Berlin Carpet Collection: A history

From the opulent courts of ancient empires to the hallowed halls of modern museums, carpets have long created important global and historical connections, linking people across time and space.

How did the carpet collection in Berlin became one of the most extensive and important collections in the world?

From von Bode’s private collection to a museum

Did you know that the current “Museum für Islamische Kunst” wasn’t always called that?

It first opened in 1904 – more than a hundred years ago - as the “Persian–Islamic Department” of the Kaiser Friedrich Museum, now the Bode Museum. The 8th-century Umayyad façade from the palace of Mshatta combined with twenty-one Persian and Anatolian carpets originally belonging to the museum’s founder, Wilhelm von Bode, formed the core of the Islamic collection and foundation of the new department.

Wilhem von Bode was an excellent connoisseur of European paintings and was familiar with so called 'oriental' carpets - pile or knotted carpets from the Islamic influenced regions as represented in these paintings. Bode developed an interest in such carpets early in his career. His contributions to the study and display of Islamic art and carpets significantly impacted the field of art history and museum studies.

Exhibition at the Kaiser Friedrich Museum, c. 1909–10 with large-format carpets on the walls and artworks in various materials in the showcases including the Bode animal carpet (center) and Caucasian Dragon carpet (right).

Carpets in Medieval Masterpieces

In European paintings, knotted carpets from the Islamic influenced regions were frequently depicted as decorative table covers, at the feet of a Madonna or an earthly ruler, or dramatically draped over balcony parapets and windowsills.

Bode set out in search of these carpets and paintings through churches, palazzis and art markets seeking out the best examples he could find. He found carpets related to those in the paintings on his forays through Italian churches and palazzi or in the art trade. He acquired these for himself, interested collectors and Kunstgewerbemuseum.

Bode believed that carpets should not only serve as source material for the applied arts, but also be regarded in their historical context. As early as 1892, he therefore included carpets in the display of the sculpture collection at the Altes Museum. In allusion to medieval panel paintings, he placed the sculpture of Madonna in front of a carpet. Below you can see, behind the Madonna by the Florentine sculptor Benedetto da Maiano, is the white-ground Persian animal carpet, later known as the Bode animal carpet, which became the focus of his groundbreaking essay in 1892.

Laying the foundation of the museum

Bode recognized early that Islamic art required its own space in the museum and that this distinction was important to the concept and image of the Royal Museums. He maintained this perspective in lieu of significant criticism. He had personally championed the acquisition of the threatened Mshatta façade, and ensured its presentation in the new Kaiser Friedrich Museum. Similarly, he donated his private carpet collection laying the foundation for a newly established department in 1904. The carpet endowment was granted on the condition that the department remains independent.

Following the creation of the Islamic Department, Wilhelm von Bode continued to strengthen the department’s carpet collection. He both donated objects and mediated additional gifts or purchases in collaboration with Friedrich Sarre, an honorary curator and later director of the Islamic Department. In his role as General Director of the museums, he organized the transfer of a series of high-quality carpets from the Kunstgewerbemuseum to the new Islamic Department.

Bode's innovative method and pioneering research on knotted carpets from Islamic-influenced regions became known among art historians internationally as the Berlin School.

Wilhelm von Bode as a young scholar, c. 1875. This portrait shows the young Bode, who began purchasing Oriental carpets in 1872, which he added to his own collection or stored in the Kunstgewerbemuseum.

The history of collection does not begin in 1904.

While the first official department dedicated to Islamic Art wasn't established until 1904, the history of collecting objects from Islamic influenced areas goes far back. Bode had collected and bought several carpets and ceramics and donated them to Kunstgewerbemsueum. That was indeed the only point of contact for Islamic art between 1867 and 1904. In this sense, the Kunstgewerbemsueum is the Museum für Islamische Kunst's predecessor.

The director of the Kunstgewerbemuseum, Julius Lessing, was himself a carpet specialist and had collected Islamic art and promoted its study since the museum's founding in 1867. Since establishment of the dedicated Islamic Art department, Bode's collection along with further loans from the Kunstgewerbemuseum, especially in the 1930s and 1950s/60s, further strengthened the development. Through the support of the Kunstgewerbemuseum, the collection of the Museum für Islamische Kunst, Berlin, became the most important of its kind in Europe in the early 20th century.

Exhibition at the Kaiser Friedrich Museum, c. 1909–10 with large-format carpets on the walls and artworks in various materials in the showcases including the Bode animal carpet (center) and Caucasian Dragon carpet (right).

Art and conflict

The collection was selectively expanded and developed into one of the most important in Europe. The museum became an international research center. During the Second World War, however, the collection experienced an abrupt and painful loss. Due to their exceptional size, the large-format carpets were rolled and stored in the Berlin Mint rather than in a salt mine like many other fine art objects. On 11 March 1945, the Berlin Mint was bombed, and more than twenty-one carpets were almost completely destroyed by a resulting fire. Bode animal carpet which was perhaps the most famous carpet in the collection, burned almost entirely.

The dragon carpet

The Caucasian Dragon carpet similarly demonstrates the full extent of damage experienced by the rolled-up carpets. This Dragon Carpet was acquired by the Kunstgewerbemuseum Berlin in Paris in 1881. Kurt Erdmann determined that it was a good late example of this carpet group. Its colours are bold and it is well preserved. Highly stylized flowers are the most prominent design element. The dragons that give the carpet its name are highly stylized and difficult to spot.

This carpet came to the Museum für Islamische Kunst in 1922 as a permanent loan and was exhibited in 2004 on the occasion of the 100th anniversary of the museum's founding. Restored and conserved according to current scientific and ethical standards, the carpet’s fragments dramatically demonstrate the irreversible damage caused by war. The carpet is much smaller than it originally was and its remaining fragments measure 572 × 268 cm.

Berlin - Divided City, Divided Carpet Collection

The aftermath of the Second World War further tore apart the carpet collection with multiple storage sites and the divided city of Berlin. The remaining carpets were exhibited at two different locations in Berlin. From this time on, both collections developed differently, each influenced by its political and financial location.

The Islamic Museum, formerly the Islamic Department on Museum Island, remained the main institution in East Berlin. It was reopened in 1954. The carpets, which had been safeguarded in the Pergamonmuseum by Ernst Kühnel (director from 1931 to 1951) and had not been discovered and confiscated in 1945–46 by the Soviet Trophy Commission, were once again displayed.

A second group of carpets became part of the newly established Museum für Islamische Kunst in West Berlin in 1956. These carpets had been stored in the Kaiserroda salt mine during the war. From there, they were transported to the US collection point in Wiesbaden, from where they traveled to the West Berlin collection. This included numerous carpets from the Kunstgewerbemuseum, which remained on permanent loan at the Museum für Islamische Kunst. The carpet collections in East and West Berlin developed separately, but always with the hope of eventually reuniting them.

Divided by war, united by willpower

Following the reunification of Germany and the fall of the Berlin Wall, