Blog 54 02/09/2017 Spanish Carpets: From the Moors to the Spanish Bourbons.
Spanish Carpets: From the Moors to the Spanish Bourbons.
When one thinks about oriental carpets, Spain does not immediately spring to mind yet Spain has played an important role in this time-honoured tradition. It was the first European country to make knotted pile rugs which reached a peak of sophistication and technique under the Moors. The Moorish domination of Spain lasted from A.D. 710-12 until the late 15th century when they were finally expelled in 1609.
Records show that the great palaces in their first city, Cordoba, were strewn with some of the richest carpets of the time. The earliest surviving document which discusses rug-weaving dates from the 12th century and indicates that by this time it was a well developed industry and that rugs were being exported to Egypt and the Near East. The connection with Egypt and North Africa had a great influence on Spanish weavers and they developed their own technique – namely a specific type of knot which we call the Spanish knot and which can only be found in this region. It differs from the more common Turkish or Persian knot in that it is a single warp knot. It is thought to have developed from the Coptic weavers of the 7th and 8th centuries who were active in Spain at the time, and also by Arab weavers in the 9th. The single warp knot is one where the yarn is tied around every other warp thread and on alternate threads in succeeding rows. This technique also makes them easily identifiable. It wouldn’t be until the mid 17th century that the Turkish knot was used in Spain.
The early carpets depict the multi-cultural artistic heritage in Spain at the time – Christian, Jewish, Muslim Arab and Berber and by the 11th century, Spanish carpets were exported to the Orient, England and France. Some of the oldest surviving carpets known today can be dated by their heraldic arms and motifs. In the Vatican library is a bible known as the Bible of Manfred. In it is a miniature of a man presenting a book to someone thought to be Manfred himself. The scene is depicted on a brown and white fringed carpet with a band of Kufic script, eagle heads and shields. Manfred was crowned King of Sicily in 1258 and whilst there was some speculation that the carpet could be Sicilian, it is thought to be a Spanish carpet because of the motifs. Documents also show that Pope John XXII (1249 1334) bought rugs for his palace at Avignon woven with his coat of arms. Armorial carpets were made for the Christians by the Moorish weavers. Two important armorial carpets were found in the Convent of Sta Clara in Valencia and were made for the Enriquez family who founded the convent. Alfonso Enriquez was admiral of Castile and one of the carpets displays two pairs of anchors attached by ropes in loops on either side of the family’s coat of arms. Other notable carpets bear the arms of Castile and Aragon and were probably commissioned by Maria of Castile who became Queen of Spain after her marriage to Alfonso of Aragon.
From the early 15th century Anatolian rugs were imported along with silks from Baghdad and the Anatolian influence is clearly evident in the Kufic lettering and the tree of life motif. Sunni Islam prohibited the use of human figures and where they are used they are often crudely depicted. One pattern in particular was popular. The west has come to know these as Holbein carpets because they are depicted in carpets portrayed by European painters such as Holbein. These originated from the major carpet weaving area of Ushak in Anatolia and consist of a stylized “bird” motif which the Spanish call the “scorpion” motif, and rows of octagons. Many of the large Holbeins were made at Alcaraz. By the end of the 15th century Western motifs were adopted which favoured Gothic architecture. One such decoration which was adapted was the pomegranate which had been used in Granada and was also popular in Italy.
In 1492, Christopher Columbus, the son of a weaver, set sail for the New World. Along with gold and anything else he could lay his hands on to enhance Spain’s power and prestige, he kept an eye out for new dyes which could be used in the textile trade. The most important dye to find its way back to Europe would be the red made from dried insects which we know as cochineal – an intense carmine which varied from the other reds already used. Previously the predominant dye colours were red and dark blue with some yellow, green and light blue. Dying and fixing is an ancient art and many of the secrets were lost when the Moors left Spain, therefore throughout the 16th and 17th centuries the colours used were limited, often to a two-colour scheme.
After the Muslim expulsion, there was a steady decline in quality. The main centres of carpet weaving in Spain were Alcaraz, where it is said by the 12th century, there were 800 looms also used in the production of silk weaving at the time, and Cuenca which by the 11th century was famous for its woollen rugs. In 1720, Phillipe V founded the Real Fabrica de Tapices Manufactory in Madrid which led to the establishment of the Spanish version of Aubusson and Savonnerie carpets using the Turkish knot. Those made in the 19th century were the same size as the French but used bolder colours with black or red to emphasize the designs.
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