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Ornament In Old Textiles

( Originally Published 1930 )



In the search for the origin of textile design or ornament, a delightful element of adventure appears when the line carries back to the Year One and, disregarding that barrier, crashes through into the B.C. dates. To understand the motives which we are even now reproducing, we must catch a glimpse of the youthful Cyrus (he lived but thirty-one years) as he pushed eastwards in the interests of Greece and founded the Persian Empire in B.C. 226, taking Babylon on the way.

It was the second dynasty after Cyrus that was called Sassanian, which lasted until A.D. 637, and is of special interest because we are even now using the ornament composed by those early Persians. It was they who impressed upon the world of design the simple expedient of a large roundel enclosing a single figure or a scene. The roundel was delicately ornamented within its clean-cut band, earlier with small discs, later with flat rose petals, and later still with scrolls. Within the circle was a single wild beast or one entirely fabulous until the fashion came of setting two beasts within the roundel, back to back or confronted. Later still came birds, not the lovely bulbul of the Persian poets, but the aggressive parrot, with his air of resentment and his suggestive beak.

The charm of the oldest textile ornament is found in flatness of pattern and the absence of modeling.

Within the circle of one of the most delightful of the old designs is a pair of lithe young kings vigorously hunting a pair of lions. The lions crouch for a spring, the horses leap with excitement, the agile kings discharge the arrow from the bow, and all this is arranged with a balance as perfect as though a geometric touch had ordered it. More than appears is implied by the roundel. It is intended to enclose a forest and to exclude any habitation. The forested mountains of Persia were full of wild beasts. A man was not a man unless he went in pursuit of them, and a king must show himself in all things the superior of other men. Thus we have a glimpse of the life of people who have sent the pictured roundels rolling down the centuries to our own time, when the looms of Italy are copying them. Amusingly enough, they pass as a novelty to the uninformed, but even so arrest attention and inspire delight. By some good fortune a few of these Sassanian textiles have been preserved, some of them having been laid away in tombs of celebrated bishops, and recently put in museums.

The picturesque touch of the traders is a part of Sassanian study. Through Persia lay one of the great trade routes connecting China and also India with the West. The designs of these two countries affected the Sassanians when they were thus brought into their country. The packs of the camel-trains from the artistic East were opened along the journey, sometimes bought entire by the Persian merchants, so found their journey's end among the people of the Sassanian dynasty. These same camels were loaded with new goods and continued westward taking their special Persian textiles to Babylon, Damascus, and so on to Byzantium, which was then struggling to maintain itself as a capital of the disintegrating Roman Empire.

But the deposit of figured textiles left in Persia by the camel-train of the trade route, bore strange designs which afterward crept into the Sassanian drawings. The roundel itself was one of the motives of the Chinese and bore as its earliest ornament the little discs that followed each other around the circle. To the swastika, or fylfot, China has ever been faithful, even to the present day, but as this ornament is one of those found in the early art of all races, it cannot belong solely to one. Chinese cloud motives, however, appeared in Persia but with curious local alteration. Sassanian weaves are not without a trace of the Hellenistic culture. These turn us at once back to the remote time when Alexander the Great, the amazingly young conqueror, sowed the seeds of Greek art throughout the entire East. The floriated scroll of Greece and Rome appeared in China, India, Persia; the palmette and honeysuckle gave to other peoples an idea which they developed with local vegetation.

Byzantium flavored by Rome was rich in these and other Hellenistic motives, but at about the Sixth Century, when Rome had declined and Persia was active with a brilliant civilization, there came an intermingling of the two countries in the matter of design. The church of St. Sophia was dedicated at this time, and Ravenna fell before the men of Constantinople—Byzantium. The Roman art stiffened under new influences, grew conventional, lost its free movements and crystallized into the formality we know as Byzantine. But Persia's contribution lay in the way of ornament for weaving, and thus we have a confusion or rather a similarity between woven designs of the Sassanian kings and those of the Byzantines. The stiff pairs of birds or animals which are back to back or confronted are distinctly a Sassanian contribution, and are apt to confuse the enthusiast who seeks for origins. The Persian or Sassanian animals have a movement and vitality suggesting life, whereas those drawn under Byzantine influence are stiff and heraldic, emblems rather than pictures. Later they became freed from their enclosing roundel.

Constantinople, to use its modern name, became a Moslem city in the time of the Mohammedan con-quests. It became the pearl for which two dragons were ever contesting, Asia to the East and Europe to the West. Moreover, it was the gateway to trade, and that led to Venice and her woven designs—but that came in the Renaissance.

From India came the elephant, sometimes coupled with the tree-of-life, which is Persian, and these are woven into silks of Byzantium, some of which are still extant. But this ancient elephant has amusing qualities and outlines all his own; his legs are long and slender, his toes are sharp, his trunk is many-jointed. And the tree-of-life beside him is a symmetry of Persian ornament in vegetation. How little the gay summer crowd at fashionable Le Touquet could divine. that such elephants, silk-woven, were hid in the near-by church resting obscurely in the inactive village of St. Josse. Such a textile was found in a hidden recess behind the altar but a decade ago, and carried with the antiquarian's joy to repose in a silk museum at Lyons. Through such happenings as this we touch the patterns of the early weavers.

Indian civilization is so old that the young Alexander the Great found it in an advanced state when in his thirst for conquest he reached it in 327 B.C. We owe to it much that has been ignored by a limited European view. Weaving and design in India kept pace with Persia; indeed the two are equally advanced and equally prolific throughout the ages. The materials used for fine textiles were wool of camels and cotton, and more sparsely, silk. Gold came ever into lavish use considering its value. The Indian pine is the figure most familiar, for although almost prehistoric it still persists and is known to all. In the Ghandaran period of Indian art, Hellenistic motives prevailed, and in the pictured caves of Ajanta, we find the clue to the most beautiful of Indian ornament—all of which had its effect on Indian weaving.

China, holding in its hand the most perfect thread for weaving in all the world, and having an art of high development many centuries before the Christian era, has the history of weaving united with the history of silk, and in that it is best examined.

The Moslem domination occurred in the Seventh Century, and as it so affects the art of design in weaving throughout Europe, it is of the greatest interest. In its eastward expansion it seized Persia and India, Mesopotamia and Turkey. Spreading from Arabia eastward, it absorbed Egypt and North Africa, seizing Sicily on the way, as it proceeded to Spain. The art canons of Islam, being affected with a rigidity based on religious beliefs, possessed marked ornament all its own. This it impressed—sometimes under pain of death—upon each conquered country. But as the countries conquered were highly developed in art, the Mohammedan frequently retained their design but put upon it the mark of his own religion's requirements, the arabesque, the geometric complexity, the introduction of Arab lettering.

Textiles of North Egypt, Spain, Sicily, Lucca and Venice, all in turn came under the influence of Mohammedan art, and received its impress. And this is one of the several ways in which European textiles received the enduring influence of the fertile Orient. We of the Western civilization must confess to a joyous satisfaction in the evidences of this influence. It is what made gorgeous the velvets of Genoa and Lucca, the brocades of Florence, the bewildering silk textiles of Venice, from the Thirteenth to the Sixteenth Centuries. And these have ever been the foundation of textile design, the greater in strength and interest as they came unaltered from the Orient.



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