Religion in eastern rugs

Of the religious beliefs which have most effectually influenced pattern, those that led to nature-worship were necessarily the earliest, the sources of life being most profoundly reverenced. These early beliefs left legacies to the weavers among the ancients, and Art owes to them a debt she cannot often enough acknowledge.

In approaching this most absorbingly interesting subject, we can touch only lightly upon it, gleaning such information as will materially assist us in a general comprehension of the thought-life of the people of the Orient, that we may understand their allusions and symbols.

During the development of the chaotic conditions in which were the elements of later religions, the observations and reflections of man were more or less independent and largely indicative of reverence for one supreme God. When teachers arose, on through the centuries, who purported to be the embodiment of Deity or His special prophets or messengers, their names were given to their systems of worship, and they have figured in history as founders of the great religions.

Those beliefs which have most effectually influenced pattern are indicated in the six-pointed star in the rug chart, and through these we may trace back to the mythological naturalism which gave them birth.

Buddhism began its eastern journeying from the plains of India over two thousand years ago, and to day its vitality and strength are shown in art objects which in China and Japan, Tibet and Burma, are as true to type as they ever were. Much of the ornament that has been claimed as belonging to other religions is used by Buddhists to-day as it has been through the centuries ; and, leaving to ethnologists the question of origin of symbols, it is quite possible in many cases to discover and verify the absolute.

We find that Buddhism indulges in an over-abundance of ornament, which may be the result of the dignity given to all life—in plant and animal as well as in human form—as the possible residence of the soul in transmigration. No smallest detail is omitted in depicting things of the earth, which in their materiality furnish symbols and suggest eternal truths.

In our modern homes to-day we find, far distant from the land of its birth, design that is absolutely Buddhistic and which definitely suggests one or another of the acknowledged motifs of Chinese Buddhist ornament, among which the eight emblems :—the wheel of the law, the lotus, the knot of destiny, the twin-fish, the canopy, the urn, the umbrella, and the basket of flowers, with the trisula and swastika, most frequently occur.

We must bear in mind that the question that most concerns us now is not how best we can study Buddhism or any other of the religions that have most definitely influenced the history of art, but how we may learn to detect the earmarks of each in the handling of objects to-day. Exhaustive analytical work can be accomplished only by the profound student, but there is much that is definite enough to be taught in a mere primer of ornament, and there are a few forms that should be attributed to Buddhism more often than they are.

Among these the lotus medallion which appears in old Persian rugs is of paramount importance. We find it in the rugs of Kirman and Ispahan, whither it has drifted from the far East, differing from the “pomegranate medallion,” which is largely phallic in its suggestion, and from the ordinary rosettes based on the “Assyrian daisy” and the ” Star of Bethlehem” which appear in outline in old Persian and Turkish ornament.

Mongolian Buddhism favoured the use of this lotus medallion, and in many old fabrics we find that the eight attitudes of Buddha have been converted into something more readily understood by the weavers, who, when originally studying the petals in each of which Buddha is represented, imagined each figure to belong to the flower form at its base, and so portrayed it.

Buddhist art in Thibet has given to the products of the northeastern looms of Asia the “square cross” and the ” dordje” so often found in Turcoman rugs with many other features which we shall group when studying later the fabrics of well-known localities. Buddhism in its purity cannot be studied in India to-day, but the lasting influence of its teaching is felt in much that is claimed to be strictly Mohammedan, and, joining forces with that second great art power in the Orient, ornament became so mongrel a thing in India that it is difficult to separate it into its component parts or to make definite claims for it.

Recognizing, then, in some modern pattern, no matter who wove the fabric, an indication of Buddhist thought, we may reach back through it to pre-Buddhist times, and to the early and natural religions of all eastern Asia.

In both China and Japan the national religion still makes use of art objects that may be distinguished from those that have been borrowed from other religions, and, while it is not too late, such should be grouped in museums to assist students in their efforts to demonstrate truth.

Buddhism, wherever it has travelled, has baptised native gods with Buddhist names, and has accounted for them as former or later incarnations of Buddha, or of Buddhist saints. Now that commercialism is inspiring native workers to make use of new patterns, they are everywhere combining new with old material, and great confusion naturally ensues.

The art of Japan floats like a flower on the sea of Chinese thought, and Buddhism, with its wealth of ornament, finds its most poetic expression in that country in contrast to the early religion (Shintoism, or the worship of spirits), whose emblems are of the simplest nature. They are, however, perpetuated, and may always be distinguished from things Buddhist when the principles of Shintoism are comprehended.

Much of the art of Japan and China is based on idol and demon worship. The elements are personified by gods who are supposed to preside over them ; such, with their attributes and emblems, adding immensely to the wealth of Mongolian ornament. We find, for example, that the thunder-god of Japan is portrayed as possessing numberless drums ornamented with the sign known as the tomoye, which owes its origin to some long-ago conception of elemental forces, but which has been adopted by Corea and Japan as a national and heraldic crest.

As such we meet it in our analytical study, and through it we find our way into the consideration of the many discussions about it. Without doubt, among other things it refers to elemental conditions and, like the tae-kielz of China, it is universally respected by scholars and philosophers to whose erudition we owe our still limited knowledge of the religions of the past. Use is made in China and Japan of flower and plant emblems to represent things desirable in human life,—longevity, wealth, happiness, etc. ; and the bamboo, peach, and pomegranate vie with each other for supremacy in the furnishing of art motifs.

Granting a priority of about a thousand years to Buddhism and Buddhist art, we must acknowledge that Mohammedanism, with its determination to travel with the message of the Prophet wherever the human foot had already trod, made in a short time a record for itself that rivalled all others in the establishing of a characteristic school of ornament, though inspiration was drawn from every obtainable source, and all that had prevailed before it was made subject to it.

So rapid, complete, and lasting has been the march of this conquering power, that great confusion exists in the minds of those who have not considered the original sources of ornament adopted. by Moham- medanism. There remains a great work to do, and volumes might be written full of explanations and considerations that would materially help such study.

Our claim for Oriental rugs is that they are silent witnesses which are patiently awaiting our recognition, and which we shall be able to interpret when we have thoroughly learned the language of art. Half-knowledge bids fair to defeat all honest effort to arrive at absolute truth ; and to escape from the dangers which beset our path, we must prepare our minds to be responsive to that which speaks to us in the ornament we are studying, rather than seek responses to our own thought and preconceived opinions.

Mohammedanism, the religion of the Arab, shares with Christianity a Hebrew ancestry, and all the great accumulation of Talmudic and Cabalistic imagery has served Islam as a foundation for a fanciful and far-reaching system of ornament which has freely adopted the talismanic ” shield of David ” and the ” signet of Solomon,” with other equally significant features all its own. These have been transplanted East and West, where, irrespective of their origin, they have been given names under which they have appeared in art, so that it is necessary to look back to pre-Mohammedan days for the national religions.

Thus fabric made in Persia may be strictly speaking ” Persian ” and yet be wholly Arabic or ” Mohammedan,” while among nomadic tribes in Persia we may find single elements which suggest ancient beliefs. Within the past half-century, exploration and scientific investigation and study have proved beyond all speculation that certain of the little-understood geometric forms had special reference to past conceptions of natural phenomena, and, as the migration of symbols is successfully traced, the borrowed arts may be compared with those of independent origin.

The arts and sciences are interdependent. For example the student of languages, who traces back through all cursive forms, like the modern Persian or Arabic, to the rectangular period before curves were adopted, may illustrate with designs in woven fabrics the truth he is endeavouring to establish. Such a discovery, though without intent, throws light on the subject of ornament, and is often more convincing than that chosen to illustrate a pet conception of the student of art„

The textile art owes more to Mohammedanism than to any other religion ; and eastward far into Mongolia, and across the northern coast of Africa to Spain in the west, its progress has described its emblem, the Crescent, and its arabesques have mingled Saracenic with native art motifs everywhere. This statement cannot be too forcibly impressed upon the student, who finds it easy to recognize marks of the living religion, and is in danger of overlooking much that the grasping power of Islam has wrested from native folk-lore and primitive thought.

Another aspect of the situation forces upon us the recognition of an independent style which developed in the conquered countries to which the Mohammedans carried new ideas. This is often called “Mongrel ” but is so definite that periods may almost always be assigned to it, and results are easily traced to it.

For example, the Arabs carrying the knowledge of mathematics into Persia, the land of dreams and mysticism, awakened smouldering fires upon long neglected altars, for from ” Ur of the Chaldees” Abram had wandered westward centuries before, carrying with him in incipient condition much that in a highly developed state returned with the Mohammedan to the land between the great rivers Tigris and Euphrates.

The speculative tendency in the -thought-life of the Persians immediately seized upon these mathematical suggestions, and their interpretation brought about a renaissance of their own past, so that the purely Persian held its own even in its assimilation of foreign elements, and through that medieval period in the history of Iranian art we find our way back to Zoroastrianism and Magdaism.

Christianity has influenced the ornament of Asia less than any other religion, and still some reference to it should be made in the study of ornament in textiles, for a very definite use of Christian symbols has been developed by the Nestorian and Greek Churches-; and northward and eastward along the Black Sea; and westward into Europe, we may trace the wanderings of Semitic tribes who have adopted Christian symbols and introduced them with their own tribal patterns into their woven fabrics.

All along the western shores of the Black Sea the textile art shows great similarity in the ornament it has adopted, and in famous Greek monasteries the indiscriminate use of patterns has caused the widespread distribution of mixed designs, which in Bulgaria, Roumania, and along the Danube, have been adopted and conveyed to places far inland, where the same motifs may be found as those used in Scutari and in Turkish possessions along the southern shores of the Black Sea.

This transcontinental migration carried into Poland and northern Europe many ideas which were fostered and developed by patrons there of the textile art, who transferred looms, weavers, and patterns overland from the Orient. Costly fabrics were woven, and certain motifs were so often used that Norse and Polish names have been often erroneously given to patterns that had their birth in Anatolia the ” land of the sunrise,” between the Black and Caspian seas.

The methods of prayer which have been developed in these various religions, have definitely marked design. From the fire-altar of the Zoroastrians to the tallest minaret of the Moslems ; from the prayer-wheels of Tibet to the gohei of Japan ; from the prostrations of Hindu idol-worshippers to the calm lotus-seated Buddhist saint, from the clappers in Chinese temples to the bells of Christianity, ornament has developed under the fostering influence of human need and thought.

No more interesting study engages the attention of mortal man than that which shows how each age in turn finds its own way of calling for Divine power, prayer rugs, prayer-wheels, and rosaries each and all testifying to man’s desire to obtain the gifts of the gods.

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