Main Designs and Pattern Principles of Oriental Persian Rugs
Persian rug designs include a remarkably varied range of patterns and taste depending on the nature and locale of production. These tend to fall into two main categories – urban or city rugs whose designs are rooted in the classical traditions of the Safavid period, and village or tribal, nomadic rugs characterized by a more abstract, geometric sensibility.
This division is not, however, absolute since village or tribal designs often turn out to be highly transformed adaptations of classical models. But for the most part, city rugs display a more sophisticated design repertory characterized by recognizable floral rug forms articulated with elegant undulating curves or rhythms, while village and tribal rugs tend to rely on more abstract forms using bold, more rectilinear graphic effects and repetitions.
Whether urban or village productions, Persian rugs and carpets tend to use two main design principles – centralized or medallion compositions and allover rug repeat patterns. Centralized designs are organized around a central medallion of variable form, often elaborated as a series of medallions within medallions, framed by four quarter medallions or ‘corner-pieces.’ The intervening area or field is usually filled with separate floral or geometric rug design motifs or ‘space-fillers.’
In contrast, allover repeat designs consist of smaller medallions or other motifs repeated across the entire field vertically and horizontally in rows, either as a grid or staggered. The design may be made more complex through the addition of additional smaller motifs between the larger repeating ones. Both the medallion and allover formats may also be articulated as compartment patterns derived from classical Islamic geometric rug ornament.
Urban or city rugs with floral, curve-linear designs of arabesque or vine-scroll type may be designed either in a centralized medallion format or as a more integrated allover repeat pattern. Additionally, they may use a compartment structure filled with floral detail. In the same way village or tribal rugs may also utilize either format, although village production often favors allover designs. And when using the medallion format village rugs tend to use two or three superimposed central medallions, and they may eliminate the corner-pieces.
Apart from gabbehs and kilims, all Persian rugs, whatever their design, tend to enclose the field pattern with one or more framing borders. The border system may have one ‘main’ border with smaller ‘minor’ borders and/or ‘guard stripes’ to either side, or it may have a more complex arrangement of multiple concentric borders. The motifs within the borders may be separate elements arranged in serial repetition, or they may be connected as a larger, continuous pattern like a vine-scroll. And as in the field the main design elements may be surrounded by additional space-fillers to complicate the Persian rug design pattern.
There are of course exceptions to these general design categories. The most significant of these is the so-called prayer format. It is distinguished by an arch-like opening or ‘mihrab.’ This is often interpreted as a door or window looking onto paradise, but most immediately it is modeled on the mihrab or ‘qibla’ niche used in mosques to indicate the direction of Mecca for prayer.
On city rugs, the mihrab Persian rug design is a fairly pictorial depiction of a niche framed by recognizable columns supporting an arch, often with a hanging lamp suspended from the apex, although the areas within and outside the arch may be patterned with various filler motifs. Village prayer rugs usually render the architecture more abstractly, so that at times little more than the outline of the arch or doorway remains amidst the patterning.
The prayer Persian rug designs of the field is usually enclosed by a framing border system of some kind. Another significant exception is the so-called tree of life design, again possibly an imagery of eternal peace in paradise. Here in place of a medallion or allover pattern, the field is organized around a tree rendered either in a relatively life-like pictorial fashion, or in variable degrees of abstraction. When more realistically rendered, the tree usually supports birds or other feeding animals emphasizing its life-giving power.
Like the prayer niche format, the tree of life rug design is usually enclosed by one or more borders. At times, prayer design rugs may depict the tree of life within the mihrab to suggest the heavenly domain.
Already by the Safavid period, pictorial rug elements of human figures, animals, and floral or vegetative form had also become a significant though subordinate element within Persian rug designs or carpet patterns. But during the Qajar period or 19th century, Persian art became increasingly open to a more western, less traditionally Islamic traditions of pictorial art. In place of earlier Persian miniature and wall painting, Qajar art now encouraged the production of framed easel paintings of European type.
This new taste inevitably began to affect rug production as well, which literally copied Qajar paintings or at times the pictorial reliefs found on ancient Persian ruins like those at Persepolis. As such, antique rugs of this kind stand apart from the main tradition of Persian rug weaving, although they often achieve a distinctive and still thoroughly Persian rug designs, styles and effects.
One last exception to the Persian rug designs is the so-called Persian gabbeh rug. These are quintessentially village or tribal rugs whose design consists of small-scale human and animal design forms, and at times tents or buildings, all distributed across a relatively open field or ‘landscape,’ generally with no border of any kind.
They represent an almost self-consciously primitive sensibility relying on effects of color and wool quality that appeals especially to modern western taste, like the purely abstract Persian kilims of Mazandaran.
If you enjoyed this article about Persian rug designs, you may also want to read our: Guide to Antique Rug Symbols and Their Meanings