The development of Spanish weaving art started together with the Moorish invasion in the early 8th century. Moors, a Muslim nation originated in North Africa, brought the secrets of carpet weaving to Spain. Soon, numerous workshops started to appear in all major Spanish cities, such as Seville, Granada, Almeria, Malaga, and in the province of Murcia.
The craft started to flourish, and soon Spain as the only country in medieval Europe which produced pile weave carpets. Historians describe the 13th century as the beginning point of weaving craft in Spain. Various written sources of that time mention the popularity that Spanish carpets gained in Europe. One of the most famous is the example of Eleanor of Castile, the wife of Prince Edward of England, who came to London in 1255. It was noted that rugs, presumably from Murcia, were ceremoniously displayed in the streets and at her lodgings at Westminster in order to celebrate her arrival.
In the 15th century Spanish weaving industry changed. At that time northern kingdoms had pushed far to the south, successfully evicting the Muslim from the peninsula. Murcia, the rug weaving center of Spain, was controlled by Christians, interested only in the European market. Until then, Moorish artisans wove mainly Oriental style carpets – geometric, six- and eight-pointed starts, circles, triangles and cartouches and borders with religious inscriptions were a common sight. This sudden change was responsible for the creation of the most distinctive features of Renaissance Spanish rugs: odd proportions. Very long in proportion to their width, the carpets were woven that way so they could cover the floors of churches, monasteries, and castles. Soon, nobles started to commission “armorial carpets”, which were characterized by the family crests and coats-of-arms, curiously combined with Oriental motifs: nature-inspired designs, displaying animals and plants paired with fields divided into diamond-shaped panels or covered by large wreaths or circles, similar to early Anatolian rugs. Another kind of rugs woven at that time were Holbeins, named after the early sixteenth century European painter Hans Holbein the Younger, who depicted a number of Anatolian carpets in his paintings. Their field was divided into large squares enclosing octagons, which recalled Eastern Islamic decorations of wood and ivory, once again showing the mix of cultures in the 15th century Spain. At that time, Christian, Jewish, Muslim Arab and Berber populations co-existed next to each other for centuries, influencing Spanish art and literature.
Spain’s economic depression in the 17th century paired with persecutions against people of Jewish and Muslim origins left the country artistically bankrupt. The rug industry survived only thanks to rich patrons and the support of the monarchy. However, Oriental motifs disappeared from the craft, replaced with the trends of France and England, ending the era of cultural diversity in the industry.
Nowadays, antique Spanish rugs remain highly sought-after thanks to their gorgeous designs, which reflect the country’s multicultural past. They symbolize the past of which Spaniards are immensely proud.