Friday, 25 May 2012

A Carpet For the Barefoot Nuns

Last time I was at the NGV, I thought I would go and look at the Portrait Gallery on the mezzanine. I haven't stickybeaked  round there for a while.
The Trinitarias carpet

As it turned out, I didn't get to look at the portraits - I got sucked in by the carpet in the anteroom to the Long Gallery. The Trinitarias Carpet is one of the treasures of the NGV, but has not been on view much because of its sheer size.  It is a hefty 10.4m by 3.4m, a bit large for your average front parlour. It is displayed on a raised platform a couple of feet off the floor, with a little railing round lest the punters walk on  it, and it takes up the whole length of the room.

The centre medallion has two heartshaped lobes attached to it, and the background is a riot of vines, flowers, and ornamental designs that the wall text tells me are "palmettas and cloud bands". Round the edge is a border of alternating round and oval cartouches the size of tea trays. 

It is altogether a thing of beauty. If you lean in close, you can see how finely knotted it is - the finish is like velvet. It was made in the late 1500s. When I think of the hours of backbreaking and eyestraining handwork that went into it, under medieval conditions, my mind absolutely boggles. No proper lighting, no ergonomic chairs, no eight-hour day, no minimum wage, no workplace health and safety! Just those dozens of calloused little hands knotting, knotting …

I am always so gobsmacked by the miraculous works of art  that our forebears were able to create, in circumstances that would make a modern artist burst into tears and hide behind the sofa.  In the V&A in London I once saw a set of bed hangings: heavy green silk, densely embroidered with exquisite butterflies, peacocks and flowers. The label said they were the work of Lady Somebody, who spent thirty years making them while her husband was banged up in the Tower, where she voluntarily shared his ill-lit quarters. And what about those perfectly detailed miniature paintings in medieval illuminated manuscripts? How did those monks do that without a bright light and a powerful magnifying glass?

Philip IV of Spain by Velasquez
Anyway, back to the Trinitarias Carpet. It is called that because it was a gift from King Philip IV of Spain to the Convent of the Trinitarias Del Calzas. Also known as the Convent of the Barefoot Nuns. Now that is what I call a thoughtful gift. I can just picture His Majesty at the breakfast table with his bride, Queen Mariana (who was also his niece, but if the Pope signed off on the marriage, who are we to raise an eyebrow?)

"What shall we give the Barefoot Nuns for Christmas this year, Maisie Dear? How about a nice painting of Me by Velasquez? He turns one out every fortnight; I'm getting a bit sick of posing for him."

  "No, Uncle Phil, they've already got three …  Senor Velasquez really has to find somebody else to paint for a change.
  I know! Let's get the nuns a carpet from Persia for those cold stone convent floors! The sight of those suppurating chilblained toes gives me a nasty turn every time they ask us over for a prayer-and-tapas evening or a Bible Trivia night."

"Good thinking, Noventa y Nueve! But no need to splash out on a pricey Persian carpet; this is a convent we're talking about, not a palace. We'll get them a rug from India. Half the price and just as pretty."

The carpet was originally thought to be a Persian design, knotted about 1690 in Tabriz, but experts have recently authenticated it as being a Northern Indian work from the late 1500s.

The carpet spent its first four centuries staving off chilblains in the Convent of the Barefoot Nuns. In 1938 it was exhibited at the Seville World Fair, after which it was sold to the Spanish Gallery in London. During World War 2 it was, like  many other works of art, sent to Canada for safe keeping.

After the War, it was acquired by Templeton and Co, a prominent Glasgow carpet manufacturer. They reproduced the design in their machine-made chenille rugs, until they sold the carpet to the NGV in 1959. Like many of the NGV's other treasures, the purchase was funded by the Felton Bequest.

The Convent of the Barefoot Nuns

1 comment:

Shiona Liddle said...

Very interesting. I have a Templeton copy of the Trinitarias carpet dating from the early 1960's I think.