Details & Cataloguing

Rugs and Carpets


A 'Transylvanian' rug, West Anatolia
approximately 152 by 127cm; 5ft., 4ft. 2in.
third quarter 17th century
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Christie's, London, 13 April 2000, lot 82 

Catalogue Note

This present example, at first glance, is in many respects typical of the 'double niche Transylvanians', however there are notable differences. The first, most recognisable, is the vividness within the colours. Red, white, yellow and blue are all quite common however there is a deepness and intensity here which comes across as more refined and clear than would normally be expected. In addition the cochineal horizontal panel at the top of the field is a very rare inclusion in a ‘double niche’; this would be more typically associated with a single niche rug. There appear to be only two other ‘double niche’ exhibiting this feature, one published in Ionescu (2005), p. 122, cat. 95 the other Herrmann (1989), pp. 20 & 21, no. 6. The final unusual quality within this rug is the diagonally inverted ground colour to the border design, red to the top and right sides and yellow to the left and bottom.

Transylvanian Rugs

It perhaps should be seen as an oddity that this group of rugs, which are now agreed to have come from the weaving centre of Oushak in Western Turkey, should be given the apparent misnomer of ‘Transylvanian’. However the name has been affectionately coined because of the number of these weavings which still remain in Lutheran and Saxon Evangelical churches in modern day Romania; the largest collection is in situ in the Black Church in Brașov. However, perhaps it should not come as such a surprise that such rich collections are still to be found there.

From the mid-16th, to late 17th century, Transylvania was an autonomous principality of the Ottoman Empire and the rugs themselves had enormous significance both within local government and as symbols of wealth and stature; used as diplomatic gifts and important symbols within social rituals, families would even prefer to pay their taxes in cash, than to have their rug taken away.  Following trade privileges being granted by Mehmet II (1432 – 1481), in 1453, Turkish rugs were used as valuable commodities by Ottoman merchants travelling the Silk Road and were exchanged in Transylvania for expensive spices and coffee.

Within the group there are four agreed main design types, two of which are offered here. The ‘single niche’, or prayer rug, lot 66, and the ‘double niche’ - lots 32, 33, 36 & 58. Theories are inconclusive as to why the ‘double niche’ rugs came into being, but it is widely agreed that they are later in dating to the single niche and the development of the design is most likely attributable to religious beliefs or the export market. There is speculation that they were created following the edict by Sultan Ahmed I (1590 – 1617) prohibiting the representation of the mihrab, or niche, for items which were intended for non-Muslim countries, therefore the single niche was mirrored to create the double niche design. It would seem that their appearance and growth in popularity in Europe from the mid-17th century would support this, see Boralevi. A & Ionescu. S, Antique Ottoman Rugs in Transylvania, Rome, 2005, p. 60. However, there is still some discussion as to exactly when the ‘double niche’ design was born, see 'A lesson in Looking', Frances. M., Hali, Reviews, Exhibitions, Issue 175, Spring 2013, p. 118 & 119 for further discussion on the matter. Notably in this article the work under consideration bears a number of qualities very similar to lot 32 suggesting it is likely that they are of similar date; possibly even from the same workshop. Irrespective of the origin of the ‘double niche’ design, what is agreed is that the rugs were powerful trade commodities coveted by the Western world; perhaps the design simply evolved with changing tastes. Owing to a number of the ‘Transylvanian’ group being reproduced in paintings, and recorded in 17th century inventories, we are also able to give some distinctive dating, for example Cornelius de Vos, Portrait of Abraham Grapheus, circa 1620, Royal Museum of Fine Arts, Antwerp, depicts a star and cartouche border double niche ‘Transylvanian’ similar to lot 32.

The ‘Transalvanian’ group is one that has always fascinated; they are highly sought after in the collecting community and examples are now in the permanent collections of highly prestigious museums. These include the Brukenthal National Museum, Sibiu, the Museum of Applied Arts, Budapest, the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, The Philadelphia Museum of Art and the Victoria & Albert Museum, London - amongst others. The seminal work written by Alberto Boralevi and Stefano Ionescu, Antique Ottoman Rugs in Transylvania, is one of the foremost insights into this extraordinary phenomenon. For further information on this topic we recommend interested parties review this publication for a more comprehensive discussion. Sotheby’s is grateful to Stefano Ionescu for his assistance in the cataloguing of lots 32, 33, 36, 58 & 66.

Ionescu (2005): Ionescu, Stefano, Antique Ottoman Rugs in Transylvania, Rome, 2005, p. 122, cat. 95

Herrmann (1989): Herrmann, Eberhart, Asiatische Teppich und Textilkunst Band 1, Munich, 1989, pp. 20 & 21, no. 6

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