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Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History Essays

Silk Textiles from Safavid Iran, 1501–1722

Safavid textiles are praised as the pinnacle of Iranian loom weaving. When the Safavids came to power at the turn of the sixteenth century, the Iranian textile industry was already well developed in the production and sale of woven silk textiles and rugs as well as raw silk for export. The textile industry consisted of urban workshops producing textiles independently, provincial centers focusing on rug weaving, and small farms cultivating silk in the Caspian region. As the Safavids set up their capital cities of Tabriz, Qazvin, and finally Isfahan, the textile industry became centralized and was swiftly incorporated into the national economy, creating an expansive revenue stream.

Under the reign of Shah Tahmasp (1524–76), royal workshops were established primarily to service the court, while raw silk continued to be produced and sold to the state by independent producers from northern provinces such as Gilan. In the seventeenth century, Shah ‘Abbas I (r. 1587–1629) centralized the Iranian economy by developing a state monopoly over the silk trade, controlling production in the Caspian provinces, where the bulk of the raw material was produced. In addition, the state regained control of ports in the Persian Gulf from Portuguese occupation, facilitating maritime trade and rerouting silk trade away from areas under Ottoman jurisdiction. When the Safavid capital was established in Isfahan in 1598, Armenian textile workers were relocated to the neighborhood of New Julfa, in close proximity to Shah ‘Abbas’ palatial complex. This local textile industry included dyers, weavers, and embroiderers producing luxury textiles mainly for export under the supervision of the state. Private workshops in urban centers such as Yazd and Kashan continued to produce textiles for sale within and beyond Iranian borders, and are especially known for velvet and lampas-woven luxury silks.

Figural designs relied heavily on manuscript illustration for composition and subject matter. Popular scenes feature idealized pastimes such as hunting, falconry, or poetry reading in garden settings (08.109.3), a trend that mirrors contemporary paintings. Some of the finest examples of figural silks produced during the reign of Shah ‘Abbas feature characters from popular literature such as the lovers Khusrau and Shirin (1978.60) and Layla and Majnun (46.156.7) from Nizami’s Khamsa, or battle scenes referencing the herculean Rustam in Firdausi’s Shahnama.

These legendary characters are often represented on textiles in contemporary Safavid dress, with men sporting turbans wound around a central oblong baton (taj haidari) (52.20.11). This unique headdress represented the Shi‘i ideology of the Safavid dynasty, with the twelve folds of the turban symbolizing the imams in Twelver Shi‘a. Women are depicted wearing a small square kerchief (chahar-qad) at the crown of the head tied over longer flowing headscarves. Figures on textiles made from the early seventeenth century onward reflect the changing fashions, as the taj haidari was replaced by a wide, elliptical turban. Although it was not customary before the Safavid era for artists to sign their work, textiles after 1600 occasionally incorporate subtle signatures, such as that of Ghiyath al-Din ‘Ali (52.20.13), a prominent designer who owned and operated a private workshop in Yazd. Ghiyath was best known for his small-scale figural and floral designs, and enjoyed a privileged relationship with the court of Shah ‘Abbas.

In addition to figural silks, popular designs included stylized flowers with delicate drawings of deer, rabbits, and birds, and particularly the rose-and-nightingale (gul-u-bulbul) motif (49.32.99). These designs range from interlocking overall patterns to single repeating motifs arranged in rows (33.80.18), and their depiction in album pages reflects their popularity among the Iranian gentry as well as European aristocrats.

The exceptional quality of woven textiles during this era resides in the designs. Textiles were executed as continuous repeat patterns by master designers (naqshband), with the ultimate goal of obscuring the edges of the repeat block. Designers were experts in calculating the mathematical sequence determining which warp threads would appear on the surface of the cloth, assisted by a helper boy, as the master weaver executed the process on the loom.

Textiles on the loom are produced by the intersection of warp threads, held taut, and weft threads, which are interwoven to create different patterns on the surface of the cloth. Complex designs were created using the lampas technique, a compound structure that allowed for figural and floral designs to be produced in fluid lines with a range of delicate colors. Lampas-woven textiles were used in garments and furnishings (1972.189).

Compound weave structures incorporating gold or silver strips or metal-wrapped threads floating on the face of the cloth (26.231.2), referred to as “brocades,” added a sumptuous quality to the sophisticated palette of pistachio green, salmon pink, alizarin, cream, and ocher. Silk velvets (12.72.5) were produced either as continuous pile, creating a supple and luxurious cloth, or manipulated by selectively weaving areas with pile and leaving other areas as flat weaves, creating a “voided” effect (52.20.13).

After the death of Shah ‘Abbas in 1629, the Safavid dynasty began to lose central power, and regional governance relegated the monarch to the position of a figurehead. Textile production in court-sponsored workshops declined, while the private sector of the textile industry regained independence, producing silks for the expanding international demand. From the last quarter of the seventeenth century until the dynasty’s end following the Afghan invasion in 1722, there was a marked change in the textiles produced as Iranian weavers stepped down their aesthetic and working methods to suit the tastes and economy of the declining regime.