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HOUSTON — Paradise. The English word is a linguistic derivative of pairidaeza, an ancient Persian term for a walled garden. These gardens — first popularized during the reign of Cyrus in the sixth century BCE — were full of flowers, trees, animals, and flowing water. Pairidaeza was the stuff of poetry and prose across Islamic lands; the gardens were the sites of musical gatherings and poetry recitations for centuries.
The Houston Museum of Fine Arts exhibition, Garden Paradise: The Magnificent Safavid Carpet from the Burrell Collection, Glasgow, is centered on a famous 17th-century century garden-themed Safavid carpet that is on display in the US for the first time. (The carpet’s tour debuted at the Metropolitan Museum of Art earlier this year.) Overall, the exhibition explores paradisiacal imagery through a plethora of garden-based motifs presented in glazed ceramics, book bindings, and watercolors, but its focus is the Safavid-era carpet from Kirman, a city in southeastern Iran that is well-known for its textiles and weaving. “This rarely displayed masterpiece, woven in southeastern Iran in the 17th century,” the exhibition’s online description points out, “is one of the three earliest surviving Persian garden carpets in the world.”
In 1939, the carpet was purchased by Scottish shipping magnate and avid art collector, Sir William Burrell. Burrell collected some 9,000 works in his lifetime, focusing on Islamic, Chinese, and medieval art. He gifted his collection to the people of Glasgow in 1944 and, in 1983, the Burrell Collection opened to the public.
In fact, the carpet was first noted in Western literature in the late 19th century in Istanbul and references to it pop up in art literature as early as 1913. However, the Safavid carpet — popularly known as the Wagner Garden Carpet — has not been shown in several decades, owing to its size and the curatorial difficulties associated with displaying such a piece.
The carpet is, in a word, massive. Measuring 17.42 by 14.17 feet, it dominates the exhibition’s room in the Museum of Fine Arts, with 26 selected works from the Hossein Afshar Collection, on long-term loan, carefully positioned against the walls, out of its way. Viewers circumnavigate the carpet, much as they might follow a garden path (a path that was carefully lined and curated with works from seven centuries of Islamic, garden-themed arts). An 1885 oil painting by Assadullah al-Husayni is carefully centered on the back wall of the room. The painting shows a square pond of water, lined with tall trees and meticulously kept walkways. It’s impossible to not feel that Garden Paradise mirrors that very scene in the layout of the Wagner Garden Carpet exhibition.
Incidentally, how visitors walk through the exhibition is as varied as how they might walk through a pairidaeza. Some march through quickly, pausing for a selfie, on their way from the Antiquities to the American West rooms. Others meander their way around, stopping to look at the ceramics and watercolors, constantly turning from the works that line the wall to the carpet. Walking around such a textile literally creates different points of view.
But the carpet is more than just its measured dimensions — it is also incredibly complex. It was woven with cotton warps and wool, cotton, and silk wefts. A sign near one of its corners informs visitors that there are 224 asymmetrical knots per square inch. My calculations put the weaving at just under eight million knots. I noticed one visitor shake his head in disbelief after reading the sign. It’s clear that the textile’s craft and labor are on display, just as much as its motifs.
While the knotted strands follow traditional garden carpet motifs — flowers, fish, flowing water, butterflies, and trees — the overall layout of the Wagner Garden Carpet is very different than contemporaneous textiles. The traditional garden carpet organizes the weaving into four quadrants with one vertical water channel intersected by one large horizontal channel. This is known as the chadar bagh or the “four garden” design. The Wagner Garden Carpet has woven water channels forming an “H” shape, a design that does not appear in any early Persian garden carpets. In addition, the Wagner Garden Carpet’s unique weaving orients the animals in different directions, parallel to the water channels; thus, if a viewer “reads” the carpet from right to left, as one would Persian script, all of the botanical elements are upright in relation to the viewer.
The other works that fill out the Garden Paradise exhibition tie into the flora and fauna that one might associate with paradise. A 16th-century bookbinding shows a prince seated in a garden, surrounded by lush cypress trees, as others offer him a plate of pomegranates; the scene is edged with an intricately detailed gold border. “Persian paintings from the Safavid period (1502-1722) and earlier attest to the importance of the ancient ritual of holding court in an outdoor space — complete with portable luxury furnishings and wares,” the placard reads. Ceramics with variously hued glazes feature such motifs as flowers and ducks. A mesmerizing late 13th-to-mid-14th century stonepaste bowl with a turquoise glaze depicts black fish swimming counter-clockwise into a deep blue center.
“Popular motifs like the lion, the falcon, and the rose and the nightingale convey specific cultural meanings,” Aimeé Froom explains in The Legacy of Persian Art: Masterpieces from the Hossein Ashar Collection. “In the monotheistic traditions of Christianity, Judaism, and Islam, the beauty of nature is a reminder of God as the giver of life, and the garden is an earthly representation of paradise.”
In the 21st century, the Persian carpet appears to be an endangered art. “Iran’s carpets,” The New York Times reported in 2016, “are among the most complex and labor-intensive handicrafts in the world.” As global demand for the carpets has decreased, artisans have begun to look elsewhere for sustainable livelihoods. This threat makes museum exhibitions like Garden Paradise, which highlight the carpets’ art, technology, and enduring motifs, all the more culturally urgent.
Garden Paradise: The Magnificent Safavid Carpet from the Burrell Collection, Glasgow continues at the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston (1001 Bissonnet, Houston, Texas) through March 24, 2019.