In the seventeenth century, silk weaving reached a pinnacle of technical achievement in Iran. This example, with its many different colours and textures, bears witness to the extraordinary skill of the craftsmen of those times. The use of a silver-gold alloy with a high gold content for the background gives a real impression of the splendour of ‘cloth of gold’ and why it was so popular with the Mongol elite in the thirteenth century.
Several pieces of the same textile are known. All are thought to have previously been in the possession of the maharajahs of Jaipur, and all have been altered at some time by removing some of the pile and replacing it with embroidery, presumably to alter the signification of the female figures. Each has been given a nose ring, a mark in the centre of the forehead and a sprig in the head-dress. Originally each figure held a cup in one hand, and in the other a long-necked wine flask. Both the cup and the flask have been transformed into vases with flowers. For the Iranian client, the wine cup and flask could be seen as either referring to pleasure – for it was not unknown for the elite of Safavid Iran to drink wine – or thought of in terms of a metaphor much used in Persian poetry for the divine insight gained from engagement in the spiritual struggle. Whatever its meaning, it was clearly not to Hindu taste and the alterations were evidently intended to enhance the beauty of the women and convey a sense of the abundance of nature.
It is just possible to make out a signature with two words, ‘work [of] Safi, originally woven in black silk, which has corroded away leaving minute spaces in the ground weave. He was probably the designer of the velvet. The gently swaying posture of the women reveals the influence of the artist Riza Abbasi working in the 1620s and 30s; his style was widely copied by his followers. The presence of European influence in the costumes points to a date in the mid-seventeenth century.
The large scale of the repeat, the multiple textures and the remarkable range of colours put this piece among the great weaving achievements of all time.
TEXT CREDIT: Thompson, J., Silk: 13th to 18th centuries: Treasures from the Museum of Islamic Art, Qatar, The National Council for Culture, Arts and Heritage, Doha, 2004, p.40