocorrso, 1360s), the Virgin appears standing on a distinctive, fresh red-and-yellow animal carpet: this carpet appears again, aged and with the colors faded and softened, but still identifiable, in several paintings by Sassetta in the 1430s and 40s. The repetition indicates that a real carpet was venerated over time in Siena. Most likely this real carpet was displayed on feast days, and was well-known, recognized, and beloved by the Sienese faithful. Several other identifiable relic carpets are also repeated in different paintings over time, a topic I am treating in a separate paper, "The Relic Carpets of Tuscany."

Essay 3: The 15th Century
The Sacra Conversazione of the Council of Florence: The Carpet Signifies Church Unity
While eastern carpets in 13th and 14th century paintings were relatively few in number and the paintings typically small in scale, the carpet paintings of the 15th century take on a whole new size, breadth, and meaning. They begin to appear not only in Italy, but now in the Burgundian North. It can hardly be coincidence that their size and importance increase as the situation between the Latin Christian west and the Ottoman Turks deteriorated into direct military confrontation.

By the beginning of the 15th century, western Christianity was in deep crisis. After 1350, Armenian Cilicia and the island of Cyprus had ceased to be Christian enclaves, bringing new waves of Armenian and Syrian Christians with merchant or family connections to Italy and now, to the North as well. Several direct east-west military confrontations with the Ottomans – especially the bloody battle of Nicopolis in 1396, when John the Fearless of Burgundy (1371-1419), father of Philip the Good, was taken prisoner by Sultan Bayezid I (1347-1404), brought Greeks from the Black Sea areas around Trebizond as well into the North. Tamerlane’s incursions from Central Asia distracted and delayed the Ottoman’s western drive for almost two decades of the new century, but by the 1430s, the relentless Ottoman advances threatened not only to engulf all of the Middle East, but was pushing against the very edge of Europe itself. By the time that the Latin church rallied to the aid of the beleaguered Byzantine Greeks of Constantinople -- calling for a council to address church unity-- eastern Christianity was in dire straits. The Council of Florence met over the course of many months in 1439, and in the end, to the jubilation of all, an accord between the eastern and western churches was proclaimed.

The Decrees of Union – Key to Understanding the Sacra ConversazioneIn its own time, the Council of Florence was hailed as a huge success, as delegates from the entire Christian world converged upon Florence to discuss and hammer out their differences and sign Decrees of Union that marked their new ecumenical accord. Decrees of Union were tailored to the specific eastern churches seeking reunion with Rome—namely, the Greek Orthodox, the Armenians, the Melkites, the Jaobites, the Maronites, and the Copts. The rise of the great paintings known as Sacra Conversazione – the sacred conversation—by mid-century almost certainly commemorate the ongoing hopes of this remarkable ecumenical discussion. Virtually every major church in Italy has a painting of this sort – the large, public altarpieces teeming with saints apparently in amiable conversation around a serene Mother Church.

In fact, the Decree of Union with the Greeks virtually describes these great paintings: it begins: After a long haze of grief and a dark and unlovely gloom of long-enduring strife, the radiance of hoped-for union has illuminated all. Let Mother Church also rejoice. For she now beholds her sons hitherto in disagreement returned to unity and peace, and she who hitherto wept at their separation now gives thanks to God with inexpressible joy at their truly marvelous harmony. Let all the faithful throughout the world, and those who go by the name of Christian, be glad with Mother Catholic Church.  [35]

It has long been assumed by historians that these decrees were boiler-plate documents that referred to small, distressed Christian communities in the Levant and in Egypt seeking military protection from the Ottomans. To the contrary, I suggest that they refer directly to immigrant communities in Italy and beyond, who were struggling with divided religious loyalties—would they be faithful to the Old Country or to the new lands that gave them freedom to trade and practice their religion, albeit under Latin Christian conditions and sacraments? Assimilation was the distinct undertone of the attempts to unite the eastern and western churches against the militant Muslim Ottomans and rescue the Christians in the east—and all of the communities named above signed their individual Decrees of Union, and all but one disappear into the Italian population. One community stands out -- the Greek Orthodox from Constantinople initially accepted their Decree of Union in 1439 in Florence but then famously rejected it, circa 1445, upon their return to Constantinople.

The history of the Byzantine refusal to assimilate within the confines of the sacraments of the Latin Church is usually the only commentary on the Council of Florence to make it into the history books. The ultimate rejection of Rome’s offer by the Greeks was treated by 19th and 20th century Protestant historians as a triumph of antipapal, pre-Reformation protest. This biased conclusion, so clearly based on sectarian antipathy toward the Roman Catholic church in the 19th century, declared the Council of Florence of 1439 to be an abject failure, since it ultimately did not achieve church unity: no mention is ever made of the other communities involved. In the same vein, historians also incorrectly dismiss the impact of the Council of Florence on the history and art of the 15th century, preferring instead to concentrate on Humanism, a concept far more compatible with the 19th-century agnostic academic mind. In my opinion, the refusal to examine the Council of Florence without Reformation blinders is a true lacunae in historical scholarship.

The Sacra Conversaziones : A Common Tie Between the Large and Small Depictions
But in spite of the refusal of the Greeks, certainly many immigrant communities willingly accepted the terms of the Decree of Union and assimilated—it was already a fait accompli in many merchant communities anyway, especially those originating from earlier migrations (i.e. in Florence, Siena, Genoa, Lucca and in Bruges). I propose that this grateful assimilation after 1440 was publicly proclaimed by the inclusion of the oriental carpet in the newly huge Italian and Flemish paintings of the Sacra Conversazione – the enormous paintings depicting Mother Church surrounded by her sons, all discoursing in unity and harmony. The monumentally large, publicly displayed sacra conversaziones, with their oriental carpets prominently signifying holy ground under Mother Church, proudly indicated their commissioner’s belief in the goals of east-west church union, right there for all their neighbors to see.

Unlike the large public works, the small private paintings of devotion to the Madonna and Child speak to merchants operating and traveling within the larger European territories. I suggest that the carpets so meticulously depicted under the Madonna in these jewel-like paintings celebrate their proud family ties --through marriage and family connections --to rapidly vanishing eastern communities. But these Italian and Flemish paintings, both the tiny private devotions and the great sacra conversaziones-- acknowledge the transplanted roots of these Middle Eastern believers-- whether Armenian, Greek, Georgian, Lebanese or Syriac – by including the oriental carpet. I see the carpet in these paintings before 1500 as a last effort by individuals within these various communities to acknowledge with deep pride their connection to their ancient eastern-Christian heritage.

