History of the Famed Palmette Rug Motif
The palmette motif, or arabesque flower, is one of the most common and beautiful motifs that you can find in Persian rugs. It is a highly stylized design and does not resemble any known flower species, for the most part. It has a colorful history, and it is one of the most common symbols in Persian rugs and many other forms of artwork. Let’s explore the history and development of this familiar design.
Early Forms of the Palmette Motif
The palmette is associated with Persian rug design. It is found most frequently in Persian art of the 15th and 16th centuries, but early versions of it can be found in Egyptian art and Assyrian art. In earlier forms, the petals and center of the flower are flanked by arabesque designs. The meaning of this symbol is “sacred tree.” Throughout the ages, this basic shape remained, but it took on many different stylized forms.
Many scholars agree that the palmette first began to appear in ancient Egypt. It is found on the walls of tombs, temples, and clothing. It is believed that it originated from the lotus design, which represented the union of lower and upper Egypt into a single kingdom.
The palmette also resembled the crown of the Sun God, Ra, who represented the divine and the afterlife in Egyptian culture. In ancient Egypt, the palmette can appear as a flower or as a tree with a long trunk. It was often found along the floor of temple walls, where it seems to represent the emergence of life from the Nile River.
Palmette Motifs in Greek Artwork
The next place that you begin to see the palmette is in ancient Greece. A large amount of economic and cultural exchange took place between the Greek and Egyptian societies. It is not uncommon to see elements of Egyptian art in Greek decorative arts, too. The Greek palmette is called the anthemion, and it sometimes included recognizable plant and flower portions that give it additional meaning.
The symbol later began to appear in Asia, where it became known as an “Oriental” design. It is also seen throughout Roman art and architecture, too. In ancient Rome, the palmette is often displayed with the lions of Aker above it, guarding the palmette in symbolism that represents the Tree of Life. A version of the palmette is also found in ancient Norse traditions as the sacred World tree. The Saxons also had a version of the symbol called the Irminsul, or sacred pillar.
The Golden Age of Persian Rugs
Although the motif is found throughout many cultures long before the Safavid Dynasty came into existence, it is most widely associated with the royal courts of Shah Abbas I. During the early days of the Safavid Dynasty, and the courts went to great lengths to patronize the arts, including rug weaving. The arts were used to show the wealth and power of the Persian courts.
The palmette is named after Shah Abbas I, who is responsible for establishing the court workshops. Palmettes were found in abundance on court rugs and became a symbol of the Safavid rulers. It became like their brand or trademark. Pieces produced in state-sponsored workshops were easily distinguished from the tribal rugs that were woven in the surrounding area.
The palmette is found most prominently in the rugs of Tabriz, Kerman, Isfahan, and Qum. These cities were home to the weaving shops that were tasked with weaving the spectacular court carpets of the Safavid Dynasty. Its use in these weaving centers seems to indicate that it was a motif that was sanctioned by the courts. Many times, the weavers took liberties with the design and created the palmette using a lotus flower, which is also a symbol for eternal life.
The palmette is a common design found on Persian rugs, but it is also found throughout many cultures and has ancient origins. It’s connection to the Tree of Life and the divine is a theme that is found throughout many cultures where this symbol is found. This begs the question as to whether by using this ancient symbol to represent the Safavid Dynasty Shah Abbas I was implying a connection between the Dynasty and the divine. We might never know the real answer to this, but one thing that we know for sure is that this ancient symbol is one of the most graceful in the Persian rug weaving repertoire.