Beautiful Early Transylvanian Rugs and Carpets
History Of Antique Transylvanian rugs
Transylvanian Rugs – Transylvania’s geographic location made it a critical trade center from the 15th to the 17th century. Traders and merchants with goods from the East would pass through this area on their way to the West and vice versa.
Notably, it was a major venue for woven area rugs from Anatolia. Such antique rugs were also highly valued by locals of the region and as a result, they became quite the items for rug collectors. Both cities as well as individuals participated in collecting such rugs.
Both church records and inscriptions on some of the Transylvanian rugs show that such pieces were also donated to local Protestant churches where they served as decorative wall hanging tapestry rugs, decorations and pew furnishings.
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This happenstance resulted in the incidental preservation of a fairly large number of these antique Transylvanian rugs. Many of the kept in churches saw little wear and tear over the years and remained in excellent condition until the rediscovery of such trends.
Due to a combination of economic, geographical and political elements, this region has a fascinating cultural heritage. The importance of antique Transylvanian rugs is rooted in this rich history.
For a time, Transylvania was a Hungarian-ruled Principality. This was true both under Christian monarchies and, later, Habsburg and the Islamic Ottoman Empire.
This political situation made the area a melting pot of diverse influences. This was further enhanced by its location along an important trade route between cultures of the East and West.
Unfortunately, the historical importance and material value of Transylvanian rugs was not well recognized when they first began being removed from churches and sold to raise funds. Among other things, this undermined record keeping and fostered a situation where forgeries flourished for a time.
Resurgence In The Popularity Of Antique Transylvanian rugs
In both North America and Western Europe, it became fashionable to collect antique rugs by the end of the 19th century. Both individual collectors and museums actively participated in this trend, creating both private and public collections.
A series of exhibitions in major cities helped increase public awareness of the beauty and worth of so-called “Oriental rugs“, of which Transylvania rugs are a subset. Some of the most important exhibits occurred in Vienna (1891), London (1892), Chicago (1893) and Detroit (1921).
This brought an influx of both collectors and rug dealers to Transylvania in search of these breathtaking rugs. Documents of the time indicate this helped renew local interest as well in the importance as well as the value of these rugs, which had a long history of being stored out of sight and generally neglected and overlooked.
On the advice of Alois Riegl’s, a man named Ernst Kühlbrandt created the first inventory of such rugs. He went to the trouble to have the rugs cleaned and then properly displayed.
The first use of the term “Transylvanian rug” can be traced to a 1906 edition of a handbook on Oriental rugs by Neugebauer and Orendi. They believed these rugs had been produced locally in Transylvania and were unaware that many of these carpets and rugs had actually been produced in Anatolia. So the term is something of a misnomer, in some sense.
A 1914 carpet exhibit in Budapest included 354 antique Turkish rugs. Of the lot, 228 had a provenance traced back to Transylvania. Then a French album was published with the title “Tapis turcs provenants des églises et collections de Transylvanie” by Végh and Layer in 1925.
During these early years, cash strapped parishes sometimes took advantage of rising popularity of such items and sold rugs to help cover their bills. Theft also became an issue as the value of the rugs became more generally recognized. Churches that didn’t adequately secure their valuable rugs saw them simply turn up missing.
Theodor Tuduc was a rug trader of the era who traded in authentic rugs sourced from Transylvania. But he also produced forgeries. In an ironic twist, his forgeries have since become collectibles themselves due to their historic interest. They were extremely well made, contained beautiful color combinations and “lazy lines” and even had masterfully done artificial wear-and-tear to make them seem authentic. They were so good, they had a track record of fooling museum curators across the globe.
For decades Altorientalische Teppiche in Siebenbürgen by Emil Schmutzlers was the primary source of reliable information on the topic. It was published in 1933 in Leipzig. In English, the title translates to Ancient oriental carpets in Transylvania. Eventually, a book series by Stefano Ionescu detailed Transylvania carpets more in depth.
An important turning point came with the political union of Romania and Transylvania in 1918. This created an identity crisis for Transylvanian Saxons, an ethnic group that felt threatened by the atmosphere of the time. They took a greater interest in their own cultural heritage, including their rugs.