The Decrees of Union represented a real break with the past: those merchants, scholars and craftsmen, their families, retainers and servants already in Europe now publically accepted the leadership of the Latin Mother Church and in these contracts, forsook fealty to eastern church leadership and aggressively adapted to Latin Christian ways. Cardinal Bessarion, a converted Greek Orthodox bishop born in Trebizond, was the most prominent of these newcomers: in a stunning move that highlights the prominent role of eastern émigrés in the early Italian Renaissance, Bessarion lacked only one vote to being elected Pope in 1455.

Communities that stayed in place in the old countries became engulfed by the Ottoman Turks, who eventually controlled Greece (1387 and 1430s), Romania and the Balkans (1389--96), all of Turkey (by 1461), and virtually all of the Middle East, including Armenia, Syria, Palestine and Egypt by 1517; after 1526 the Ottomans had most of European Hungary in their control and by 1529, they were at the gates of Vienna (although they were repulsed twice before giving up). Baghdad and Mesopotamia were taken from the Persians in 1535; by the middle of the 15th century, the Ottomans had dominion over approximately 15 million people. Ancient churches in these lands were converted into mosques, their frescos whitewashed over and their glittering mosaics hacked off. The majority of the remaining populaces converted to Islam (either by force or willingly for the advantageous tax breaks). By 1550, Christianity had become a minority religion within the lands of its birth. The Ottoman Empire would remain in place until World War I.

Essay 4 : The Sixteenth Century
The Carpet Ceases to Signify Holy Ground in the West – With One Notable Exception

The year 1500 was truly a watershed, signaling a brave new world indeed. By that year, the Genovese Columbo had sailed west 3 times under the flag of that backwater Spain, and now declared that he had truly found the outer islands of the Indies—he had Indian captives and treasures to prove it. This was widely reported—and the race was on. Then there was the small matter of the tormented German monk, who, in 1517, would nail a paper treatise to the door of a local church. With each hammer blow, his protest against the excesses of Rome rang out all across the north of Europe. News sparked from printing press to printing press—the Internet of its time-- and suddenly the long-simmering embers of church reform would blaze into the inferno and iconoclasm of the Reformation. The Protestant movement over much of northern Europe would guarantee that church unity under a Latin pope in Rome, so naively longed for in 1439, would become a moot point after the Sack of Rome by mercenary German landsknechts in 1528.

It should come as no surprise that the spiritual unrest in the wake of the Reformation brought about the  degradation and eventual demise of the symbolism of the oriental carpet as holy ground under Mother Church: accusations of Mariolotry in paintings hastened its decline. Interestingly enough, in the early years of the Reformation a new and final role of the carpet in religious paintings appears. In the Supper at Emmaus, a table-carpet is covered by a white cloth to form an altar-like space for Christ and his followers to share the Eucharist. This new image reiterates the carpet as holy ground, but significantly, it is in relation to Christ and his church and his male disciples, not in relation to the Madonna as Mother Church.

Increasingly, as east-west trade stabilized in the Mediterranean and more Muslim-made carpets became commercially available in the west --now via the Venetians, who pragmatically renewed trade agreements with the Ottomans and the Persians, starting in the last decades of the 15th c.   Anatolian carpets, now definitely made by Muslim weavers in the newly-unified Ottoman lands (Egypt was conquered in 1517), appear in swelling numbers. As “Turkey” carpets became more commercially available, new “key-hole” or mosque carpets made by Muslims began to be depicted in traditional sacra conversaziones and religious paintings, such as those by Lorenzo Lotto: now the carpets are identifiably Muslim, although they still can be read as signifying holy ground. Touchingly, Anatolian carpets still appear in marriage and family-related sacramental portraits, and are prominently shown in portraits of humanists and church leaders through the 1530s. But overall, as the Reformation took hold, the significance of the carpet as holy ground began to drop dramatically, and their secular depiction in domestic interiors, initially as luxury items in humanist portraits, begins to swell and take off.

England is the ExceptionThe one exception to this secularization of the meaning of the carpet was in England. There, Henry VIII’s desperate desire to produce a legitimate male heir led to his spectacular rift with Rome. He established his own Church of England in 1534, and attacked all remaining vestiges of Rome’s influence in England, culminating in the dissolution of the monasteries between 1536 and 1541.

Henry’s virile and confrontational portraits of the 1540s (see Hans Eworth, 1545), standing astride the oriental carpet, once the exclusive domain of the Madonna as Mother Church, now leave no doubt as to the Head of the new Church of England. O Brave New World indeed! There is no other analogous portrait astride the carpet by the catholic kings of Europe-- they wouldn’t have dared. Even the Spanish kings in all their pride didn’t have the cajones to shove the Virgin off her carpet and claim her holy ground for their own—only Henry Tudor claimed that right. And his sad son Edward manfully tried to imitate his father’s virile stance, only to die at the age of 16 without issue. Henry’s daughter Elizabeth became the Virgin Queen, daintily portrayed on the carpet, her arms holding a globe rather than a male infant heir: to my mind, Elizabeth I is the last symbolic reference to the Madonna’s reign on the carpet as Holy Mother Church.

Conclusion: Correcting the Balance of the Historical RecordThe findings of the Carpet Index, and my interpretations of its eastern Christian origins, in no way diminishes the skill of Muslim weavers or the fact that the 16th century was the Golden Age of the Muslim carpet. I hesitated at first to put my research and its new interpretation into print, not wanting to inflame an exquisite area of art by pouring on what might be perceived to be modern political and sectarian oil. Certainly, everyone must acknowledge that carpet-making itself is a craft embedded in the Middle East, older than either Christianity or Islam itself. After 1520 or so, the oriental carpet in European paintings is everything claimed by John Mills, Rosamond Mack and so many other gifted scholars –the pride of every Dutch painting, the delight of every wealthy and aristocratic European home. Muslim weavers have proven their sublime skill over and over again during the past five centuries.

The Carpet Index, however, recognizes a forgotten group of crafters – the eastern Christians who, before 1500, often lived and worked side-by-side with their Muslim neighbors before fleeing to the west. The Carpet Index restores their lost contribution to the world of art. When the works gathered in the Carpet Index are examined within this new light-- that of refugee communities bringing their own carpets to their new homeland as objects of pride, veneration, and connection to a treasured past-- it is truly a liberating one. The Index actually frees all of the above, Muslims and Christians alike, to finally embrace their own magnificent contributions to the history of the eastern carpet in the west.

