A rare silk robe. Central Asia, 11th-12th century. Photo: Christie's Images Ltd 2010 .
Slightly waisted, with fur collar and cuffs, the decoration with repeated confronted hawks over a lattice formed by thin stems and composite palmettes, the repeated design a continuous stem punctuated by large tapering palmettes below which the stem separates in two tendrils, each tendril splitting further into two stems issuing a smaller composite palmette below and a revolving split leaf above, the large confronted birds mirrored around the vertical stems, the ground with a lattice of small feather-like scales, the smaller palmettes and the birds's heads subtly coloured in yellow, blue and orange, the composition inverted on the reverse, very good condition overall; 47 x 69in. (120 x 175cm.) - Estimate £400,000 - £600,000
Provenance: Private Hong Kong Collection, since 1993
Notes: This magnificent silk robe is a remarkably well-preserved survival from an early period of Islamic textile production. By the time of the birth of the Prophet Muhammad, the wearing of silk was seen as a desirable luxury, suitable as a reward in the next world for those who live a righteous life in the present (Jon Thompson, Silk. 13th to 18th centuries. Treasures from the Museum of Islamic Art, Qatar, Doha, 2004, p. 10). As mentioned in the Qur'an XXII, sura al-hajj, v. 23, Allah will cause those who believe and do good works to enter Gardens underneath which rivers flow, wherein they will be allowed armlets of gold, and pearls, and their raiment therein will be silk. Whilst oral tradition condemns the wearing of pure silk by men, although not by women, it has frequently been ignored and the conscientious believer could still wear silk whilst avoiding the prohibition by using one of the various types of silken cloth that were not pure silk but a mixture of silk and cotton.
The strength of the colours of this robe is particularly remarkable. The dark brown colour used in the background lattice and for the outline of the design, when combined with the silky sheen of the fabric gives the robe a luxuriant metallic lustre. This gives the fish-scale lattice the impression of being like chain mail, suggesting the splendours of court. The colourful highlights are extremely well preserved and subtly draw the eye to the heads of the birds and the palmettes, the focus of the pattern.
The motif of confronted birds is one frequently encountered throughout the Islamic world in a variety of media. It is the combination of the confronted birds with the dense concentrically arranged lattice - be it of fish-scale motif or more angular lozenges - that is more unusual. A similar combination is found on a robe that was recently with Simon Ray (Simon Ray, November 2009, pp. 134-137, no. 39). Although the confronted birds on that example were contained within 8-pointed stars, the combination of motifs and the general aesthetic, is very similar. The scrolls that surround the birds in both robes are also very close. The Simon Ray robe was attributed to Central Asia, 11/12th century and like ours had a carbon date test confirming that proposed date. The combination is also found on two fragments published in Pope (Arthur Upham Pope (ed.), A Survey of Persian Art, Vol. XI, no. 992 C and D). The birds are again similarly drawn, although those of the present example are more finely executed. Another textile fragment with similar motifs, this time with the birds contained within roundels is in the Abegg-Stiftung Riggisberg and is attributed to Byzantium or the Eastern Mediterranean, 11th century (Karel Otavsky and Muhammad Abbas Muhammad Salim, Mittelaterliche Textilien I, Switzerland, 1995, pp.137-38, no. 81). Of all of the comparables, ours is unusual in that it is the only example where the birds are not contained within cartouches.
On the basis of the carbon date test and the comparables above, the proposed date of the robe is substantiated. However, because of the nomadic nature of the owners of these robes and the diverse ethnic spectrum from which the craftsmen who created the weaves came, it is difficult to pinpoint a precise place of origin. Robes such as ours were worn over many layers as defence against the cold, but as they were the sumptuous clothes and textiles of the nomadic tribesmen of Central Asia, they also represented their great wealth and they thus travelled far and wide with their owners. Various cross-cultural features are found in the robe. The lotus flower palmette, of which a complex and simplified example alternate with each bird, is a Sassanian motif in origin. The structure of the robe is typically Mongol in that both front and back of the body are made from single length of fabric, which is why the design on the back of the robe is upside down. This is described as an originally Mongol feature which derives from the wearing of animal pellets, cut with only a hole at the head. An unusual feature of the birds of the present robe is the sickle-shaped masks that surround each of their eyes, possibly identifying the species as falcons. A hood in the Inner Mongolia Museum and attributed to the early 13th century, also features birds with similar sickle-shape outlines to the eye. That was excavated from Mingshui, Damaoqi in Inner Mongolia (Feng Zhao, Treasures in Silk. An Illustrated History of Chinese Textiles, Hong Kong, 1999, pp. 194-95, no. 06.05).
Such textiles were items of immense value, and accessible only to the very wealthy. They thus made desirable gifts. In the Islamic world the giving of costly robes by the ruler was an instrument for the maintenance of social order, since in these communities the type of cloth a person wore signalled their rank and status (Jon Thompson, op. cit., p. 16). Textiles such as the present would have been scarce even at the time at of production, and its survival makes it a remarkable and important discovery.
