19th Century Serapi Carpets: Infinitely Greater Than Mere Patterns In Wool
By Jan David Winitz, President & Founder
Fine 19th-century antique Serapi carpets include some of the most rare and desirable room-size to palace-size antique Persian rugs. Woven at the elevation of 6200 feet above sea level in the rugged mountains of Azerbaijan, Northwest Persia, antique Serapis are a distinct Heriz-region style, with finer knotting and more large-scale, spaciously placed designs than other rugs from this area. Antique Serapis have historically been the carpet of choice in early American state and federal buildings, including the White House. Today, our clients use graphic, casually elegant Serapi carpets in decors ranging from traditional to contemporary, Arts and Crafts, eclectic and postmodern.
Although it was the grandest of the Northwest Persian carpet types, the Serapi rug format is seldom seen after 1900, as the coarser, more replete with design Herizs were favored for export. Persian carpets had to be taken by their weavers to Serab, 30 miles distant, to be marketed. “Serapi” is not a place or tribal name; rather, it is a market term derived from “Serab-i,” meaning “of Serab.”
19th-century Serapi carpets combine design elements borrowed from many traditions. The bold geometric designs are probably connected to the tribal Caucasian traditions across the Aras River to the north. The elegant court carpets of Tabriz to the west certainly would have influenced the Serapi carpet weavers’ understanding of balance and the central medallion format. The great majority of antique Serapis are ennobled by a commanding, multi-lobed center medallion flanked by four corner pieces and a nature-inspired palette of breathtaking colors. Occasionally, Serapi rugs employ large-scale all-over patterns.
True Serapis from the 1800s were woven either on the family level or in small workshops with multiple weavers working many months to years to complete each piece. The weaving was done almost exclusively by women. They were highly skilled artisans who continually reinterpreted the design as they wove, creating highly spontaneous and inventive artistry. In general, workshop Serapis are more finely woven and formal, and Serapi carpets woven on a family level are more rustic and symbolic in design.
The best wool in the Azerbaijan region came from extremely luminous and durable karakul sheep (also known as “Fat-tailed Sheep”) bred in the high mountain pastures by Shahsavan nomads. Master dyers naturally dyed their superb, silky, local wool with a great range of soft-shaded or “abrashed” colors. The broad palette of hues came from many carefully brewed plants and mineral dyes. Watermelon to terra cotta tones came from madder root. The blue tones, from sky and aqua to periwinkle and deep navy, came from the indigo plant. Gold and yellow tones are from chamomile and a variety of other plants. The Serapi carpet weavers also frequently used large areas of undyed and unbleached wool, providing dramatic contrast to the wide range of vegetable colors surrounding them.
Extremely seldom found today, the first generation of Serapis woven circa 1850 and occasionally even earlier are the most archetypical and manifest the greatest individuality of design and color combinations. Some seem ‘primitive’ or rough in character, as if tribal and village weavers were learning how to adapt their traditional design ways to the larger format of room-size carpets. These very early representatives have tremendous ‘artistic staying power’ with extremely evocative designs combined with highly harmonious color palettes.
Serapis woven in the 3rd quarter, 19th century to circa 1875, can be breathtakingly spacious in pattern, with striking designs and unexpected palettes with an abundance of salmons, beige, earth tones, and turquoise, along with carnelian and terra cotta reds. Most characteristic of this period is the use of more brilliant earthy orangey-reds. Their fields may be filled with stylized motifs which are impossible to identify. Striking corner spandrels are commonly ivory, or more rarely light blue or rarely yellow-camel.
“Extremely seldom found today, the first generation of Serapis woven circa 1850 and occasionally even earlier are the most archetypical and manifest the greatest individuality of design and color combinations.”
The Serapis of the late 1800s to the turn of the 20th century possess a pattern language focused on a sunburst center medallion executed in a seemingly infinite number of variations. The late 19th century Serapis are the more complex and almost elegant, with richer colors tending towards carnelian reds, ivory, and deep midnight blues. They are usually more detailed, but still with significant use of spaciousness around the designs. Woven with an eye for sale to the Western market, they usually are a denser fabric, with a heavier foundation.
Until they began rising in popularity and value in the 1980s, Serapis were a much less expensive alternative to classical floral carpets and used to furnish the well-trafficked areas of the home. This heavier use and exposure to sunlight patinated their colors, giving them the deeply color-softened tonalities they are renowned for by connoisseurs and interior designers alike.
The heavy use that Serapi carpets often withstood also meant that restoration was commonly necessary to preserve them. If done with great dexterity and thoroughness, along with well-matched naturally dyed yarns, restoration both allows the continued use of these majestic antique carpets and increases their investment value. The finest Serapis, circa 1875 or earlier, with only a moderate amount of skillfully executed restoration, are rarely encountered and, if of excellent quality and strong artistic impact, are widely sought-after.
Antique Serapi carpets are usually found in the room size format from 9×12 to 11×14. Happily, oversize Serapis measuring 11×15 to 12×18 are also found, and the best examples woven pre-1900 are deeply prized. Very occasionally, extremely large antique carpets woven in sizes up to 16 x 26 can be found.
Area-size 19th-century Serapi rugs measuring 4ft x 5ft to 5ft x 7ft are seldom encountered and cherished by connoisseurs. Although rarely found, Serapi runners and keleges (corridor-size runners) make stunning complements to decors featuring other room-size or oversize Serapis.
The mountain weavers who created 19th-century Serapis were deeply in tune with and inspired by the forces of the natural world in which they spent their entire lives. In the many interviews I was privileged to have with tribal elders in the 1980s and 90s, they often expressed that the motivation and purpose of this art form was to reflect the infinite world and express the metaphysical principle of the unity of all things.
When we gaze upon a truly fine Serapi carpet and begin to come under its spell, time seems to stand still, and we begin to sense something infinitely greater than mere patterns in wool. In such moments, we can connect with that supremely great source of inspiration that animates all life. To me, this is the most important purpose of art.
“Serapi rugs have caused me to well up with tears. They have the spiritual impact of a Mark Rothko. When artistic vision transcends what seems possible, something extraordinary occurs. The sublime becomes manifest.”
— B.E., Northern CA
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