Lauren Arnold
Independent Art Historian and Research Associate
Ricci Institute, University of San Francisco
October 4, 2009 and February 15, 2013

Post Script: Some Cautionary Remarks on the Future of Carpet StudiesBut how did we get the origin of the carpet in early Renaissance paintings so wrong to begin with? Why was the profound mistake of identifying it as a luxury object-- rather than a religious artifact signifying holy ground—made in the first place, and why has it taken so long to correct? To me, the answer is a cautionary tale for any academic discipline, especially those such as Art History that were formed in the 19th century. Art History is not alone in occasionally reflecting the outdated weltanschaung of its Victorian German and English upper-middle class founders. These largely Protestant, anti-Roman Catholic, and colonial academics without apology allowed their own times to color their perceptions, even in their most brilliant works: our job as their followers is to shake this dead wood off the tree; we would not be honoring the pioneering nature of their efforts if we unthinkingly cling to these mistakes.

The Beginning of the MistakeAs I see it, the beginning of the mistake lies in the earliest decades of the 1800s, when oriental carpets were romantic objects in Europe, widely believed to be produced by nomadic Muslims wandering about the Ottoman world. At least, that was the story the Victorians bought along with their carpets -- carpet salesman in every century have always known how to charm. In fact, the truth was far more nuanced and mechanically driven. By 1850, German chemists had introduced a stable set of aniline dyes that replaced unstable natural dyes, and the new colors allowed the oriental carpet market to explode in Turkey and Persia, making these beautiful imported objects, often woven in squalid city workshops by children on great room-sized looms. These were made in colors pleasing to Europeans, and were increasingly available and quite affordable to most upwardly-mobile continental homes. [36]

German scholars in particular formed the newly emerging field of Art History, and carpet studies as well.[37] Sympathetic to Ottoman Turkey and business interests in the east, they were the first to assign the oriental carpets in early Renaissance paintings to similar Turkish and Persian Muslim sources that they observed in their own day.[38] Building on this initial, fundamental mistake -- supposing that 15th -century Italian and Flemish city life was much like their own comfortable (post-Reformation German, English,and later American) domestic life -- these pioneer art historians constructed a convoluted and ultimately unsustainable rationale for the inclusion of oriental carpets in western religious paintings. Before 1500, according to this interpretation, these carpets in overtly religious paintings held no symbolic Christian content: they merely signified domestic luxury surrounding the Madonna. If symbolic content was possible within this overwhelmingly religious context, then the carpet might indicate a pleasing dominance over the non-believing Muslim carpet weavers in the east—end of story. [39] This was not only wishful thinking on their part, but by taking their own Victorian circumstances-- their own post-Reformation prejudices, values and political biases – and projecting them backwards by about four centuries, they failed to establish the true historical context of these objects, an oversight that professors today would immediately correct within their own undergraduate's essays.

The Mistake Continues: Uncritical Acceptance of the Theories of the PastThey were wrong on this, yet, in so many other ways, these were the ground-breakers of our field. The sheer erudition of the founders of carpet theory– Wilhelm von Bode, Ernst Kuhnel, Friedrich Saare, F.R. Martin, Arthur Upham Pope, and so many other fine scholars— [40] and the respect bordering on deification from their manifold students over many generations have kept some of their more-shaky pioneering conclusions from being questioned. Yet so much of this early theoretical structure has been consistently dismantled by recent historical research, particularly in the past two decades, that we art historians ignore this new data at our own peril. [41] My own re-examination of the carpet in Renaissance paintings has led me to re-think virtually every aspect of what I was taught years ago in graduate school.

The Mistake is Amplified: Interpreting Historical Evidence to Fit the Existing Theories
But what about the carpets discovered in the Ala al-Din Mosque in Konya, [42] or the Renaissance inventories that detail the presence of carpets in domestic interiors?[43] For the past fifty years of carpet studies, we art historians have relied particularly on Renaissance inventories (i.e. especially the Medici of 1492 and Gonzaga of 1483) to bolster our theories on the Muslim origin of these items, using carpets as proof that peaceful Muslim/Christian exchange must have occurred in the Mediterranean before 1500. [44] Certainly, these inventories provide incontrovertible documentation on the widespread commercial availability of carpets during this time?

Well, actually they don’t, and carpet specialists such as Marco Spallanzani will tell you that "Oriental rugs were among the many goods Florentine merchants dealt in, but they did not count for very much:  investments in them were modest and profits almost insignificant." [45] In his beautifully documented and illustrated book from 2007, Oriental Rugs in Renaissance Florence, he reflects on the ambiguous references to the commercial trade in carpets (we still don't know if the word tappeti always means carpets) in these pre-1500 inventories, which can lead to a highly problematic reading of the historical data.[46] Carpet specialists are the first to acknowledge this lacunae and seem frustrated at times—the speculative terms “probably” or “must have been importing carpets from central Anatolia” or “it seems likely that” appear far too often in carpet studies for scholarly comfort.

But here’s the rub—in spite of this uncertainty, we have taken a very dubious route in interpreting the early documentation. Much like our 19th-century forebears, we have extrapolated much of this commercial information backwards. Spallanzani, for one, assumes that all merchants in the east who are selling carpets are Muslim (to my mind,  they are more likely eastern Christians selling to co-religionists). This wishful thinking for peaceful Christian merchant contact with the Muslim-dominated Mediterranean before 1500 is simply not sustainable: however, for the sake of supporting a beloved notion, we art historians have made a grievous final mistake: we have chosen to sacrifice historical context.

The Hard Reality of the 15th Century: This Was Not a Time of Peaceful East-West ExchangeThe facts are quite clear that between 1400 and 1500, the Ottoman Turks were on the move against the Christian-inhabited areas of the Mediterranean; their crack troops were on the thresholds of Bosnia, Bulgaria, and Hungary in continental Europe as well. This military threat, after all, was the major impetus for reluctant church unity agreed to by the Byzantines at the Council of Florence in 1439. The fall of Constantinople in 1453 to Mehmet II was a full-bore European catastrophe, forcing the last, great relocation of tens of thousands of Christians from all over the east, especially from the Black Sea area, into the west.[47] There was talk and action in Mantua toward a new Christian Crusade in 1460, although squabbles among European princes meant it came to nothing.[48] The fall of Trebizond in 1461, the last Christian stronghold on the Black Sea and a major Genovese entrepot, sent more waves of desperate Christians fleeing to their kin and colleagues in Europe, destroying many Italian and Burgundian fortunes as the Black Sea shipping lanes finally closed to the west. [49]

We Ignore This Historical Context at the Peril of Our CredibilityWhile it was a fundamental mistake in the 19th century to assign these carpets to Muslim weavers in the first place, modern attempts to support this early Victorian and largely romantic notion, to my mind, is having a disastrous effect on the credibility of current carpet studies and I think our only choice here is to start from scratch and overhaul the entire field. Spallanzani's well-documented book is a good start, although he chose to take the traditional view of total Mulim production. That aside, it is a sad fact that almost all of the glossy carpet books available today, while gorgeously illustrated with Renaissance paintings in full color, have written texts that are an embarrassing mash-up of wishful thinking, painfully obscure and out-of-date jargon (can’t we please, please finally rid ourselves of guls and small-pattern Holbeins?).[50] Worse, there’s the reliance on tertiary sources repeated ad nauseam, and finally and most profoundly, the lack of any real historical context for the presence of oriental carpets in European religious paintings. One benighted theory still making the lecture rounds holds that oriental carpets under the Madonna signify Christian dominance over Muslim non-believers—what planet is that person from?

Consider this: in 1482, the Turks slaughtered 800 civilians in Otranto, on the boot of Italy, in a foray intended to give the Muslims literally a toehold in conquering all of Latin Christianity, in hopes of taking Rome itself. Yet we’re asked to believe that the hundreds of Italians, while being rounded up and put systematically to the sword, would turn around and say to their Ottoman executioners: “Oh, by the way, could I buy that little carpet and do you possibly have it in red?”
I don’t think so.

This essay is dedicated to the brief, sweet light of Esther Ting (1990—2009)
To her mother Debra, my fellow art historian, and to her father George, a doctor and a healer, who gave this precious fledgling the strong wings she needed to fly
Alas, like Icarus, she was too dazzled by her freedom and the warmth of the sun…
With my greatest love and respect

[1] To my mind, John Mills in 1983 comes closest to a systematic study, in that he had collected over 50 carpet paintings by the time his essay “The Coming of the Carpet to the West” was published in Donald King and David Sylvester, The Eastern Carpet in the Western World from the 15th to the 17th Century, Arts Council of Great Britain, 1983.

[2] This theory began in the last quarter of the 19th c. with the German pioneers in carpet studies, such as Julius Lessing (per note 10) and Wilhelm von Bode (per note 7), but has held its currency for the past 125 years, most recently repeated by Rosamond Mack: “Western fascination with oriental carpets dates from the 15th century, when European painters began to celebrate the artistry of pile carpets imported from the Islamic world…” See “Oriental Carpets in Italian Renaissance Paintings: Art Objects and Status Symbols,” The Magazine Antiques, Dec. 2004,un-paginated online:

[3] Kurt Erdmann says: “…One has to consider that …probably the most popular and wide-spread types [of carpets were] portrayed in paintings… Either these were preferred by the importers, or, perhaps the artists themselves simplified a complex pattern.” See page 49 of his work, 700 Years of Oriental Carpets, U of California Press, Berkeley and Los Angeles, 1970. Originally published in German in 1966, translated by May Beattie and Hildegard Herzog. Mack says: “…It seems likely that [the artists] chose these carpets because they expected their novel geometric patterns to please contemporary Italian spectators.” And “…The representation of carpets enabled artists to showcase their descriptive skills…” See Mack 2004 (per note 2)

[4] See Mill’s essay in King and Sylvester 1983 (per note 1), which on page 14 mentions these carpets in relation to the male workforce and notes: “…that [they] invariably present on the table in paintings of the Calling of St. Matthew must be indicative of the practice of such officials as tax-collectors.” Mills also notes the longevity of the appearance of the carpet in scenes showing the Calling of St. Matthew—in a number of paintings over 300 years from ca. 1367 (Jacopo di Cione) to 1661 (Juan de Pareja) but does not make a comment on their iconography—see my comments on the civic duty of alms-giving for an explanation of their meaning

[5] Mack 2004 (per note 2): “Altogether, the paintings suggest that these carpets were utilitarian objects of little intrinsic artistic interest. They denote an honored or luxurious space, and some artists used the compartmentalized layout to convey a sense of 3-dimensional space.”

[6] On the disappearance of animal carpets after 1500, Erdmann states: “The reasons for this are not difficult to guess. In this group we are dealing undoubtedly with [north-west] Anatolian products. In the 13th and 14th centuries Anatolia was ruled by the Turkish Seljuks who took kindly to the representation of figures in their art. In the 15th century the Ottomans, who were also Turks, became the rulers and to a great extent dispensed with figures. This was certainly on religious grounds because according to strict Muslim teaching the representation of men or animals is forbidden, for this would mean trespassing on the rights of Allah who alone is the Creator. In some periods, such as the Seljuk, observation of this prohibition was lax; in others, like the Ottoman, it was strict.” Erdmann 1970 (per note 3), pp.18-19.

[7] Wilhelm von Bode collected the famous animal carpet fragment called the “Dragon and Phoenix” carpet in 1886 , which he later donated to the Staatliche Museen zu Berlin, Islamisches Museum, inv. # I.4. See King and Sylvester 1983 ( per note 1) , p. 49, for a description of this carpet. Kurt Erdmann provides a vivid account of the early years of antique carpet collecting in the 1880s: “It is to the great credit of Wilhelm von Bode that he recognized as antique those carpets which in his time were removed from churches and palaces as useless old rags. He writes in his memoirs: ‘In Italy, at that time, they lay practically in the streets and could be had for a song.’ He did not hesitate to act and originated his famous collection which he later presented to the Berlin Museums, and which, to a great extent, was destroyed during the last war’.” Erdmann 1970 (per note3), pp. 27-28. According to Friedrich Spuhler, in his work, von Bode “describes as ‘pre-Safavid’ [i.e. pre-1502-1736] the primitive and partly Barbarian Animal carpets’ [i.e. the early Anatolian Animal carpets] which, on the basis of their appearance in paintings, he dated to the 15th century and attributed to Asia Minor. Spuhler further notes: “The inclusion in this group of the Caucasian Dragon carpets is one of his few errors.” Friedrich Spuhler, Oriental Carpets in the Museum of Islamic Art, Berlin, Smithsonian Institution Press, Washington, D.C., 1987, p. 10.

