The Sanguszko

Not a Sanguszko, actually

Last night I froze speechless before a huge (four by six meters) Iranian carpet produced by Miri.

Miri has been making modern recreations of traditional pieces of incredible color and quality -- (absolutely the smallest knots I have ever seen). On account of their workmanship and beauty, some of their pieces have been bought by museums. Yet, their catalog (and website) do not show any of their work, God (the Merciful, the Compassionate) only knows why. (But they do show their good looking chief designer, who is very much worth seeing). Try to get your hands on the promo catalog of their closest competitor too, though -- Woven Legends -- the reproductions in it are fantastic.


Last night, in a deep pomegranate field minuscule red lions and leopards bit into the necks of helplessly thrashing deer; angels floated in pairs while playing lyres; dragons intertwined with peacocks; and men raced on horseback with their swords up-raised. The carpet, I was told, was a kind of... Sanguszko.

I did a double take: a -- who?

(Out of that name, like out of a madeleine dipped in tea, an image of an old aunt floated up before my eyes).


The title of Princes, which the family Sanguszko claim, we are told by no less authority than New York Times, is Polish.

It isn't.

It's Lithuanian.

The Sanguszko are descended from Fiodor, brother of Jagiello, the Grand Duke of Lithuania (he later became king of Poland; and in time fathered Wladyslaw Warnenczyk, him of the Madeira fame); and through Fiodor, they descend from Gedymin, one of the greatest heroes of the Lithuanian heroic age.

(There were no princely titles in Poland just as there were no court ranks: in Poland which was a Res Publica -- with an elective king -- all nobles ("citizens") were equal, including my folk. But in Lithuania there were two sorts of princes -- Lithuanian -- those descended from the Grand Dukes, i.e. cousins of the royal house; and Ruthenian -- descendants of Rurik, the founder of the Ruthenian state, and, Russians say, Russia. (Ukrainians disagree). My folk in time came to call themselves counts -- which made them liars. But the Sanguszko are the real thing: blood royal; a off-shoot of the Gedymin tree. In time, they polonized and called themselves Polish, but their roots, and title, were 100% Lithuanian).


Sometime early in the last century the Sanguszkos have deposited a carpet with the New York Met. There it was seen by millions and by the virtue of the fact became quite famous while the Sanguszkos frolicked all over the world (last time I checked, in Sao Paolo, Brasil). Then, in 1994, the last Sanguszko living decided to put the carpet up for sale. (One familiar with the ways of Polish noblemen might enjoy imagining an astronomical gambling debt incurred overnight). As the Met could not raise the money fast enough -- the sum of 4 million bucks was reported -- the carpet went to the Miho Museum of Art. ("Globalization").

Where it may not be seen, of course. (Hey, what are museums for).


The carpet is Safavid -- it was made in Kerman, in the 16th century. It is considered the finest example of a group of about sixteen similar carpets dispersed across the world. They are distinguished by their extremely fine workmanship -- it is said that the pattern can be made out on the reverse -- and color; and their figural patterns (rather than the usual geometric and vegetal). There is an interesting paper1 trying to make out the meaning of the pattern and figures. The carpet represents the heavens seen from earth; the border that runs around it is the heaven's first gate; the medallion in the middle, the second; and the small circle in the center: the third and highest (behind which stands the veiled Throne of God). (It is a kind of perspective, don't you see). The dragons entwined about it are Chinese in origin: the yin-and-yang, but in Persian they are also a pun (mobram -- "entwined", but also "inevitable"). Yet, the symbol is Zoroastrian (eternal struggle between Light and Darkness). The felines devouring the horses represent the fate of those who do not follow the path (gor -- "onager" but also "infidel"). The tigers are black with gold stripes -- the reverse of facts on earth -- because these are heavenly tigers. The central medallion and the two escutcheons are geometric representations of the Shamanist two-headed Sun Bird. The strange birds -- swans on crane's legs -- are souls of the faithful waiting to be born.


These figural carpets were made during a short period in the 16th century and may have gone out of production on account of the revival of Shi'ite orthodoxy under Shah Tahmasp (of coffee-renouncing, atelier-dispersing fame). The paper goes on to argue that certain kinds of geometric patterns and designs popular in later eras may derive from them, being, as it were, coded allusions.

Fascinating stuff. Possibly untrue, too, but makes one want to see the Sanguszko all the same -- doesn't it? Sadly I am unable to find a reproduction to show you. (I can always go to my friendly local carpet dealer to take a look myself... But I'd like to show it to you, too, so if you find a photo, do send it to me for posting).

(The carpet above is not a Sanguszko, it belongs to a category known as Royal Hunting Carpets, which were made at about the same time).


How did this Kerman get into Sanguszko hands?

Why, through a heroic deed of arms, of course. At the battle of Chocim (Khotim), 1621, the second of the four which fought there -- Chocim is quite literally a swinging sort of place. It was among the many carpets the Commonwealth cavalry took from the Turks. The Commonwealth Cavalry charging the Turkish camp in order to seize Persian carpets is a bit of an East European tradition. Perhaps the Sanguszkos, who took part in the charge in 1621, took this one at the division of spoils on account of its pattern -- it includes the motif of a man charging on horseback with a sword up-raised. (You can see a similar figure in the carpet above). And he looks a lot like Pogon, the Sanguszkos' coat of arms.

1 Schuyler van R. Cammann, "Cosmic Symbolism on Carpets from the Sanguszko Group", in Studies in Art and Literature of the Near East, New York, 1974.


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