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August 2, 2016
Alhambra Palace Silk Curtain-Hanging

Louise W. Mackie Curator, Textiles and Islamic Art

After many years, the Cleveland Museum of Art will have a gallery devoted to the display of its exemplary collection of textiles from 62 countries in the recently named Arlene M. and Arthur S. Holden Gallery. This association with the Holden family is especially gratifying since the museum has acquired 55 spectacular textiles with the Andrew R. and Martha Holden Jennings Fund, and Liberty E. Holden’s (1833–1913) early Renaissance paintings form the nucleus of the museum’s old masters collection. Previously, textiles were shown in the textile study room (1916–58) and in the textile gallery corridor (1958–96), as well as being integrated in other galleries following a CMA tradition. The new textile gallery is located in the north wing where its stunning multicultural exhibitions will provide a striking transition between the Japanese gallery and the art of the ancient Americas galleries.  

The inaugural exhibition, Luxuriance: Silks from Islamic Lands, 1250–1900, celebrates the museum’s world-class collection of Islamic textiles with sumptuous silks from six countries. Luxury textiles were indispensible symbols of status, wealth, and power at imperial courts across the vast Islamic lands from the Atlantic to the Indian Ocean. The industry flourished under the auspices of sultans, the foremost consumers, with international trade fueling economic prosperity and urbanization. Textile designers and weavers excelled at creating vibrant yet harmonious patterns that corresponded with the fashions of ruling dynasties, cultures, and periods. Textile-literate consumers demanded unadulterated quality with lustrous silk thread, rich colors, and well-made durable fabrics, illustrated here with three spectacular examples. 


Alhambra Palace Silk Curtain-Hanging mid 1300s. Spain, Granada, Nasrid Period. Lampas; silk; 438.2 x 271.8 cm. Leonard C. Hanna Jr. Fund 1982.16


One of the museum’s great treasures is the largest, most complete, and most ornate curtain-hanging, along with an almost identical example, to have survived from the 1300s when it most likely hung in the royal Alhambra Palace in Granada, the last Muslim stronghold in Spain. Its style, artistic vocabulary, and harmonious proportions reflect the magnificent wall decoration in the Alhambra. Textiles were identified as the standard of beauty in poetry composed for its walls, such as a beautifully attired bride.
In the two complete side panels, rectangles display yellow palmettes, inscriptions, and medallions on the crimson ground while Arabic phrases and colorful designs decorate the end borders. The motto of the ruling Nasrid dynasty, “There is no conqueror but God,” is inscribed in the end borders and in the separate central striped strip. This masterpiece was woven in an imperial workshop in Granada in a combination of two weaves, twill weave and plain weave, a technique known as lampas that Iranian weavers developed in the 11th century, and which was adopted across Europe and Asia. 


Brocaded Velvet with Falconer and Attendant in Medallions, from a Kaftan

Brocaded Velvet with Falconer and Attendant in Medallions, from a Kaftan mid 16th century. Iran, Safavid period. Brocaded velvet, pile-warp substitution; silk, gilt-metal thread; 79.4 x 66.7 cm. J. H. Wade Fund 1944.239


Sumptuous silks woven in Iran during the 16th and 17th centuries are renowned for human figures portraying scenes from court life and Iranian literature. The signature velvet displaying much loved falconry shown above is celebrated for its refined beauty, meticulous draftsmanship, and exemplary technique with eight colors of lush velvet pile. A falconer and attendant flank a tall blossoming plant on a golden ground of lobed medallions. The falcon spies a flying duck flushed out by the attendant, who carries a bag over his shoulder for the game. On the rich crimson velvet ground, animated foliate vines display leaves bearing lion’s masks and black-spotted dragons coiled around larger leaves. Its exquisite quality reflects the finest Safavid court art.

Iranian velvets are the most colorful ever woven. Iranian weavers developed an ingenious technique to substitute one color of the warp thread that forms the velvet pile with another color. Consequently, instead of being consistent, colors change throughout the length. Only the back reveals the secret: fringes of cut pile warps occur where colors change. 

The two previous and most surviving luxury textiles were woven in imperial workshops on large drawlooms that automatically repeated designs, precursors of jacquard looms with punch card patterns, and modern-day computers. Some were decorated off the loom with embroidery stitches that were more prestigious than brocaded silks, such as velvet embellished with gemstones or gold thread at the Ottoman Turkish court in Istanbul. 


Silk Hanging with Embroidered Tree of Life

Silk Hanging with Embroidered Tree of Life 1850–1900. Turkey, Ottoman period. Plain weave, silk; embroidery, chain stitch, silk; 228.6 x 172.7 cm. Gift of Mr. and Mrs. J. H. Wade 1916.1358


In this spectacular tree of life embroidery, Turkish designs are integrated with European motifs that became increasingly fashionable during the mid 18th century. The fanciful tree displays lavish bouquets of favorite Turkish flowers; the trunk is wrapped with an elaborate European-style bow while smaller bows enliven meandering vines in the floral border. At least 12 vibrant colors are worked in chain stitch following outlines drawn in ink by a professional draftsman on the radiant yellow silk taffeta. As a hanging for special occasions, it was a conspicuous symbol of beauty and wealth.  

This special exhibition previews my forthcoming book, Luxury Textiles from Islamic Lands, 7th–20th Centuries, which the museum is publishing with 450 color illustrations, half from Cleveland’s exceptional collection. It highlights our world-class holdings and ideally will advance the field of Islamic textiles.  


Cleveland Art, July/August 2013