[8] See Spuhler 1987 (per note 7), pp.9-10, citing Julius Lessing’s notes on collecting the existing fragments that formed the beginnings of Berlin’s collection, ca. ca. 1891: “Many were found in churches in Germany and even more in Italy, where following their transfer from the Orient, they were put aside when they began to show signs of damage, and this saved them.”

[9] Mack 2004 (per note 2) comes close but does not grab the brass ring: “Their frequency in Tuscan Annunciations, several with very similar and uncommonly visible animal designs, suggests a common iconographical source.”

[10] The first references to the Islamic nature of the carpet appear in the earliest German writings of “the Berlin School,” beginning specifically with Julius Lessing’s work of 1877, Altorientalische Teppichmuster (Old Oriental Carpet Designs). Lessing’s work (whose subtitle was “after pictures and originals from the 15th-16th centuries” ) started the whole mis-attribution problem, because he simply doesn’t question that early carpet production might not have mirrored that of his own day. According to Spuhler, Lessing’s was “the first book ever written on the subject of oriental carpets.” Lessing’s work and several exhibitions of carpets inspired Wilhelm von Bode to collect early carpets and publish them: his “Ein altpersischer Teppich im Besitz der koniglichen Museen zur Berlin” from 1892 , according to Spuhler “set scholarly guidelines for dealing with classical oriental carpets.” Both quotes Spuhler 1987 (per note 7), p. 10.

[11] In non-carpet studies, if the carpet is mentioned at all, it is usually referred to as a design device to show off spatial qualities. For instance, Patricia Lee Rubin and Alison Wright in their otherwise excellent discussion of Verrocchio’s workshop only obliquely refer to the oriental carpet prominently featured in the Pistoia altarpiece when they mention Verrocchio’s “constant attention to nuances of space, to the implicit geometrics of viewing angles and distance points,” illustrating this point by showing the carpet’s flowing quality down a set of stairs. See “Artists and Workshops” in Renaissance Florence: The Art of the 1470s, National Gallery, London, distributed by Yale University Press, 1999, p. 95. See also Mack 2004 (per note 2), and her major work, Bazaar to Piazza: Islamic Trade and Italian Art 1300-1600, University of California Press, Berkeley, 2002, especially the section on Carpets.

[12] Since June 2009, when I did my first statistical analysis, I have added more paintings to the Index so we are over 350 paintings. But the statistical percentages are virtually the same--so far, I have found no new deviations from my initial findings – just more of them.

[13] Please see the website, and

[14] These Christians are mistakenly called the Nestorians. The Church of the East existed fully two centuries before the bishop Nestorius ran afoul of the Council of Ephesus in 431. The Latin church has always called them “Nestorian heretics” but this pejorative name does not really encompass the incredible achievements of the Church of the East—at their height, from their base in Seleucia, in modern-day Iraq, they Christianized the East—including missions along the maritime Silk Road to Kerala, India and the southern sea coast of China (Guangdong) before the rise of Islam – ca. 700 C.E. The Church of the East remained strong evangelizers throughout the cities and the Silk Routes through Central Asia, well into the early 15th century, when they collapsed with Tamerlane’s onslaught ca. 1400 and became subsumed by Islam. For an excellent illustrated introduction to this often ignored aspect of eastern Christianity, see Christoph Baumer, The Church of the East: An Illustrated History of Assyrian Christianity, I.B. Tauris, London and New York, 2006.

[15] The ancient Christian communities of the Middle East, southern India and upper Africa are sadly neglected by scholars in the west. These ancient communities are remarkable in their longevity—they often claim to pre-date the canon of the Latin church and have religious practices and prayers that even pre-date the ritual of the Eucharist, for instance. The Thomas Christians of Kerala, South India, claim to be direct descendants of the first non-Jews to be missionized by the Apostle Thomas in the 1st century C.E. It is theorized that Thomas took to the sea route traveled by the merchants of Petra and went to the Indian Ocean site in southern India that Rome traded with for several centuries. See Baumer 2006 (per note 14) and Leslie Brown, The Indian Christians of St. Thomas, Cambridge University Press by arrangement with B.I. Publications, Madras, 1956, re-issued 1982.

[16] See Volkmar Gantzhorn, Oriental Carpets: Their Iconology and Iconography from Earliest Times to the 18th Century, Taschen, Cologne, 1998. His book was based on his 1987 dissertation “The Christian Oriental Carpet” for the University of Tubingen.

[17] In fact, there had been a strong eastern Christian presence in many parts of southern Italy for centuries, when it had belonged to the Byzantine empire. For instance, Barlaam of Calabria (born Bernardo Massari, 1290—1348) the humanist and theologian, was born into a Greek Orthodox community in southern Italy and became a well-known monk of Mt. Athos and prominent speaker for several movements. As for carpets being produced in Italy itself, John Mills states “Again, Italy itself has a tradition of flat-and pile-woven peasant rugs, made in the Abruzzi region until the last century. These often figure animal motifs including paired birds. The origins of this tradition are quite lost but could conceivably go back to the time of the Saracen occupation of the southern half of the country in the 9th and 10th centuries.” I rather think it more likely that Christian refugees bearing the genetic “G-marker” (per note 24) are the source of this tradition in the mountainous Abruzzi region, than marauding Saracens (I mean, did the Saracens stop raping and burning just to teach carpet weaving?) However, John Mills small exhibition catalogue is fascinating: see Carpets in Paintings, National Gallery of London, 1983, p. 11

[18] St. Minas was an Armenian martyr who died in Florence under the Emperor Decian’s rule ca. 245--251—indicating the long historical link of Armenians in Florence. See the Wikipedia article online at

[19] Armenian communities were formed in Bologna, Rome, Perugia, Florence, Siena and elsewhere beginning with the earliest Crusades in the 12th century. According to Emma Korkhmazian in her essay on the manuscript illuminations of the Armenian Diaspora: “Only a small number of manuscripts produced or illustrated by Armenian masters in Italy have survived, and those that have found their way into the Matenadaran collection represent different periods and different art centers. The earliest Armenian settlements appeared in Italy in the 12th-13th centuries, following an agreement between Cilician and Italian traders which authorized Cilician merchants to open their offices and shops in Italy, and vice versa. Italy became a second homeland for many refugees from Armenia proper who often arrived there via Cilicia. Like everywhere else, Armenian settlers in Italy built houses and churches, and, along with other objects of art and culture, produced illuminated manuscripts. “ p. 31 in Armenian Miniatures of the 13th and 14th Centuries from the Matenadaran Collection, Leningrad, 1984, with essays by Emma Korkhmazian, Irina Drampian, and Gravard Hakopian, translated from the Russian by Ashkehn Mikoyan.

