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Fashioning an Empire: Safavid Textiles from the Museum of Islamic Art, Doha - National Museum of Asian Art

Fashioning an Empire: Safavid Textiles from the Museum of Islamic Art, Doha

Side-by-side images: on the left, a colorful embroidered floral textile; on the right, a painted portrait of a man with a large mustache in a turban and a floral garment that echoes the pattern of the textile on the left.
  • Dates

    December 18, 2021–May 15, 2022

  • Location

    Arthur M. Sackler Gallery | Galleries 23 and 24

  • Collection Area

    Arts of the Islamic World

With their sumptuous surfaces, original designs, and technical sophistication, luxury textiles played a critical role in the social, cultural, religious, and economic life of Safavid Iran (1501–1722). Used for clothing, furnishing, and movable architecture, fabrics also functioned as important symbols of power and as ubiquitous forms of artistic expression. In the seventeenth century, they became the most lucrative economic commodity in Iran and were exported by land and sea to both Europe and the East, generating tremendous wealth and prosperity for the Safavid Empire.

To celebrate the Qatar-USA 2021 Year of Culture, the Smithsonian’s National Museum of Asian Art is collaborating with the Museum of Islamic Art in Doha, part of Qatar Museums, on an exhibition focusing on a selection of extraordinary seventeenth-century textiles and full-length portraits from Safavid Iran. Fine illustrated manuscript folios from our collections are also included in the exhibition.

This exhibition has received generous financial support from the Museum of Islamic Art, Doha and Qatar Museums in celebration of the Qatar-USA 2021 Year of Culture.

  • Logo in the shape of a blue cube with
  • A logo of four overlapping colorful shapes, with text that reads

Exhibition Highlights

Gentleman with a Cane

Whether representing a European envoy or a Georgian or an Armenian merchant, this Safavid oil portrait is remarkable for the sensitively rendered figure and the artful blend of Safavid and European aesthetics. Leaning on a walking stick and accompanied by a small white dog, a popular import, the man stands in an empty room with a window opening to a bucolic, receding landscape. From head to toe, he is dressed in the latest Safavid fashion. His fur-trimmed coat recalls the palette and design of the silk fragment on the adjacent wall, and his turban is of the popular checkered cloth seen on figures in other artworks on view. The man’s identity may not be known, but he is clearly comfortable in both the Safavid and European worlds.

Portrait of a Gentleman
Iran, Isfahan, Safavid period, ca. 1650–1675
Oil on canvas
Museum of Islamic Art, Doha

A painted portrait of a man with a large mustache and a cane, wearing a turban and an opulent floral coat. He stands in a room with a draped green curtain and an open window behind him, and is accompanied by a small dog.

Flowers on Gold

This remarkably well-preserved fragment integrates Safavid taste for abstraction and Mughal interest in naturalism. Recognizable flowers, such as irises and carnations, are combined with more stylized types against a sumptuous gold ground. To achieve the luminous effect, gold foil was used in the weft (horizontal threads) of the fabric. The cloth’s stiffness meant that it was used for garments, especially coats and robes of honor. The Safavid capital of Isfahan was particularly known for such gold-brocaded silks (zarbaft)—the costliest and most fragile type of silk fabric.

Iran, Safavid period, 1700–1722
Silk brocade with metal-wrapped threads
Museum of Islamic Art, Doha

Embroidered textile with a colorful floral pattern against a gold background.

Tents in the Wild

Bustling with activity, the rocky landscape in this sixteenth-century painting is studded with four tents. The two pitched in the foreground are particularly noteworthy for their brilliant hues and animated designs. A dragon menacingly eyes a phoenix as it slinks about the domed roof of one tent, while the interior fabric of the adjacent tent is covered with nervously hovering angels. The agitated figures seem almost alive, as if they are about to lift off the fabrics, but similar, more stylized designs often embellished Safavid fabrics and carpets, lending them a distinct vibrancy.

Qays (Majnun) first glimpses Layli
From a copy of the Haft awrang (Seven Thrones) by Jami (d. 1492)
Iran, Safavid period, 1556–62
Opaque watercolor, ink, and gold on paper
Purchase–Charles Lang Freer Endowment
Freer Gallery of Art

A painted manuscript folio of a busy scene full of various figures in a mountainous landscape with trees, with three tents visible in the scene.

Isfahan Dandies

One youth has casually tied his jacket over his shoulder. The garment appears to have been cut from gold-brocaded silk, similar to the examples on view. Embellished with different floral designs, the coats are trimmed in fur imported from Russia, further enhancing their sumptuousness. According to eyewitness accounts, only the wealthiest Safavids could afford such luxury.

