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This study examines the function of figural silk textiles from Safavid Iran (1501-1722) as visual transmitters of identity. Textile historians and connoisseurs have admired figural silks for the technically advanced weave structures, delicate textures and brilliant colors, but the narrative motifs featured in a sub-genre of these compositions set them apart from other luxury textiles. The emphasis of this study will be on scenes depicting events and characters from Iranian poet Nizami’s twelfth century epic poem, Layla and Majnun.
The appeal of narrative textiles among the Safavid elite will be analyzed in relation to political and religious conditions that propagated its popularity. Within Iran’s borders, the Safavid dynasty encouraged the emergence of Sufi thought and practice into mainstream culture after 1500, allowing artists and patrons more freedom of expression. Silk garments depicting popular characters from Sufi poetry, such as Layla and Majnun, allowed the wearer to communicate inner spirituality through the iconography depicted on the outer cloak. In addition, the centralization of Iran’s silk industry by Shah Abbas (r. 1587-1629) created a nationwide campaign to export Iran’s signature textiles as luxury items, in order to bring revenue to the Safavid state. The international association of figural silks with Iranian identity was assisted by Shah Abbas’ attempts to form alliances with the European courts through his English-born ambassador, Robert Sherley, who is depicted in a figural cloak in Van Dyck’s 1622 portrait.