A large number of them were evacuated before World War II was over, often taking their Kirchenteppiche (“church carpets”) with them. This turn of events gave the carpets a new role as cultural signifiers of identity for a modern-day nomads, so to speak. Research into this role continues to this day.
Although originally a misnomer, the term “Transylvania rug” has come to be widely used to refer to a subset of Oriental carpets that date to the 15th to 17th centuries and were largely preserved in Protestant churches in Transylvania, even though they were really Islamic rugs. They are notable for being the largest body of Ottoman Anatolia rugs that can be found outside of the Islamic world.
This umbrella term includes classical Turkish carpets like Lotto and Holbein rug, plus “white ground” Oushak rugs and Selendi carpets. But the term “Transylvania rugs” is used more specifically to refer to a few types of Anatolian rugs.
Single Niche Prayer Transylvanian Rugs
These are antique Islamic prayer rugs which typically have a red niche and white spandrels. They are inscribed with curvilinear floral designs showcasing various types of flowers and buds. There is typically an ochre-colored border with curvilinear abstract patterns.
In most cases, the fields are ochre. Alternately, they may be red. There may be small floral designs along the edges or taking the place of the traditional Mosque lamp. The niche contains traditional Anatolian designs, such as the high or low point of the arch or the head and shoulders design.
The 1663 painting titled “Portrait of a family making music” by Pieter de Hooch shows a carpet of this type. Some of these rugs or rug designs can be traced to specific places, such as Melas or Ghiordes.
A subset of these rugs is very similar to double-niche vase motif rugs, but only has a single niche. As such, their niche profile, borders and spandrels differ from single niche prayer rug designs.
Double Niche Prayer Transylvanian Rugs
There are only about a hundred known double niche Transylvania rugs. Generally speaking, they are small in size, bordered by oblong cartouches and filled with either floral designs, rosettes or cartouches.
This style of rug can be seen in certain Dutch paintings of the early 17th century. Some of the earliest known depictions of the Transylvania double-niche rug type include the following Dutch paintings, which can be viewed online by clicking each of the titles below:
- Portrait of Abraham Graphaeus by Cornelis de Vos (1620)
- Portrait of an unknown man by Thomas de Keyser (1626)
- Portrait of Constantijn Huygens and his clerk by Thomas de Keyser (1627)
The earliest known references within Transylvania to this design type are from around 1620, which corresponds nicely to the earliest painting above. They apparently began adding inscriptions to such rugs between 1661 and 1675.
A subset of the double-niche rugs has corner medallions which help form a niche or arch like shape at each end of the field. The medallions have interlacing arabesques and are similar to other known double niche rugs from Oushak, but the design is stiffer.
Most Transylvania double-niche rugs have heavily stylized corner pieces which would be best characterized as spandrels to a niche. These typically contain a large, plain rosette design at the center, surrounded by less sophisticated ornamentation.
In some cases, the design showcases two pairs of vases and a contrasting color combination, filled out with curvilinear motifs. The field often has small floral patterns. Earlier versions are undulating. Later ones are typically stiffer and more geometric in nature.
These rugs always have symmetrical, vertically-oriented designs. Some contain a central medallion and are very similar to known Oushak rugs.
It is believed they eventually differentiated from Oushak rugs. Rugs that contain eight-petaled flower arrangements and concentric lozenges are believed to be later versions of the Transylvania double-niche rug style. Their backgrounds are red, yellow or dark blue and they sometimes contain cruciform elements.
Although most double niche rugs use mirrored patterns at each end, some double-niche rugs have a more elaborate and a less elaborate niche. You can see such in the Black Church collection from the mid 17th century. This can also be seen in “head and shoulder” designs.
Some people believe that the double-niche design grew out of mirroring single-niche designs. However, this may not be true. It is possible they developed in parallel. The exact process by which these different designs developed is lost to the mists of time.
Transylvania rugs are a subset of Oriental carpets. They are of particular interest due to the fact that these Islamic designs frequently ended up in Protestant churches in a time and place that served as a rich melting pot of Eastern and Western culture.
They are not only historically and culturally significant, they are quite beautiful. Not surprisingly, masterfully created antiques like these are often quite valuable and expensive.
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