[20] The island of Cyprus, ruled by the Franco-Armenian Lusignans, had Genoese connections and was often the jumping off point to resettlement in Italy and the west. According to Laura Balletto, “The presence on Cyprus of a large contingent of families originating from the Holy Land was remarkable. Nicolo de Marthono, in the account of his pilgrimage (ca. 1394), writing about Famagusta, stated that after the fall of Acre (1291), ‘omnes illi de Acri, qui evaserunt, fugierunt ad insulam Cipri’. Not all the Syrians who fled to Cyprus came from Acre, though, since other cities were also represented. Syrian Christians came [to Cyprus] from all social levels, and there is frequent proof of this in the Genoese documentation.” See page 42 in the very interesting study by Laura Balletto, “Ethnic Groups, Cross-Social and Cross-cultural Contacts on 15th C. Cyprus” in Benjamin Arbel, et al., Intercultural Contacts in the Medieval Mediterranean: Studies in Honour of David Jacoby, Frank Cass, London, 1996, pp. 35-48.

[21] After decades of dynastic strife, Cilicia fell in April 1375 to the Egyptian Mamluks, and their last Armenian king, Levon V died in exile in Paris in 1393. That onslaught, and the fact that Cilicia suffered greatly under attacks by Tamerlane around 1400, meant that during the last quarter of the 14th century, “As a result, 30000 wealthy Armenians left Cilicia and settled in Cyprus, which continued to be ruled by the Lusignan dynasty until 1489.” Cyprus in the 1370s came under the rule of Genoa, although puppet Lusignans ruled until 1489. See Wikipedia

[22] It was rumored that Emperor Constantine XI fled the besieged city of Constantinople (he did not – he died in battle) and fled with his fellow Latin sympathizers: this was written in an Armenian colophon of 1453 by Bishop Dawit, who stated: “The patriarch and the king …boarded a large ship and, together with numerous people numbering 20,000 men, fled to Rome; and they took with them all the sacred objects, because they had a month earlier already made preparations to flee.” Although the number of 20,000 is probably highly inflated, it is true that notable refugees fled to the west over the ensuing years. These Greek émigrés included Cardinal Bessarion, Theodore Gaza, George of Trebizond, the language teachers John Argyropulus and Demetrius Chalcocodyles and many others. On the exodus to Italy see Jonathan Harris, in “Byzantines in Renaissance Italy,” who cautions “Yet the image of the Byzantine exiles as venerable scholars fleeing with their books under their arms represents both an exaggeration and an understatement. It exaggerates the part played by individual Byzantines in the revival of Greek learning in Italy, while ignoring the vast majority of émigrés, who were involved in no scholarly activity whatsoever.” Harris’s article is online at http:/ From Wikipedia “Greek Scholars in the Renaissance” The colophon of Bishop Dawit is found in Avedis Sanjian’s article “Two Contemporary Armenian Elegies on the Fall of Constantinople, 1453, in Viator: Medieval and Renaissance Studies, vol. I, 1970, University of California Press, Berkeley and Los Angeles, p. 228

[23] The Black Sea had opened to European merchant fleets after the Latins sacked Constantinople in 1204, and remained open to western trade until about 1475. On the economic chaos that the fall of Trebizond in 1461 precipitated, not only in Turkey but in Europe, H.F.B. Lynch observed: “Only one-third of the inhabitants of Trebizond, and these the dregs of the population, were suffered to remain in their native city. The remainder were compelled to emigrate and their estates were confiscated. In 1475, the policy of expulsion of all Western influences was crowned by the Ottoman occupation of Caffa and Tana, the more northerly depots of the Genoese on the Black Sea. European ships were expelled from these waters; where trade was banished ensued barbarism; and for three centuries these waters were forgotten by the West.” See page 36 of H. F.B. Lynch, Armenia: Travels and Studies, vol. I: The Russian Provinces, originally published in London, 1901, which chronicles in prose and photographs a lost era before World War I. It was recently republished in facsimile form by the Armenian Apostolic Church of America, New York, 1990.

[24] One caveat: the group tested only 700 men randomly nationwide to get this ratio). See the excellent haplogroup maps by J.D. McDonald online at
Cyprus was often the way-station from the Holy Land and Middle East for families of Christians seeking refuge in the West and interestingly enough, one haplogroup study finds the G marker there to be 13%. For the art-historical implications of the carpet in early Renaissance art, Gantzhorn 1998 (per note 16) is the first, to my knowledge, to theorize that the movement westward of Eastern Christians (specifically the Armenians) had an influence on art being created in the west.

[25] See Penny Howell Jolly, “ Jan van Eyck’s Italian Pilgrimage: A Miraculous Florentine Annunciation and the Ghent Altarpiece,” Zeitschrift fur Kunstgeschichte, Bd. 61 (H. 3) 1998, pp. 369-94, available online with JSTOR

[26] Matthew Paris, monk of St. Albans, in his Chronica majora of 1250, said of these holy travelers:“ And at the same time certain Armenian brethren, fugitives from the Tartar invasions, arrived as pilgrims in England. When they came to St. Ives one of them was taken ill and unfortunately died in the town. He was reverently buried next to St. Ivo’s Spring, the water of which is said to have great virtue. These brethren were of most honest life and amazing abstinence, being always in prayer, with rugged, honest faces and beards. The one who died was their leader and master, George by name, and he is thought to have been a most holy man and a bishop; he now began to perform miracles.” See Richard Vaughn, The Illustrated Chronicles of Matthew Paris: Observations of Thirteenth-Century Life, Allan Sutton Ltd, Corpus Christi College, Cambridge, 1993, p. 143. Nira and Michael Stone state that “Armenian travelers left graffiti on European cathedrals in the Middle Ages,” although they do not cite a source or date for this claim. Nira and Michael Stone, The Armenians: Art, Culture, and Religion, Chester Beatty Library, Dublin with D. Giles Ltd., London, 2007, p. 36

