Drawing the V&A Ardabil Carpet

Central Shamsa of the V&A Ardabil Carpet, image courtesy of the V&A collections database.

The star exhibit of the V&A Jameel Gallery of Islamic Art is a colossal Persian carpet made in the early 16th century for a reception room of the shrine of Shaykh Safi al-Din at Ardabil in North-Western Iran.

Aerial view of the Ardabil Shrine Complex, Image courtesy of UNESCO

Historical Context

Shaykh Safi al-Din is an important Sufi saint, whose descendants founded the Safavid Dynasty . The Ardabil Shrine complex of Safi al-Din was originally founded during the saint’s lifetime (1252 – 1334) as a Khanegah or monastery for the Sufi brotherhood he founded. The complex included a mosque, mausoleum, a garden, cells for the brothers, an education centre, public water supply and facilities like a community kitchen, baths and guesthouse. 

After the saint’s death, his tomb was installed within the complex. The shrine was the spiritual heart of the Safavid Dynasty that ruled in Iran  from 1501 to 1736, and it continues to be an important monument and pilgimage centre in Iran today.

The Commission

Plan of the Ardabil complex showing original location of the twin carpets, Image courtesy of the V&A

The Ardabil carpet, along with its twin that is held at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, is a masterpiece of formal Persian design. It was commissioned by Safavid ruler Shah Tahmasp to furnish a new architectural extension to the shrine, a large octagonal reception hall called Jannat Sara (Abode of Heaven). It is known from contemporary records that Shah Tahmasp used this space to welcome important guests to his kingdom, such as the Mughal ruler Humayun in 1544.

The carpet was probably designed and made at the imperial workshops at Tabriz, Shah Tahmasp’s capital at this time. The designers of the carpet were drawing on an established repertoire of pattern that had reached a high point of development at this period. The two carpets each bear an inscription with the signature of Maqsud of Kashan (probably the lead designer or project manager) and the date of their completion, A.H. 946, or 1539 – 40 C.E.

Design of the Ardabil Carpet

The carpet provides a perfect study of Classic Persian design at its most beautiful, with a comprehensive range of variations of the principal design elements. In contemplating, drawing and understanding these forms, students of Persian art can gain an insight into the design grammar that informs a unified visual language which can be seen across disciplines, including metalwork, ceramics, textiles, book binding and illumination.

Hanging lamp detail, image courtesy of V&A Collections.

Because this carpet was made for a sacred space, the design is deliberately non-figurative. It has a vast field of scrolling vines covered with stylized flowers, representing a lush garden – an analogy to the gardens of Paradise. The bright sunburst medallion or Shamsa in the centre would have originally reflected the design of the dome above it, complete with hanging lamps. The lamps represent a sacred space like a Mosque, where beautiful hanging lamps are installed to illuminate the space and remind the faithful of the light of God.

The Shamsa motif is repeated as quarters in each of the four corners of the main field. The design is finished with a wide composite border composed of cartouches, roundels and narrow bands containing a variety of floral, palmette and cloud-band motifs.

I have made a few sketch-book studies of the designs of the carpet, which have helped me to understand a bit more about how the original designers might have set about drafting the patterns, and the repertoire of elements they used in so doing. The main elements fall within a classic grammar comprising four principal forms: 1- Geometrically constructed Medallions and Cartouches, 2- Palmette-Arabesques,  3- Cloud-Bands and 4- Floral Meandering Vines.

Sketchbook pages, ©Anita Chowdry

  • The huge central Shamsa is drafted as a sixteen-point roundel, with an Eight-Lobed Roundel in the centre. This is easy to draft, simply requiring the division of the circle into quarters, then eighths, and finally sixteenths. The sharp points around the outside are drawn freehand, formed as they are of Reflected Pairs of Palmettes.
  • The principal filling design is composed of four reflected Palmette Arabesques rotated around the centre. The formalized palmettes are slender and sharp, and contain smaller palmette designs within them.
  • Simplified Cloud-Bands loosely interlaced with the Arabesques form a counterpoint to the design.
  • The Shamsa is surrounded by an array of Ogival Medallions, also known as Toranj after a lemon-like fruit. These are filled with a variety of Palmettes, Cloud-Bands and Floral designs.

Sketchbook pages, ©Anita Chowdry

  • In the pages above I have drafted a corner of the Composite Border of the carpet. The wide border is composed of alternating Cartouches and Roundels.
  • The Cartouches and the narrow Inside Border are filled with variations of Cloud-Bands – some fairly simple, others rather florid.
  • Cloud-Bands are the wiggly elements you often see in carpet designs and book illuminations of the period. They derive from Sylized Chinese Clouds (I have added a fun geometric interpretation in these pages).
  • The spaces left in the border design are filled with Formalized Flowers.

Floral ground of the Los Angeles County Museum carpet, image courtesy of LACMA

The enormous main field of the carpet is filled with two counterpoint scrolling vines, laden with a variety of Formalized Flowers and Leaves.

The designs of the flowers come from a variety of historical sources – some from Central Asian Buddhist art, some from the Chinese paintings and ceramics of the Yuan and Ming dynasties that were avidly collected by rulers in Iran.

Here we see large composite flowers representing Lotus, Peony, Pomegranate and Carnation, as well as an assortment of smaller simple florettes and buds.

The dark blue Indigo ground sets off the floral scrolls to maximum impact. In all there are 10 colour variations in the carpet design, all made of natural plant dyes. Their sensitivity to light is one of the reasons why the V&A carpet is encased in a climate-controlled environment with limited exposure to lighting. For more information about the conservation project, you might find this article by the V&A conservation and science team interesting:


Here is a curatorial article about its design, comparing the Ardabil with other great carpets in the V&A collections: