Return to Previous Page

"Admiral" Heraldic Carpet
"Admiral" Heraldic Carpet, c. 1429-73
Spanish, possibly woven by Muslim craftsmen
19 feet 3/4 inches x 8 feet 9 1/8 inches (586.7 x 475 cm)
The Joseph Lees Williams Memorial Collection, 1955
[ More Details ]

About This Carpet

This carpet belongs to a group of medieval Spanish rugs that are called "admiral" carpets because they bear the coat of arms of Fadrique Enríquez de Mendoza (1390–1473), admiral of Castile. Fadrique (pronounced fahd-REE-kay) was the grandfather of Ferdinand the Catholic, the first king of all Spain. It was Ferdinand and his wife Isabella who commissioned the voyage on which Christopher Columbus first reached the Americas.

The Museum's carpet is one of six that the Enríquez family donated to the convent of Santa Clara in Palencia, Spain, their burial place. The carpet's exceptionally fine condition and considerable length (over nineteen feet) indicate that it was rarely used and was probably designed for important processions. With its geometric pattern and glossy sheen, the carpet's background resembles a tile floor. When the carpet was rolled out for special ceremonies the three shields would have stood out, visually proclaiming Fadrique Enríquez's name and importance.

Interpreting the Designs

This carpet was made in the mid-fifteenth century, probably between 1429, when Fadrique Enríquez inherited the admiralty, and 1473, when he died. With its intermingling of European and Islamic motifs, the carpet reflects the cultural diversity of medieval Spain, which contained Christian and Muslim states until the Catholic rulers Ferdinand and Isabella conquered Granada in 1492.

Repeated three times in the center of the carpet is Fadrique Enríquez's coat of arms: a lion rampant (standing on its hind legs) beneath two triple-towered castles on a shield bordered by anchors and ropes. The lion rampant is a common symbol of royalty in European heraldry (a system of emblems identifying individuals and families). The castles declare the name of the Enríquez family's homeland, the kingdom of Castile, which means "castle" in Spanish. The anchors and ropes refer to Fadrique's position as admiral of the kingdom's navy.

The overall pattern of the carpet consists of geometric shapes and Arabic calligraphy (decorative writing)—standard elements of traditional Islamic art—and animal and human figures. Surrounding the coats of arms, the carpet's central field is a honeycomb of octagons within which appear eight-pointed stars and stylized animal and human figures. In the outermost border, angular Arabic script frames a variety of lively scenes, including bears hunting various prey, flocks of small birds perching in trees, men fighting bears, and women wearing fifteenth-century European hoopskirts.

Carpet Making in Medieval Spain

Originating in central and western Asia as coverings for beaten-earth floors, carpets have functioned practically and aesthetically throughout the ages in houses, tents, mosques, and palaces. Migration and conquest spread the craft and intermingled designs and styles. Rug manufacturing was brought to Spain by Muslims from North Africa early in the eighth century, and had become an important Spanish industry by the twelfth century.

The Museum's admiral carpet was woven by hand on a loom, most likely by Muslim weavers (virtually all of whom were women). Achieving such intricate detail and fine texture required tying more than one hundred knots per square inch; it could take years to complete a carpet of this size and quality.

The Islamic Period in Spain

Early in the eighth century, Muslim armies made up of Arabs from the East and Berbers from Morocco crossed the Strait of Gibraltar and took control of most of the Iberian Peninsula (present-day Spain and Portugal) from the Visigoths (Germanic Christians). In the course of its nearly eight-hundred-year existence, al-Andalus, as the Muslims named the new Islamic frontier, would become a cultural capital for both East and West. Lavish royal patronage fostered great artistic achievements, the most widely known of which are truly monumental—the Great Mosque of Córdoba and the Alhambra palace-citadel in Granada.

Attempts by Christians to reconquer the territory continued throughout the centuries and encroached on al-Andalus from the North. In 1469 the marriage of Ferdinand of Castile and Isabella of Aragon united the two most powerful Christian kingdoms on the peninsula. In 1492 Granada, the last remaining Muslim state, fell to these Catholic monarchs, who became the first to rule a united Spain. Non-Christians were forced to convert to Christianity or be expelled: all Jews were driven out in 1492; Muslims were officially expelled in 1609–10. The full extent of the influence of Islamic Spain on European culture, science, industry, and technology—during and long after the Muslim presence—has only recently begun to be widely recognized.

How this Carpet Came to the Philadelphia Museum of Art

Until the 1890s the admiral carpet remained a possession of the Spanish convent to which it had been donated by the Enríquez family. Later acquired by the Reverend and Mrs. Charles F. Williams of Norristown, Pennsylvania, who gathered one of the first collections of antique Asian and Middle Eastern carpets in the United States, the rug became Museum property in 1955.

This carpet is included in Images of the Middle Ages, a set of teaching posters and resource book produced by the Division of Education and made possible by a generous grant from the Lila Wallace—Reader’s Digest Fund.

For more information, please contact The Division of Education by phone at (215) 684-7580, by fax at (215) 236-4063, or by e-mail at .

Return to Previous Page