Before Islam, rug weaving was one of the popular crafts of Iran and had very rich pictorial rugs. After Islam, in Iran, rug weaving, like most other arts and crafts, confirmed itself to the conditions and exposed the needs of that time in non-pictorial ways.
"Cutting the roots of idolatry", which was common in Arab tribes, was the reason of Islam for prohibition of making portraits. Without any exception, this prohibition was done in all areas, ruled by Muslims. So, country like Iran, which had rooted culture and skillful in making portraits, had to obey this regulation.
Iranian accepted Islam and accepted all conditions. Very soon, they adopted their cultural and artistic appearances to the conditions. Before passing a century, reflection against Arab oppression and central government were started. This opposition was presented in art and Persian language, till Safavid era.
From Safavid era on, who were Iranian, some work had done, which separated Iranian from Arab and other Muslim nations: Making Shiite customary, prepared fields of full independence in religion, opinion and politics.
This, vastly, affected on cultural appearance and made art, craft and culture of Iran to revitalize. Iranian's sight to Islam, rules, laws and principally to nature was more freely and acceptable, and this freedom was very effective in flourishing of pictorial arts and crafts from Safavis era on.
The specific species of it is portrait rugs that not only is existed in Iran, but it is the product of Iranian Shiite weavers. There is no specimen of rug weavers of other religions, otherwise some rugs woven by Armenian weavers.
By establishing of Safavid dynasty and spreading of new movements in art and idea, making pictures, which had been created for picturing poems and legends till that time and had been in the size of book, changed and covered walls and palaces and bazaars, baths, under the dooms and walls of shrines and on curtains of tragedians and in natural size and sometimes bigger than that. In many other fields, making pictures became one of interesting subjects for artists.
As, rug had daily usage in homes and maybe for worship in mosques, influence of making pictures on rugs was slower than other arts and crafts. In 16th and 17th centuries, the first signs of pictorial subjects, woven on some rugs, were seen. They were very small and only had motifs of flowers, paisley, birds, animals and sights of hunting or parties of kings and princes.
Afghan attack to Iran, coming of Nader Shah, continuous civil wars and also war with other countries, in the last years of Safavid era, stopped the development of artistic activities. This era was coincides with the first half of 12th century and all of the artistic products of Iran reached to its lowest point. But, it was not lasting long period and by coming of Zand dynasty, peace returned to Iran.
This time, Shiraz (Capital) became the center of art and artists. Making portrait reached to its highest point and pictorial subjects were drawn on every place and in all fields, such as on stone, tile and cement. Many painters created pictures of princes, dancers and musicians. It was not limited to palace any more, but it found its way to aristocrats houses.
Very soon, Zand dynasty gave its place to Qajar. Tehran became capital of Iran. At Fath-Ali Shah era, artistic activities increased more than any time and Royal galleries were established. In these galleries, making former subjects, as well as new subject "portrait" making were taken into consideration.
At this time, Iran and Europe relation were increased. This relation created many changes in all fields, such as rug weaving.
20th century must be known as reveal of portrait making in Iran. Since, in this century, there was considerable attention toward portrait and naturalism; portrait making was attracted by artists and craftsmen, as public movement.
Print curtain makers were the first artists, who joined to portrait movement and instead of using usual flowers, they printed pictures of old and classic tales and myth of Iran on curtains, in large scale, such as Khosro and Shirin, Leili and Majnoun. Printed portrait curtains found their ways to people's houses; urban rug weavers were interested in and very soon, this became their patterns.
Printed portrait curtains were ideal for rug weavers, in all ways, as it size and composition of it were almost the same as those of the rug. As, it has margin, ground,... it was not far from nature of rug. So, some of portrait rugs were woven from printed curtains; these rugs were called "Curtain", as well as rig sellers have used this expression, yet.
Photo and photography in Iran were coincident with the flourish of portrait rugs, at the first years of Nassereddin Shah era (1886-1938). Photography came to Iran by Dar-ol-Fonoun teacher at Nassereddin Shah era.
At that time, it made new subjects come to the portrait arts and affected on rugs, especially on Royal designs.
On the other hand, different portraits made people excited and caused everyone to supply portrait for decorating his home and shop. Those, who were rich, hanged oil paintings or portrait rugs on the walls of their house and shops. Those, who could not afford it, used printed portraits, photographs and posters.
Hanging of portrait rugs on walls, made great changes in using of rugs. New uses moved rugs from floor to walls and made it a painting picture. Although, common rugs were hanged on doors and walls, before that time, but it was done in special occasions, like wedding or religious ceremonies, as birthdays of Imams. This tradition has been done yet.
In these ceremonies, the most delicate and precious carpets or portrait rugs were used. So, low production of portrait rugs did not make them in reach of public, like traditional rugs. These rugs were owned by the rich and chiefs of tribes (Khan) and villages (Kadkhoda). The reason was different cost of portrait rugs, with other rugs. Difference in cost had several reasons:
1- Only expert weavers, who were master in using proportions and specific colors, can weave these rugs;
2- Using of pattern by urban weavers was another reason for increase of the cost;
3- Patterns of these rugs must be drawn by expert drawers;
4- Patterns must be in full size (equal to rug);
5- Using special colors for different parts, for example pink for face and hands, or dark blue and black for eyes, hair, eyebrows and... was another problem of weaving portrait rugs...
while, weavers has no such problems in weaving traditional rugs, and expressional he (she) is not seized by colors and he (she) uses colors in his own taste.
