Thanks to the stimulus of Shah ‘Abbas I (r. 1587–1629), the business of luxury-silk production expanded markedly in Iran during the early seventeenth century. While silk was cultivated in the majority of regions, it was most intensively farmed in the Caucasus and particularly in the provinces of Gilan and Mazandaran. In the Safavid period, production reached its peak around 1650 and declined dramatically after the Afghan invasion of 1722. In addition to domestic use, raw silk was exported, mainly to Turkey, Russia, Central Asia, India, and Europe. As for silk weaving, this was practiced throughout Iran both in rural and urban settings. The primary urban centers of luxury-silk production during the seventeenth century were Kashan, Yazd, and Isfahan, where manufactories employed weavers to work on the full range of fabrics. While existing data for trade between Iran and the English and Dutch East India Companies does not support the notion that the luxury-silk industry was sustained by, or even substantially represented in, commerce with Europe, travelers to Iran did remark on fabrics, such as this one, woven with gold and silver.
The design of this piece—an outsized rosebush in which a parrot perches, a small deer approaching, and a bird of a different species on the wing—falls into a popular group of bird-and-flower textiles that were first produced in the seventeenth century and continued to be fashionable for the next two hundred years. The decorative device is repeated horizontally here, with each row facing the opposite direction from the one above and below it. Mary McWilliams has suggested that European treatises on natural history may have supplied the inspiration for such a grouping, though the unnatural relationship of scale among the deer, the rosebush, and the birds is most likely the silk weaver’s invention. Close examination of the piece reveals that originally the colors were more intense and varied and that the silvery tone of the background, produced from silver-gilt strips around white silk, was complemented by the gold hue of the deer. Two other fragments are in the Textile Museum, Washington, D.C., and the Nelson- Atkins Museum of Art, Kansas City.
Sheila R. Canby in [Ekhtiar, Soucek, Canby, and Haidar 2011]
1. Floor, Willem M. The Persian Textile Industry in Historical Perspective, 1500–1925. Moyen Orient et Océan Indien, XVIe–XIXe s., 11. Paris, 1999, pp. 14, 61.
2. McWilliams 1987–88 (reference not in catalogue bibliography), p. 178.
Even though raw silk, rather than finished textiles, was the main commodity exported from Iran, the country's luxury textiles circulated abroad as part of the diplomatic exchanges that took place to facilitate this trade. Gifts sent from the Safavid shahs to their foreign counterparts were composed primarily of textiles, either bolts of cloth or finished garments. In this way, high-quality Safavid textiles of the type illustrated here, as well as velvets (MMA 14.67), passed through royal treasuries in Europe and into the collections of churches and court aristocrats, sometimes influencing local fashion and design.
This panel, of which additional fragments are known, represents the best of Safavid production and exemplifies the type of luxury fabric offered as a royal gift. In its Iranian context, the pattern of rosebushes, birds, and deer is one that appears frequently between the seventeenth and nineteenth centuries, created in many types of weave structures. This particular piece was made in a samite weave, a weft-faced compound weave in which the passes are bound in twill. What appears to the modern eye to be very bold patterns were fashionable in the mid-seventeenth century for clothing, and it was common to wear garments of contrasting figural designs layered over one another.
Textiles of this type were presented to the Habsburg rulers of Spain and Portugal and can also be found in royal treasuries in Russia, Denmark, and Sweden. In Europe these fabrics were used to furnish palaces, to create garments presented to courriers, and, in some cases, to serve as gifts to other heads of state. In an instance of re-gifting, albeit on a very high level, Tsar Alexis I Mikhaylovich (r. 1645–76) sent a Persian robe that he had received from a Safavid delegation to Queen Christina of Sweden (r. 1632–54), possibly on the occasion of her accession to the throne. It remains in the Swedish royal collection.
Marika Sardar in [Peck 2013]
1. These are in the Textile Museum, Washington, D.C. (no. 3.141), the Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art, Kansas City, Mo. (no. 31-126/41C), and the Yale University Art Gallery, New Haven, Conn. (no. 1937.4871). Many other similar textiles are known, including one in the David Collection, Copenhagen (no. 33/1992).
2. Mary Anderson McWilliams in Bier, Carol, et al., Woven from the Soul, Spun from the Heart: Textile Arts of Safavid and Qajar Iran, 16th–19th Centuries. Exh. cat. Washington, D.C,: The Textile Museum, 1987, pp. 176–77, no. 20.
4. The robe, dated about 1630, is made of velvet with a metal ground. It was likely from the 1639 embassy en route to visit the duke of Holstein. Published in Geyer, Agnes. Oriental Textiles in Sweden. Copenhagen: Rosenkilde and Bagger, 1951, p. 103 and pl. 15; and Walton, Guy. "Diplomatic and Ambassadorial Gifts of the Sixteenth and Seventeenth Centuries." In Gifts of the Tsars, 1500–1700: Treasures from the Kremlin, edited by Barry Shifman and Guy Walton, pp. 78, 86–87. Exh. cat. New York: Harry N. Abrams, 2001.
New York. The Metropolitan Museum of Art. "Oriental Rugs and Textiles," May 13, 1975–September 14, 1935, no. 22.
New York. The Metropolitan Museum of Art. "Persian Silks of the Safavid Period," December 9, 2003–March 14, 2004, no catalogue.
New York. The Metropolitan Museum of Art. "Rumi," October 15, 2007–March 5, 2008, no catalogue.
The Metropolitan Museum of Art. "Interwoven Globe: Worldwide Textile Trade, 1500–1800," September 9, 2013–January 5, 2014, no. 93A.
Dimand, Maurice S. A Guide to an Exhibition of Oriental Rugs and Textiles. New York: The Metropolitan Museum of Art, 1935. p. 30, ill. fig. 22 (b/w).
Reath, Nancy Andrews, and Eleanor B. Sachs. Persian Textiles and Their Technique from the Sixth to the Eighteenth Centuries Including a System for General Textile Classification. New Haven: Yale University Press, 1937.
Ekhtiar, Maryam, Sheila R. Canby, Navina Haidar, and Priscilla P. Soucek, ed. Masterpieces from the Department of Islamic Art in The Metropolitan Museum of Art. 1st ed. ed. New York: The Metropolitan Museum of Art, 2011. no. 176, p. 252-253, ill. p. 252 (color).
Peck, Amelia, ed. "The Worldwide Textile Trade, 1500–1800." In Interwoven Globe. New York: The Metropolitan Museum of Art, 2013. no. 93A, pp. 258-259, ill. pl. 93A (color).