A very fine Mongol cloth of gold silk robe. Central Asia, 13th-14th century. Photo: Christie's Images Ltd 2010 .
Waisted and flaring at bottom, with transverse panel covering the front, with long decorative sleeves and two slits below the shoulders to pass the arms through, the collar, cuffs and facing bordered with three varieties of gold thread embroidered fabric, each with a different motif of rosettes or palmettes, the cream ground with an intricate foliage in gold composed of fleshy curling palmettes of various sizes and shapes around stepped rows of large gold almond-shaped medallions bordered with a band of fleshy curling leaves, each with a crouching deer, its head turned backward with stylized horns or breath above the head, the lining of yellow silk, a possible contemporary restoration with a band or rich textile with similar floral motifs along the inner lapel, areas of wear, staining along folds. 56 x 84in. (142.5 x 213cm.) - Estimate £300,000 - £400,000
Provenance: Private Hong Kong Collection, since 1993
Notes: As well as for its obvious aesthetic appeal, the Mongol love for 'cloth of gold' (nasij), or cloth in which gold thread covers most of the surface, stems from the realities of nomadic society in which possessions had to be portable. For this reason it had long been the custom for nomads to wear their wealth. Jon Thompson writes that as far back as Scythian times, the steppe nomads wore gold ornaments sewn on to their outer garments and that later it was discovered that weaving golden thread into the actual cloth produced a similar effect (Jon Thompson, Silk. 13th to 18th centuries. Treasures from the Museum of Islamic Art, Qatar, Doha, 2004, pp.72-73, no. 18). In the Mongol period silk textiles possessed a value equivalent to currency and could serve for the payment of taxes, war indemnity or tribute (Linda Komaroff and Stefano Carboni, The Legacy of Genghis Khan. Courtly Art and Culture in Western Asia, 1256-1353, New York, 2003, p. 171).
When the Mongols began using captured workers to make 'cloth of gold' for themselves, a new period of textile history ensued. Before the Mongol invasion different weaving centres could, to a degree, be recognised by the specific characteristics of their products - be these technical or decorative. In their quest for a supply of 'cloth of gold' however, the Mongols captured skilled weavers from the territories that they conquered and put them to work under their control. Craftsmen from different backgrounds thus worked side by side and what resulted was a movement and fusion of motifs and techniques, particularly between the traditions of China and those of Iran and Central Asia (Jon Thompson, op. cit., p. 12).
In the present robe we see what originated as a Chinese technique - the use of gold coated paper in embroidery. Chinese examples of this technique, from the Jin dynsasty (1115-1234 AD), have recently been excavated in Central Asia. Other examples of the Chinese use of this technique are found in the Abegg-Stiftung collection (http://www.abegg-stiftung.ch/e/museum/sonderaus/maerz2006/bilder.html# Anker).
Decorative elements were also shared and transmitted under the Mongols. A deer looking over its shoulder contained within a drop-shaped cartouche, similar to that of the present robe, is found on a textile which was originally the shell material for a robe in the Mongolian style, and which was excavated from Mingshui, Damaoqi, Inner Mongolia (Feng Zhao, Treasures in Silk, Hong Kong, 1999, pp.172-73, no. 05.08). Incidentally, it has also been suggested that the reclining animal is in fact a goat rather than a deer, and that this is a motif associated with the beginning of spring. The scrolling vine with attenuated curling terminals that surround the drop-shaped medallions are similar to those found on a group of six tent panels in the Museum of Islamic Art, Doha (Jon Thompson, op. cit., pp.76-77, no. 19). That is attributed to late 13th century Central Asia. The drop-shaped cartouches with wave-like cusping are seen on a panel in the Kunstgewerbemuseum in Berlin (K6118, published Komaroff and Carboni (eds.), op. cit., p.172, fig. 199).
The structure of this robe is typically Mongol. Designed to be worn over trousers, it has a full skirt (for riding), a broad wrap-over front, and extremely long decorative sleeves. These sleeves would normally be worn drawn back, and the arms extended through slits cut at the base of each, and would only be extended over the hands in cold weather. The wrap-over front is normally designed with the left side drawn over the right, although ours ties the other way. Contemporary manuscript illumination shows figures dressed in similar robes. A miniature in the Archaeology Museum Library in Istanbul depicts an 'Enthroned Patron in royal Guise' from the Marzubannama (Book of the Margrave), attributed to Baghdad, 1299 AD. Here a ruler sits cross-legged upon a large throne, his robe tying as ours and with a similar cartouche based pattern (Komaroff and Carboni (eds.), op. cit., p.172, fig. 200).
Many artists and a large number of works of art passed between East and West Asia under the fluid conditions of the Pax Mongolica transmitting, as they went, new artistic techniques and designs. Because of their aesthetic appeal, costliness and ease of transportability, textiles played a particularly dominant role in the creation of a new aesthetic in Iran and the present robe is a rare and important surviving document of that movement.
Christies. Art of the Islamic and Indian Worlds, 5 October 2010, London, King Street www.christies.com