Portrait of a Youth
Iran, Isfahan, Safavid period, ca. 1630–40
Opaque watercolor and gold on paper
Purchase—Smithsonian Unrestricted Trust Funds, Smithsonian Collections Acquisition Program, and Dr. Arthur M. Sackler
Arthur M. Sackler Gallery

A portrait of a standing young man wearing fine red and gold garments, surrounded by the painted floral borders of a manuscript folio.

A Sign of Honor

In this masterfully composed painting, an elaborate encampment stands on the shores of a rushing river. The tented city is the chosen site for a reception to bestow a robe of honor to the Afghan Da’vud Khan for accepting Mughal sovereignty. Standing in the center of an enclosure, Da’vud Khan puts on a sumptuous gold coat as a sign of allegiance to his host, Mu’min Khan. The quality and fabric of a robe of honor were relative to the status of the recipient and the importance of his relationship to the donor.

Da’ud Khan Receives a Robe of Honor from Mun’im Khan
From a copy of the Akbarnama (Book of Akbar) by Abu’l-Fazl (d. 1602)
Attributed to Hiranand
India, Mughal period, ca. 1596–1600
Opaque watercolor and gold on paper
Purchase–Charles Lang Freer Endowment
Freer Gallery of Art

A painted scene in a manuscript, depicting a dense encampment of tents along a riverbank, with grouping of figures in the foreground of the scene.

For Europe

By the seventeenth century, Persian carpets were among the most desirable luxury commodities in Europe, especially in Portugal. To compete successfully with Ottoman exports, the Safavids standardized their designs by combining palmettes with scrolling vines, curling lancet leaves, and stylized cloud bands derived from Chinese art. The main ground was usually red, surrounded by either blue or green borders. The popularity in Europe of such Safavid carpets meant that Mughal India also produced identical examples, complicating the process of identifying their origin.

Iran, Safavid period, 17th century
Wool and cotton
Gift from the Trustees of the Corcoran Gallery (William A. Clark Collection)
Arthur M. Sackler Gallery

A red carpet with a dark border and intricate floral patterning.

Female Power

Although idealized, this richly dressed woman must represent one of the wealthy Armenian families in the capital Isfahan. She wears a fine silver-ground brocaded robe with a sleeveless velvet coat, probably Italian in origin, and holds an elaborate Venetian wineglass. Her imaginary setting is equally grand, with Italian marble floors, an ornate column, and an extravagant vase, confirming Armenian familiarity with Western settings and accouterments. Recently, an almost identical version of this painting was identified in the Royal Collection, Great Britain (see photograph), suggesting that some of the Safavid oil portraits were done in multiples.

Portrait of an Armenian lady
Iran, Isfahan, Safavid period, ca. 1650–75
Oil on canvas
Museum of Islamic Art, Doha

A painted portrait of a standing women who wears a fine silver-ground brocaded robe with a sleeveless velvet coat and holds an elaborate Venetian wineglass. She stands in a grand room with marble floors, an ornate column, and an extravagant vase, with a window looking out onto a landscape in the background.

Meet Me in the Garden

To produce brocaded velvets, weavers used a complex and time-consuming technique and created a variety of intricate patterns that were both repeated and staggered. The designs were also mirrored and reversed, generating variation on set compositions.

A stylized, elegantly dressed couple in a garden setting dominates the design of this velvet from the same fabric. The style of the figures’ costume and headgear suggests the date from the third quarter velvets of the sixteenth century. Similar couples also appear in contemporaneous Safavid manuscript paintings, but in fabric, the composition offers a different array of surfaces: the couple and surrounding vegetation are in cut velvet, with uncut loops of silver thread for additional texture. Originally, the entire background was covered with thin strips of metal, which created a shimmering ground for the richly colored velvet. Such luxurious fabrics were also used as gifts for special envoys and dignitaries.

Iran, Qazvin, Safavid period, ca. 1575–1600
Silk brocade velvet with figures
Museum of Islamic Art, Doha
TE.9.1998.1 and TE.9.1998.2

A textile with four embroidered figures surrounded by flowering plants.

Transmitting Blessings

With the establishment of the Safavid dynasty in 1501, Shi’ism became Iran’s official religion. Reverence for the Prophet Muhammad’s descendants as his legitimate heirs was reinforced in all media, including textiles. The large green cartouches of this cover as well as the narrower bands in black repeat invocations in Persian to the Prophet’s grandson, Imam Husayn, and his martyrdom at Karbala in 680 CE. Both the darker and the red bands are inscribed with the first verse of the forty-eighth chapter of the Qu’ran, al-Fath (The Victory). Intended to affirm Shi’i affiliations, such textiles were used in Iran and were also sent abroad to important Shi’i shrines.

Textile with inscriptions
Iran, Safavid period, ca. 1700
Silk and metal threads
Museum of Islamic Art, Doha

A dark textile, viewed at an angle, with lighter Arabic text offset, and a purple border also with white inscriptions.
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