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Salon du Tapis d'Orient

The Salon du Tapis d'Orient is a moderated discussion group in the manner of the 19th century salon devoted to oriental rugs and textiles and all aspects of their appreciation. Please include your full name and e-mail address in your posting.

Kaitag Embroideries with a Four-Lobed Medallion

by Steve Price

The villages of Kaitag and Dargin, in one of the more remote areas of Daghestan, had a tradition of producing and using remarkable embroidered textiles (silk on cotton cloths). The embroidery is mainly done in a laid and couched technique that is quite distinctive, as is the drawing style. The two villages probably never had a total population exceeding 7,000 at any one time, and the production of these embroideries seems to have ended by the early 20th century. Thus, there is a relatively small number of these items, probably only about 500, and very unlikely to be as many as 1,000.

The textiles can be put into three categories on the basis of how they were used. One, characterized by designs derived from formal brocades, were wrappers for the bridal dowry. A second, with designs interpreted as cosmic maps or including horses (with or without riders), covered the faces of deceased members of the community prior to burial, an important practice in this culture, or were used as cushion covers during funerals. The third, with bright, contrasting colors and complex designs, covered the heads of infant cradles, deflecting and confusing the malevolent evil eye. Interestingly, in view of the small total number of specimens, there are some distinct design groups within each category.

We devoted a Salon to infant cradle covers of one design group, the so-called "Simurgh and Dragon". Comparing pieces with closely related motifs, layouts and palettes provided an interesting exercise in aesthetic judgments. In addition, one of the outcomes of that discussion was the finding that the "simurgh and dragon" motifs that characterize these textiles are probably actually a floral element and a bird, respectively. This was summarized in an article by Christoph Huber that appeared in HALI (No. 116, p. 101, 2001).

In this Salon I direct your attention to another group of infant cradle covers which, for convenience, I will refer to as the "four-lobed medallion". This is probably the largest single group of Kaitag embroideries. Chenciner's Kaitag - Textile Art from Daghestan shows 8 of them; I have personally seen another half dozen or so, and at least two more have appeared in dealer advertisements in HALI.

Here are four examples. All four are, in my opinion, objects of great beauty and artistic interest.

The first is plate 26 in Chenciner's Kaitag - Textile Art of Daghestan. It is the simplest of the four in terms of level of detail, and clearly displays the characteristics that define the group.

These include the red four-lobed central medallion; the more or less circular red containers in the corners; the gold circular item in the center; the gold serrated containers within each lobe; the irregularly outlined things projecting from the places in the central medallion that separate the lobes.

The next two appeared in HALI (No. 74, p. 123, 1994; No. 66, p. 134, 1992, respectively. I appreciate Hali editor Danny Shaffer graciously permitting us to reproduce these images).

The familial relationship to the previous example is obvious, although these have much more detail, and the design terminates at the top and bottom without closing the lobes or the corner elements in the first of the pair.

Finally, an unpublished piece in a private collection. The drawing is more irregular than that in the others, but it is clear that it belongs to the same design group.

Obviously, some elements of the design are consistent, some are not. Here is a page where you can look at all four pieces on the same screen. The palette is very similar in all of them, and I am particularly struck by the fact that the most obvious features - a four-lobed medallion in the center and more or less round compartments in each corner - are done in a rather saturated red in each example. The extensive use of gold (the color, not the metal) in each is also quite striking. The serrated projections between the lobes of the central medallion is another consistent feature, as are a sun or eye motif right in the center of the piece and irregular vertical projections from the corner containers. We may assume that these elements are significant in one way or another.

On the other hand, some elements of the design are evidently not terribly important. Closing the two lobes (top and bottom) in the central medallion, and those at the corners appears to be optional. The color of the vertical projections from the corner containers is variable. The density of "filler" motifs is an obvious variable.

Now for some points to ponder:

Do the differences in detail and intricacy of the pieces reflect a historical sequence (in either direction)?

What significance can we attach to the features that are invariable? What is the whole design about - that is, what does it represent? Is it related to the common layout of rugs with a central medallion and a quarter of that medallion in each corner?

Is there anything surprising about which features can be modified from one piece to another? Why do you suppose specimens with this design make up so large a percentage of the Kaitag embroideries?

Does the more simplified (for example, the first piece) form have more artistic impact than the others, or less? That is, do the more intricate and irregular examples represent childlike work or exuberant self-expression? If the function of the design is to confuse and distract the evil eye, we might guess that the more irregular examples are more effective.

Does the presentation of the four members of this group (which probably include most of the range within it) help us develop a general aesthetic principle by which to judge them? Unlike most textile groups, Kaitag embroideries have only been known for about 10 years, and there is not yet a generally accepted set of criteria by which they are judged.