Pictures of Comfort and Design: Carpets in Indian Miniature Painting

20.10.2017 to 26.01.2018
Pergamonmuseum

Recline in a comfortable place, an atmosphere of general wellbeing: nowhere do carpets play such a large role as in the Islamic world. In a region where furniture was little known for centuries, carpets allowed for relaxed sitting and sleeping. At the same time, they served as an important representational element and created an impressive ambience at courtly events.

The exhibition in the Islamic Book Arts gallery at the Museum für Islamische Kunst (in the Pergamanonmuseum) presents around 22 Indo-Islamic paintings from the Mughal era that demonstrate the use of carpets in the courtly context. The Mughal emperors were Islamic rulers, who reigned over vast areas of India from 1526 to 1858. Babur, founder of the dynasty, came from Persian-influenced Central Asia. He brought numerous customs to his new homeland, including the use of carpets as preferred furnishings.

We know from the accounts of court historian Abu’l-Fazl that the requirements of the first Mughal emperor were originally satisfied by Persian imports. In addition, the first Indian workshops in Agra, Lahore (present-day Pakistan), and Delhi initially employed Persian artists. As a result, early Indian carpet production was heavily Persian influenced. Due to increasing self-sufficiency in production, a characteristic Mughal style developed in the 17th century, featuring striking flowering plant motifs and floral and latticework patterns. Carpets featuring flowering shrubs, arranged in rows or sections, are particularly characteristic of the style.

The paintings impressively demonstrate how the carpets animated the palace architecture, which was built from light and reddish stone. In combination with textile curtains and cushions of various sizes, they could be used flexibly and adapted easily to large areas, making it possible to create intimate resting places. They were also used to create textile rooms outdoors: on the terrace, on picnics or hunting excursions, and preferably in combination with colour-coordinated mats, mattresses, and pillows.

Another function of the carpets, which is clearly reflected in the miniature paintings, is their use to denote and display status. Various carpets of different sizes were commonly spread out upon one another. Thus, seats could be marked and the hierarchy of the gathered guests was highlighted.

Yet, do the painted depictions correspond with the historical reality? Do the carpets in the paintings correspond with real objects? Most likely. Especially in the earlier paintings from the 17th century, one can identify carpets that could have come from the imperial workshops of the emperor, as they resemble examples which have been preserved to date. This also applies to the later carpets that feature numerous small flowers (millefleur pattern), reflecting the taste of the 18th century.

In addition to the miniature paintings, some fragments of Mughal Indian carpets from the collection of the Staatliche Museen’s Museum für Islamische Kunst will be exhibited. In combination with the paintings, they clearly demonstrate the connection between the representations and the real, preserved objects.

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