Whether you read “The Da Vinci Code” or not, you probably know that many master artworks contain hidden symbols or meanings. For example, some art critics say Michelangelo mimicked brain anatomy in portions of his Sistine Chapel ceiling frescoes, most notably the drapes surrounding God in “The Creation of Adam.”
Painters aren’t the only artists who conceal hidden meanings in their art. Antique rugs also contain rich symbolism inside their colours, patterns, and symbols. If you own an antique Persian rug, you may want to know what the rug’s weaver intended the rug to symbolize. Read through this overview of rug meanings for hints at what your rug is saying.
Cultures today associate certain colours with emotions, social classes, or people. Ancient cultures had the same practice, but their colour associations vary from our modern interpretations.
For example, green represented the Prophet Mohammed along with hope, paradise, and spiritual renewal. Because people associated green with an important figure in their worship, they used little or no green in their rugs. When they did include green, they put it in areas where foot traffic would be minimal to show respect for Mohammed.
Yellow and gold hues in Persian rugs represented the sun, life, power, and wealth. Dyes for these colours may have been harder to create, so weavers often reserved it for royal rugs. Some weavers even integrated strands of precious metals, such as gold and silver, into rugs. This gave the rugs a dazzling look and added value, so invaders often stole these rugs as spoils of war.
The richest reds in ancient Persian rugs got their colour from madder root. “Madder” are red flowering plants from the genus Rubia, as in ruby red. Since this dye was highly desired, it became associated with wealth, beauty, courage, and luck.
Here are a few other significant colours you may find in your Persian rug:
- Blue: power or solitude
- Brown: fertility
- Orange: humility, piety, and worship
- White: cleanliness and purity
- Black: destruction and mourning (rarely used as the main colour; it’s more common in outlines)
Most Persian rugs contain all-over patterns. The pattern dominates the main rug area, and a border and fringe surround it at the edges. The two most common Persian rug patterns are the Herati pattern and the Boteh pattern.
The Herati pattern originated in Herat, a city in what is now northwestern Afghanistan. The overall motif has a diamond shape. At the center of the repeating motif, you see a flower surrounded by four curling leaves, which often look like fish. Because of this resemblance, the Herati pattern may be a loose representation of fish that approach the water’s surface during a full moon.
The Boteh pattern has obscure and difficult to verify origins, but scholars have a few ideas about its meaning. One scholar believes it began as an ear of wheat that represented immortality. The repeated element in a Boteh pattern usually resembles a plant, such as a pear, a leaf, or a bush. This element repeats in lines, and it often alternates orientation from row to row.
It’s common for beginning or amateur rug enthusiasts to struggle to identify rug patterns. Consult a rug expert if you want to understand the intricacies of your rug’s pattern and its meanings.
Plants, animals, weapons, and everyday items may have particular significance in an antique rug. Some rug historians believe that these items primarily represent the literal item itself. Other scholars say that these symbols had rich significance in the earliest rugs, but those meanings may have diminished over time.
In any case, some shapes and figures appear more frequently in antique rugs. Here’s a sample of Persian rug symbols and their potential meanings:
- A flying eagle: good fortune
- A peacock: protection from a divine source or immortality
- Swords or blades: strength, virility, or power
- Entwined birds or feathers: happiness in marriage
- A camel: wealth, prosperity, or happiness
- Cypress trees: life after death
- The tree of life: truth, wisdom, or understanding
- Pomegranate: fertility
- Lotus: rebirth or immortality
Medallions are one of the most common symbols in Persian rugs. They usually sit at the center of the rug, and the center of the medallion represents the eye of an all-knowing god. Some medallions also have triangular amulets at their centers. These amulets represent the power to defeat or hinder evil eyes. Medallions also indicate that weavers lived religious lives since the central medallion mimics the central dome of a mosque.
Some rugs avoid depicting humans or animals, a choice that has religious significance. Sunnite Muslims believe the Koran forbids them from representing living creatures in art. Consequently, rugs that have human or animal symbols likely didn’t originate from a Sunni weaver. In contrast, Shiite Muslims often used humans or animals in their rugs, even those used for religious worship.
Now that you’ve finished a beginner’s course in Persian rug symbolism, examine your Persian rugs for these meaningful colours, patterns, and symbols. And remember – have your Persian rug cleaned regularly by a professional to ensure that its ancient meanings show through for generations.