Lucinda Willan discusses an exceptional weaving from the ancient Mongol Empire - thought to be the last of its kind - ahead of Christie’s Oriental Rugs and Carpets sale
In the early 13th century, the Mongols invaded North West China for the first time. Within just fifty years, they had established the largest continuous land empire ever to exist — stretching from Hungary to Korea.
The invasion left the Mongols with a legacy of ruthless destruction, and their profound influence on the region’s art and trade is often overlooked. Here, Christie’s specialist Lucinda Willan discusses a weaving made at the heart of their ancient empire, thought to be the sole surviving example of a Mongol Empire carpet.
Under Mongol rule, the status of artisans rose considerably. ‘Textile production had such a significant bearing on trade in the area that weavers were given special status,’ Willan explains.
Mongol ruler Gengis Khan resettled weavers along the 4,000 mile-long Silk Route, eventually forming three major centres of textile production — Besh Baliq in the Tarim Basin corridor, Hongzhou and Xunmalin near modern Beijing.
‘As traders moved across Mongol Empire weaving techniques were exchanged,’ says Willan. Though this movement prompted huge advances in textile design, it makes the exact origin of the carpet very difficult to pinpoint.
‘As no other carpets appear to have survived from the Mongol Empire, we have to turn to other art forms and textiles to draw stylistic comparisons,’ Willan comments. ‘The carpet is most closely related in techniques and drawing to the flower and bird silk tapestries — or kesi — of Central Asia and China, such as this silk and metal-thread fragment in the Metropolitan Museum of Art’
‘These silk tapestries from the period display the influence of nearly every major culture that moved along the Silk Road,’ says Willan. ‘In the same way, this carpet is a fascinating synthesis of ideas and aesthetics — a weaving as mysterious as it is beautiful.’
The Coronation of Ögödei Khan (r.1229-1241) in Jami al-Tawarikh by Rashid al-Din (1247–1318), early 14th century. This miniature depicts the monarch seated on a textile decorated with birds and flowers, similar to those of the Mongol weaving
In the centre of the carpet, birds sit between elegant peonies, their stems curved as though bending in an invisible breeze.
‘Flower and bird motifs were used across the Empire, and similar designs can be found on Yuan Dynasty pottery and Chinese silks,’ says Willan. ‘Intriguingly, this 14th century miniature of Ögödei Khan’s coronation depicts the Mongol ruler seated on a textile scattered with birds and flowers — remarkably similar to those of this carpet.’
The border of the carpet is composed of a dynamic pattern of alternating trefoils or ‘cloud bands’. ‘The design is one that was ubiquitous in Mongol ornamentation and which can be seen in the depiction of Ögödei Khan's coronation, in both the profile of the throne and collars of the courtier,’ Willan comments.
Detail: Exceptional care has been taken to produce a weave as strong as it is visually complex.
The reverse of the carpet reveals a complex lattice of stitches: ‘The weaver took exceptional care to reinforce the carpet, taking time to ensure that the fragile gaps that can appear between colours are joined,’ says Willan.
If a strong weave has contributed to the work’s extraordinary survival, so, too, has its provenance: ‘The carpet is thought to have spent many years in a Tibetan monastery — buildings which became incredible storehouses for medieval textiles, providing the perfect conditions for their preservation,’
Whilst the carpet may have been used as a long runner, its remarkable condition suggests that it may have been hung or served as a door flap. ‘The end border has been lost, but the design still appears complete,’ Willan comments. ‘There is a sense of movement from water to sky, with the grasses and lotuses rising from the bottom of the weaving to meet the peonies and birds above.’