The Silk Road Takes on New Meaning with Exhibition of Islamic Silks

| March 20, 2014

An exhibition of Islamic silks that has been running at the Cleveland Museum of Art takes on new luster as Asia Week in New York continues to run its frenetic course.  The exhibition that runs through April 27th features the luxury coverings that were the highly profitable goods that gave name to the Silk Roads of the East.

The exhibition is comprised of works from the Cleveland Museum of Art’s internationally renowned textile collection, which contains approximately 4,500 textiles from 62 countries made between 2000 BC and 2010.


While much of the impact is visual, it helps to know the back story of silk.

Islamic silke

Mantle for a Statue of the Virgin with Lotus Blossoms and Medallions, c. 1430
Egypt, Mamluk period, reign of Sultan Barsbay, AH 825-842, (A.D. 1422-1438), preserved in a church near Valencia, Spain

Silks from the Islamic world 1250 – 1900 are referenced in paintings and poetry. The uses were practical and ritualistic.  They were  currency, diplomatic gifts, political propaganda emblazoned with inscriptions, eventually canvases for portraits and textiles for clothing. Ironically, given their association with non-Christian religions, in the west silks were favored for wrapping Christian relics and making ecclesiastical robes.  

Silks were dyed, embroidered, painted. The history of silk is as rich as the coverings themselves.  Originally created in China and smuggled along hte Silk Roads, the Persian stole  the secrets of  sericulture – the cultivation of silkworms (Bombyx mori)for their secretions in the form of long filaments that can be easily dyed- and set up workshops in Persia. Relying on indigenous designs rather than  Chinese themes, silks of Persia and Soghdiana made the reverse journey to  Tang China and Japan.

They also advanced the weaving  lampas, velvet,  seraser, and ikat. By the 11th century, the Persian patterns were favorites of Europeans.  When the Mamluk dynasty of Egypt and Syria (1250-1517) defeated the Mongols, artisans fled south from Iran and Iraq, bringing with them their skill at silk weaving on large drawlooms to Cairo, the centre of Islamic culture of the era. By the 15th century, European and Chinese craftsmen produced silk more economically and the Mamluk silk weaving industry declined.

Islamic silks

Silk Hanging with Embroidered Tree of Life, 1850-1900
Turkey, Ottoman period
silk; plain weave, embroidery, Average – h:228.60 w:172.70 cm (h:90 w:67 15/16 inches). Gift of Mr. and Mrs. J. H. Wade 1916.1358

Meanwhile, almost eight centuries of Islamic rule in Spain ( 711-1492), had established thriving sericulture centers in Malaga, Seville and Cordoba. By the 12th century Almeira had become the center of  thee Spanish silk textile industry. Among the items on view in Cleveland is the museum’s Alhambra Palace silk curtain,woven in the imperial workshop tduring the Nasrid period. It is  one of the two largest and most elaborate curtains to have survived.

The silks of Spain are generally very elaborate depicting  mythological beasts. With the expulsion of Muslims and Jews from Granada in 1492, many craftsmen moved to Morocco and  Moroccan silk brocades became status furnishing fabrics for the Ottoman Empire.

In Safavid Iran tore people were engaged in silk-weaving than in any other trade.  The designs tend to be informed by  Persian book illustrations depicting the pleasures of court life.  Safavid Iran’s most important export market was Mughal India, where international merchants sourced them. There evolved  an ‘international style’ initiated by Italians whose painters were commissioned to by Islamic royals to create portraits on the silk.

Luxuriance: Silks from Islamic Lands 1250-1900 runs until 27 April  at the Cleveland Museum of Art, Ohio, It previews a forthcoming book, Luxury Textiles, 7th-20th Century by Louise Mackie.

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Category: Asian art collections

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