Thoughts about The Christian Oriental Rug by Volkmar Gantzhorn
While this book has been criticized widely by the Oriental rug academic community, I believe that Dr. Gantzhorn has made a thoughtful contribution to Oriental rug scholarship. He has courageously presented ideas that radically reexamine the origins and design evolution of the knotted carpet over the last 2000 years. His thesis opposes the Western oriental rug scholarship begun in the late 19th century as well as the highly charged politically sanctioned views of Middle Eastern history presented by Turkish and Arab scholars and political leaders.
The discovery of the so called Pazyrk carpet in Soviet Siberia during the late 1940’s was a watershed moment in the understanding of the knotted carpet. This carpet, although using a wool foundation was extraordinary fine. The Pazyrk carpet is dated between the 4th to 5th centuries BC. Originally thought to be of Scythian origin, a thorough examination of this carpet presented several major issues with that attribution. Gantzhorn writes: “ This find would thus contradict all the assumptions which those engaged in the study of carpets, including myself, have always taken for granted, One would now have to conclude that the knotted pile carpet did not grow out of simple nomadic conditions but rather the product of old oriental high cultures”
Did the knotted carpet originate with the urban cultures of Mesopotamia and Anatolia? Gantzhorn emphatically believes that is the case. He cites among other evidence, Babylon and Assyrian frescos and bas reliefs depicting similar designs that were found in the Pazryk carpet.
Let’s fast forward to medieval Europe and the Middle East and the use of the cross as an important design feature in the knotted carpet. “By the early middle ages, the rug was recognized as a symbol of spiritual power as well as worldly power” The knotted carpet began to appear in Italian painting as early as the 1200’s. According to Gantzhorn the Memling painting of the mystical wedding of St Catherine (1480) serves as an example of the use of the cross as a Christian motif. There are two schools of thought in regard to the use of the cross as a symbolic spiritual symbol. Remember the use of the cross is a ubiquitous form used in many rug types…
One school of thought advanced by Armenian and Eastern Church scholars see the use of the cross in the designs of rugs as having “ symbolic spiritual power” as the essential Christian icon. They advance the argument that the design of the cross was used extensively in all the art and architecture created by Christian Armenian, Greek and Syrian cultures. All early Christian art never presented designs without reason or purpose.
The school and the one most accepted in rug scholarship regards the cross as “purely a decorative ornament. The design of the cross merely conforms to the vertical and horizontal nature of the loom and serves as a convenient solution to occupy space.
Ganthorn writes a fascinating and detailed look at the Oriental rug as a cultural artifact. I have never seen a book with such an extensive photographic litany of historical carpets. His book is a refreshing relief from present Oriental rug literature.