‘Shaping an Empire: Safavid Textiles from the Museum of Islamic Art, Doha’ Review: The Fabric of a Dynasty


In “Building an Empire: Safavid Textiles From the Museum of Islamic Art, Doha” at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of Asian Art (comprising the Freer Gallery of Art and the Arthur M. Sackler Gallery), animated abstract flowers float against a red carpet background; naturalistic roses inspired by Mughal models from India sparkle in a brocade with silver threads; and on a velvet panel two women went hunting, one holding a still hooded falcon, the other a snarling dog on a leash. These are some of the late 16th to early 18th century textiles featured in the subtitle, but these 12 pieces did not travel from Qatar on their own. Three life-size portraits accompanied them to Washington, where they are joined by a dozen 16th- and 17th-century folio paintings from the galleries’ treasury.

If the beauty draws us in, the interactions created by Massumeh Farhad, curator of the Persian, Arab and Turkish Art Museum, keep us lingering, savoring the rich Safavid culture in Iran.

‘Portrait of an Armenian Lady’ (circa 1650-1675)


Museum of Islamic Art, Doha

The show focuses primarily on Isfahan after Shah Abbas I chose it as his capital in 1597-1598, moving the imperial workshops to a thriving commercial center at the confluence of north-south and east-west trade routes. Its population came to include Dutch, English, Portuguese and Indian merchants to whom Shah Abbas I added a powerful contingent of Armenian merchants whom he forced to immigrate there with their families. In exchange, the ruler gave them control of silk exports, which soon became essential to the Safavid economy and the sartorial splendor of the city’s well-to-do.

We meet three of these residents of Isfahani at different points in the show. In the oil portraits painted in Isfahan between around 1650 and 1675, each one looks straight at us while a window or a drawn curtain reveals a distant landscape. Despite European conventions and interiors, all three carry local fashions, helping us visualize how much of the brocades and velvets on display were used. In doing so, they also provide insight into the opulent, cosmopolitan lifestyle funded by the silk and carpet trade.

The subjects themselves, for example, represent distinct communities. Welcoming us at the entrance is an Iranian nobleman with what could be a woolen or felt shawl draped around his neck and, on his head, a checkerboard of whites and browns buckled and folded into a turban. Over an orange silk garment that hugs his torso and then flares out from the waist to above his ankles, he wears an open sleeveless beige coat edged with stylized flowers and vines that trace delicate figure eights. In another gallery, we meet a European gentleman in a Russian fur stole, a bright yellow overcoat studded with bold, free-floating flowers, and, peeking out from underneath, a blue and yellow striped dress. In the final gallery, a wealthy Armenian presents a floral extravagance: in her hand, a small bouquet; at her feet, a sheaf of tulips and carnations; and in her dress, at least six different floral patterns, from the edge of her scarf to the top of her boots.

In the most intricate of these designs, flowers punctuate a network of cartouches and looping vines on her white dress. Her sleeveless overcoat is dark red with large leaves and unfurling petals. It is probably an Italian import, so different is its design from the velvets on display nearby. These include two vertical panels, each with sets of couples sharing a drink in a landscape of supple, winding trees.

These panels belong to a luxurious class of textiles that includes some of the show’s intricate, labor-intensive brocades. In one, flowers spread their petals against a background of sparkling gold threads; in another, pointed medallions float in a sea of ​​silver. We see one of these lavish brocades used in a painting of about 1596-1600. Attributed to Mughal court painter Hiranand, it depicts Mughal commander Mun’im Khan seated cross-legged in a tent enclosure. Before him stands Afghan leader Da’ud Khan, one arm raised as he finishes putting on a dark gold cloak that matches the turban he has already donned.

Shaping an Empire: Safavid Textiles from the Museum of Islamic Art, Doha

National Museum of Asian Art

Until May 15

One look at their faces and we know this is no chance encounter. Da’ud’s eyes are on Mun’im, who does not meet his gaze but seems to be waiting patiently for Da’ud to complete the gesture and face him fully clothed. Both men engage in a pan-Islamic ceremonial tradition known as the khila, or “dress of honor”. By accepting Mun’im’s gift of clothing, Da’ud formally abandons his ambitions to overthrow the Mughal Emperor and pledges his allegiance. At the same time, the sumptuousness of the attire with its silk robe, golden overcoat and turban expresses Mun’im’s respect for a vanquished foe – a case of beauty and meaning intertwined like threads on a loom.

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About Margaret L. Portillo

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