Critic’s Notebook: LACMA’s magical Ardabil Carpet


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Now’s your chance: The breathtaking Ardabil Carpet, an incomparable 16th-century masterpiece that ranks among the greatest works in the Los Angeles County Museum of Art’s permanent collection, is on view at the museum through Labor Day. It’s the centerpiece to ‘Gifts of the Sultan: The Arts of Giving at the Islamic Court,’ one of LACMA’s big summer shows.

This is just the fifth time the carpet has been displayed since its 1965 museum debut.

Specialists regard the Ardabil Carpet to be one of the two greatest Persian rugs ever woven. The other is its matching twin, now in the collection of London’s Victoria and Albert Museum. The 19th-century English Arts and Crafts designer William Morris, who led the campaign for the V&A to acquire its rug in 1893, said it was ‘of singular perfection’ -- and LACMA’s is often regarded as the finer of the two.


Not being a specialist, I can’t say; but I can say ‘Wow.’

More in a moment about why the current display is only temporary. For now, stand at one end of the enormous carpet -- it’s more than 23 feet long and 13 feet wide -- and an immense garden of formal and conceptual splendor unfurls before you. Islam’s Koran describes paradise as a garden of eternity, as everlasting bliss on high. With its deep indigo field, the floral carpet, royally commissioned for a dynastic shrine, pictures a sky garden’s vivacious glory spread beneath your feet.

‘Except for thy haven, there is no refuge for me in this world,’ reads an inscription in a rectangular cartouche at one end. ‘Other than here, there is no place for my head.’

Unusual for a carpet, this one is signed and dated: Maqsud of Kashan, 1539-40. While Titian was busy painting the voluptuous ‘Venus of Urbino’ in Italy, Maqsud, probably a court official working in the city of Tabriz, was busy overseeing a large team of weavers, who spent several years making the pair.

The initial punch of LACMA’s magnificent rug, its size no doubt partly designed to impress, slowly fractures into a brilliantly organized composition. A dense tracery of looping vines meanders across the dark field, erupting in a profusion of floral blossoms along the way. Some recall lotuses, others suggest peonies. Full flowers are interspersed with buds. Chinese-style clouds animate the straight-edged floral borders.

A large, golden yellow medallion surrounded by a ring of 16 pointed oval shapes is slightly off-center, since one end of the carpet was cut down at some point in its history. Images of enameled and gilded glass lamps hang from opposite ends of the medallion. ‘God is the Light of the heavens and the earth,’ says the Koran; ‘the likeness of His Light is as a niche wherein is a lamp.’ One depicted lamp is considerably smaller than the other; does the visible difference in size suggest the distance of the heavens from the proximity of Earth?

Internally, the interlaced vines follow curved linear patterns of spiral, oval, paisley and lozenge shapes, with barely a straight line anywhere to be found. A long, sweeping course will pull your eye halfway down the carpet’s length, then splinter in half a dozen directions, like fireworks that burst into progressively smaller volleys of color. The floral patterns create marvelous temporal illusions.


Altogether, this is not an invocation of nature as a wild landscape of fearsome forces. Quite the opposite. Nuanced precision, exquisite if unexpected, describes this elegant garden. Cultivation is the inescapable motif.

The Azerbaijani city of Ardabil, site of an important Sufi mystic shrine for which the rug was made, sits on the rugged eastern slope of Mt. Sabalan, an extinct volcano in the northern-most region of Iran. About 40 miles west of the Caspian Sea, the climate is cold and dry. But the luxurious Ardabil Carpet is warm and fecund, embodying a powerful counterpoint. The rug is woven on a warp and weft of off-white silk, which the museum says anchors 35 million knots of naturally dyed wool. That translates into more than 800 knots per square inch, extraordinary by any measure. The richness of the weaving allows for the astounding refinement of the detailed patterns.

A Persian version of a Latin ‘hortus conclusus’ -- literally, an enclosed garden -- the design’s bilateral symmetry is organic rather than rigid. Even the rectangular shape of the rug undulates some. Slight differences in color, shape and composition distinguish each side, recalling the organic symmetry of the human body.

I’ve only seen the Ardabil Carpet once before -- in 2004, when it was shown for a few months after extensive conservation work. The current show is just the fifth time the carpet has been on display in the 58 years LACMA has owned it, a gift of J. Paul Getty, while the ‘Gifts of the Sultan’ exhibition tour to Houston and Doha, Qatar, will be the first time LACMA has displayed it elsewhere.

Why does LACMA usually keep one of the greatest works in its collection out of sight? Dust and, especially, light are the enemies of the work’s natural dyes and materials. The Ardabil Carpet needs protecting.

Still, keeping it in storage is a mistake. In fact, its London twin is on permanent view, having been reinstalled at the V&A five years ago as the centerpiece of the museum’s Islamic art galleries. Illuminated for just 10 minutes on the hour and half-hour during public hours, it is housed in a controlled and monitored environment -- a specially glazed case with a suspended canopy and technically complex fiber-optic lighting.

Such a set-up, which I have not seen in person, is no doubt expensive to fabricate and maintain. And there may be better options. LACMA has hopes for a solution, since pulling this masterpiece from storage every nine or 10 years is not enough. Although nothing is currently set, the drop-dead Ardabil Carpet is easily worth permanent, prominent display.


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— Christopher Knight