[27] Erdmann himself describes the implications of these figures two-by-two in early carpets, without ever reaching the obvious conclusion that Noah’s Ark was the biblical reference: “Carpets in pictures of the early period always show the same creatures in each square. Especially popular were two birds standing on either side of a highly stylized tree [Fig. 3, Sano di Pietro’s Marriage of the Virgin] and an original rug of this type [Fig. 4, the Marby carpet] came to light in a small Swedish village church. In other carpets the squares contain birds, which judging by their long tail feathers may well be stylized cocks, and the color of the birds is alternately light on a dark background and dark on light.” Erdmann 1970 (per note 3), p. 18. Please note, however, that the first depiction in the Annunziata was not of paired birds. The Florentine carpet showed what has been labeled the “Dragon and Phoenix” motif, which has Armenian theological meaning: certainly this carpet motif is not Tibetan or Chinese, as recent scholars have absurdly suggested. I am treating this subject anew in the forthcoming article on Repeating Relic Carpets.

[28] There are a total of only 6 crude carpets such as these listed between 1286 and 1562 in Florentine inventories. They are listed as tappeti da soma, or as Marco Spallanzani describes them, "saddle-blanket rugs." See the excellent inventory documents concerning the limited commerce in rugs before 1500 in Spallanzani's Oriental Carpets in Renaissance Florence, Studio per Edizione Scelte, Firenze, 2007. In his conclusion, Spallanzani reflects: "These rugs had virtually no weight at all in the overall balance of trade, but their presence in the city testifies to the unflagging admiration Florentines had for one of the most typical products of Islamic civilization." See also an earlier essay by Monique King, “French Documents Relating to Oriental Carpets: 15th –16th Century,” in Robert Pinney and  Walter Denny, eds., "Oriental Carpet and Textile Studies II: Carpets of the Mediterranean Countries 1400—1600," Hali Magazine, London, 1986, pp. 131-38.

[29] At the height of the four Crusader kingdoms it is estimated that 150,000 westerners were in the Levant, along with “1000 families representing the Western nobility.” See Jacob Ghazarian, The Armenian Kingdom in Cilicia During the Crusades: The Integration of the Cilician Armenians with the Latins 1080-1393, Routledge/Curzon, London and New York, 2000, pp. 104-05. See Jean Richard, etc—get refs

[30] Intermarriage set the stage for significant east-west interchange at all levels. At the highest levels, between Crusader and Armenian nobility, Ghazarian states: “This pattern of intermarriage between the Roupenians (and later Hetumians) and the successors of the two Baldwins led to the establishment of Armeno-Frankish dynasties in Antioch, Tripoli, and Cyprus, and ultimately those that ruled Beirut, Sidon, Acre, Jaffa, Jebail Asruf, Ibelin and Tiberias.” Ghazarian 2000 (per note 29), p. 102 Intermarriage also brought relics into Italy. In Prato, for instance, when the merchant Michele Dagomari married a Syrian woman named Maria in Jerusalem in 1141, the sacred Belt of the Virgin (the Sacro Cingolo that the Virgin had given to St. Thomas on her Assumption) was part of Maria’s dowry. On his death Dagomari bequeathed it to the church of Santo Stefano. It became an object of pilgrimage for the city, and in 1395 the Chapel of the Holy Girdle was built and decorated by Agnolo Gaddi. See pp. 128-29 of Anne Mueller van der Haegen and Ruth Strasser, Tuscany: Art and Architecture, Barnes and Noble, New York, 2005. LA--Get Jean Richard refs on intermarriage,

[31] In Cilicia in particular, the Latin church made inroads: “The rites and usages of the Latin Church were extensively practiced there among the sector of the mixed population originating from two centuries of intermarriages with the Latins. This is especially true within the royal families and the nobility. As was the custom of the times, the nobility and members of the royal family often retreated into monasteries, which in the main were either Franciscan of Dominican. Hence, the influence of the Latin Church expanded and prospered in a land where a formal union of the Churches remained stubbornly elusive.” See Ghazarian 2000 (per note 29), pp. 192-93

[32] For a facsimile of one reciprocal agreement between King Levon II in Cilicia and the Genovese of 1288, see Ghazarian 2000 (per note 29) , p. 65.

[33] Florence itself is a case study of long-standing openness to immigration from the east. It was founded in 59 BCE as a Roman veteran’s colony and its first band of Christians, along the Via Cassia (that later became a pilgrimage road to Rome) were Syrian merchants with business in the city. San Miniato (St. Minas), mentioned above in note 18, was an Armenian martyred in Florence ca. 250 CE. Florence’s strong merchant presence and its cloth-dying trade meant it was a natural hub of migration activity from its earliest days. See Tuscany 2005 (per note 30), 155-57.

[34] There is circumstantial evidence – via kermes-dyed cloth bought in Brussels-- of possible Armenian merchant presence in the Flemish North by 1320. Kermes is a red dye made from insects that is only found in small areas of traditional Armenia, and was highly valued in the luxury cloth trade. Two members of the Florentine Bardi family document the receipt of these cloths obtained from fairs in Malines and Brussels in a letter dated 1320. See Document 180, pp. 364-70 in Robert S. Lopez and Irving Raymond, Medieval Trade in the Mediterranean World: Illustrative Documents Translated with Introductions and Notes, Columbia University Press, New York and London, 1968

[35] For the Greek Decree of Union at the Council of Florence, see Session 6, July 6, 1439 for the prologue quoted above. Online at The back-and-forth reaction of the Greek Orthodox signers is described most thoughtfully by Joseph Gill, S.J., in his still-classic work The Council of Florence, Cambridge University Press, 1959, especially in his chapter X “The Reception of the Union in the East,” pp. 349-88.

[36] Erdmann explores this early phase of German involvement in the 19th century oriental carpet trade. See pp. 27-28 of Erdmann 1970 (per note 3).

[37] Erdmann has a short essay on the German origins of carpet studies. See Erdmann 1970 (per note 3), pp. 36-38.