These cases are happened to urban weavers, while tribe weavers are not involved in such problems. They freely weave portraits without checker patterns or conventional colors. Nevertheless, weaving portrait rugs by tribe weavers was not simple work. Usually, these rugs were woven by expert and talented weavers, in spite of not using pattern, weaver must be familiar to color and its proportions and makes appropriate decision for every knot or wale.
These were factors of low production of portrait rugs, but another important reason is that West is not interested in these rugs and they are not exported. The point of view of portrait rug painters was similar to that of other painters. In spite of unity in subject, materials and techniques of rug weaving are not the same as those of painting and these cause many changes in final products. "Dastour" and "Vagireh" rugs are placed in front of weavers, as general instruction and weaver takes needed ideas for his rug, by looking at them. What he (she) is weaving, usually, is different from his model. Sometimes changes and displacement of colors and designs make it a new one.
These are the most important differences between urban and village rugs. In fact, urban weaver is doer and everything is prepared and scheduled before his (her) hand, whereas village or tribe weaver makes changes, which he (she) know are right in his weaving. Although, his (her) product is taken from another subject, it has new and inventive content.
Size of portrait rugs of every region has direct relation to architecture of that region, especially height of ceilings and shelves. Limited number of rugs are larger and used for furnishing. Mostly, their sizes are in proportion to walls of houses. Smaller rugs are used on shelves, which have particular place in traditional architecture of Iran.
Some of pictorial rugs, such as "Lion Rugs", were covered floors of tents of tribes; others, produced by the hands of tribesmen and tribeswomen, were ordered by chiefs of tribes and were hanged in their homes. Such royal use, in villages and tribes, did not last long time. New pictorial products, like photo and poster made these rugs fall from walls on the floor, and some of them are torn and worn away regardless.
In addition, unnatural symmetry of these rugs were not attracted by urban rug sellers and were called as "Wrong-Design" rugs. This term has been common, mostly, in comparison of these rugs with urban pictorial rugs, which are attracted by them. Specifics of wrong-design rugs are straight, low curve and broken lines, monochrome (without any tent) and unnatural proportions.
Skill of weavers in harmonizing the pictures to other rug designs, like margin, ground and other motifs, is so unique that separating picture from rug is impossible, because picture is like an organ of other organs of rug and idiomatically has been fastened to rug.
They adopted nature of every picture, with that of rug skillfully, so it seems that they are created for each other. Harmony and symbiosis of design and picture, which are the most important factors of success or un-success of them in pictorial rugs, are not common in urban pictorial rugs. It means that picture and the rug are not in harmony and it seems that the picture is attached to the rug. Un-harmonic fellowship and taste, between painter and weaver, having no connection between them, during the work are reasons of this unsuccessfulness.
Apart from these, nature of tribes and village weavers, their taste in selecting designs and colors and their creation in rug weaving, usually make their works more attractive and desirable than urban rugs. It felt that something in their essence came in rugs, by their eyes and fingers. So, now, picture has the function of traditional flowers and takes place of medallion. Work has been done on margins, corners, flowers and paisley, by using colors and motifs; it is done on new medallion, which is the picture. To make it productive, very traditional colors and motifs are used in always are needed.
Pictorial rug weavers mostly wove pictures of kings. Not only number of these rugs are highest, but they are the most variety in different compositions. "King Design" rugs have the longest history, from "King Houshang" rugs, with mythic history to Achaemenid, Sassanid and other kings of past centuries.
Among pictorial rugs of Iran, there are many rugs with different tale subjects. Most of these rugs are prepared by urban weavers and tribe and village weavers have limited share in this field.
Many of urban weavers are familiar with different tales and myths, so the most tale rugs are woven in towns. Urban culture and relatively more literate people of towns, in comparison to that of village and tribe regions, is the reason of this familiarity.
Among pictorial rugs, there are few rugs with religious subjects. The number of these rugs in comparison to other rugs are few. Rug weavers have not weave portrait of prophets and saints, as they are worried about putting rugs on the floor; so, the avoid to weave portrait of sacred, not to sin.
Considerable numbers of portrait rugs are belonged to dervish. "Dervish Design" rugs are known as "Leopard Skin". Subjects and composition of them, more or less, are alike. In all of them, daily equipments and dervish's traditions are seen so attractively.
Armenian have considerable share in portrait movement, in Iran. Their share is significant, not only in producing portrait rugs, but also in some of other fields, like photography and painting. It is not to be denied some of Caucasian weavers' share in creating portrait rugs.
Subjects of some portrait rugs are related to tribesmen themselves. These rugs are in two groups:
1- Rugs with portrait of tribesmen. Composition of them is very simple and portrait is repeated in regular rows of 2 or 3 columns. It must be said that subject and composition of these rugs generally have tribal origin.
2- Rugs that originally do not have tribal subject, but tribesmen weave them from other rugs or portraits. During repeated weaves, these subjects gradually got tribe shapes and idiomatically they have been absorbed in their culture.
Rugs, with beautiful women subject, are in small group of portrait rugs. These rugs were woven within 50 years of last two decades of 19th century and the first three decades of 20th century, which were coincided with some social events in Iran.
Animals and birds, like flowers and paisley, have great role in traditional Iranian rugs. The most considerable parts of designs and motifs, especially of tribe and village rugs are belonged to them. Most of these group of rugs have different appliance to other pictorial rugs, which have been woven to hang on walls. They were used for covering floors of tents. This has had special meaning among tribe men, such as guarding tents and importance of bravery in tribes life.
Lion rugs are another kind of rugs that have been woven mostly in Shiraz and its neighbors. "Lion" has been symbol of power and bravery, from ancient times. As, it has been seen on the walls of Persepolis and Sassanid potteries, it has been attracted by kings.