[38] Julius Lessing’s interest in carpets was not only historical—he was interested in and strongly allied with German trade as well; he himself had been part of the founding of the Deutsche Gewerbemuseum (the German Trade Museum, which became the Kunstgewerbemusem, or the Applied Arts Museum in Berlin). Spuhler quotes Lessing’s purpose in publishing his carpet drawings: “to make them more useful for the applied arts in Germany,” and “these designs represent such excellent models for our contemporary carpet production that their reintroduction is deemed most desirable by the author.” Spuhler 1987 (per note 7), p. 9, citing Lessing 1877 (per note 10), p. 6

[39] Arthur Upham Pope, the American Islamist and great Persian art specialist, was particularly vehement in keeping any hints of Christian iconography (especially Armenian) out of carpet studies. See “The Myth of the Armenian Dragon Carpets” in Jahrbuch der asiatischen Kunst II, Leipzig, 1925, pp.147-138.

[40] Erdmann 1970 (per note 3) has a fine small article on the development of carpet studies, pp. 36-38

[41] These recent studies include Gantzhorn 1998 (per note 16), and Lucy der Manuelian and Murray Eiland, Weavers, Merchants and Kings: The Inscribed Rugs of Armenia, Kimbell Art Museum, Fort Worth, 1984.

[42] The Konya fragments were discovered by F. R. Martin in 1905 and first published by Sarre in 1907. Konya was the capital of the Seljuk sultanate of Rum from 1077 to 1307, so Erdmann concludes the Konya fragments are pre-1250 in date. The complicated, geometric fragment designs, however, do not match any of the depictions of animal carpets in early western paintings. Erdmann (and later Mack 2004, per note 2) notes the discrepancy, and Erdmann appears to be the first to propose that Byzantine examples of addorsed birds might be the source of animal carpet motifs, but he’s clearly frustrated that neither the Konya nor Byzantine examples directly match the Italian ones. Erdmann complains “With few exceptions , western painters who introduced such carpets [i.e. animal carpets] into their pictures took the easy way out, by portraying rugs with simple patterns. Either these were preferred by the importers, or perhaps the artists themselves simplified the pattern.” See Erdmann 1970 (per note 3), pp. 41-46 and 49. For a more current and informative view of the Konya carpets, see Jonathan Bloom and Sheila Blair, Islamic Arts, Phaidon Press, Ltd., London, 2003, p 238

[43] We especially rely on the Gonzaga and Medici inventories. For Cardinal Francesco Gonzaga (1444—1483, also depicted in the Camera degli Sposi fresco by Mantegna in Mantua), see David S. Chambers “A Renaissance Cardinal and his Worldly Goods: The Will and Inventory of Francesco Gonzaga [1444—1483]” Warburg Institute, University of London, 1992, pp. 153-54. For the Medici inventories, see Marco Spallanzani and Giovanna Gaeta Bertela, Libro d’inventario dei beni di Lorenzo il Magnifico, Associazione amici del Bargello, Firenze, 1992, where carpets are mentioned on pp. 8-9; 27-28;34; 74;;78; 82; 87 and 93.

[44] In fact, there had been lasting papal bans on trade with Muslims beginning with the Third Lateran Council of 1179; but since the fall of Acre in 1291, it was felt that ”a trading block aimed at hurting Muslim economic interests seemed more feasible” than scattered military action (see Ortalli below, p. 242). A ban on trade in the Levant, particularly with Syria and Egypt, had serious effects on Venetian trade, so a pragmatic system of trading with the Saracens was instituted during calm periods -- arms, horses, iron, timber and food goods were prohibita –-- while gold, silver, tin, copper, textiles, and saffron were permissa. Yet even if carpets came under the heading of permissa (and it isn’t clear that they did) it is highly unlikely that the Pope and his clergy would allow Muslim contraband to appear so recklessly and prominently in religious paintings. See Gherardo Ortalli, “Venice and Papal Bans on Trade with the Levant: The Role of the Jurist,” in Arbel 1996 (per note 20), pp. 242-58

[45] Spallanzani 2007, p. 16, per note 28.

[46]There is an inventory designation tapetti damaschini, often found in pre-1500 inventories, that has been interpreted to mean “Damascus carpets,” although Erdmann and others then argue that no carpets have ever been made in Damascus, and therefore these must be Mamluk or Egyptian works. To get around this convoluted thinking, I’m going to suggest that the inventory description might simply indicate that these carpets were brought by Syrian Christians to Italy in the 14th and 15th centuries – some inventory items are listed as “frusto” or tattered and “vecchi” or old, indicating they had been in the families for some time and were still valued. Spallanzani also mentions Florentine commercial contact with Syria, but again assumes all merchants there are Muslim. See note 28.  For several Venetian inventory examples, see Erdmann 1970 (per note 3), pp. 96-98 and his section on Mamluk carpets, p. 142. See also Mack 2004 (per note 2), notes 15 and 19

[47] Referring to the Comneni princes of Trebizond, H.F.B Lynch remarks: “Their territory afforded a home and holding ground to commerce; and when the land routes through Asia Minor fell into disuse owing to the increase in anarchy, Trebizond became an emporium of the trade with the further Asia, diverted to the more secure avenue of the Armenian plains. This trade was conducted with great spirit by the Genoese from their factories at Trebizond, until Grand-Comneni, Italian merchant, and all the apparatus of civilization were swept away.” His European biases aside, Lynch’s fascinating classic travelogue is worth reading for insights into a lost world. See Lynch 1901 (per note 23), p. 36

[48] For contemporary commentary on the Council of Princes at Mantua, 1459, see the remarks of Pope Pius II (Aeneas Silvius Piccolomini, 1405-1464) in Meserve and Simonetta, eds., Pius II: Commentaries, Volume I, Books I and II, I Tatti Renaissance Library, Harvard University Press, Cambridge, Mass. and London, 2003. It is interesting and significant that forty years after Piccolomini’s death, ca. 1505, the painter Pinturrichio did a series of frescoes for the Piccolomini Library in the Duomo of Siena, where he depicts a carpet as holy ground during the Council of Princes, and another where the young Aeneas pleads for church unity before the King of Scotland. See the Carpet Index for these images

[49] See note 24 above.

[50] Erdmann himself complained about the unhelpful use of painter’s names to identify whole groups of carpets that have little to do with anything: “Originally these names had only been thought of as labels to simplify discussion. Most of them are meaningless: Holbein had nothing to do with carpets named after him except that two of the three groups are occasionally represented in his pictures….It should be understood that there is no real foundation for these names and it is annoying that they are still used. Perhaps this will be remedied in time.” Indeed, I fervently hope the same, but since Erdmann’s time, more groups—the “Crivelli” and “Ghirlandaio” carpets-- have been added to the chaos. See Erdmann 1970 (per note 3), p. 37. See also Mack 2004 note 2


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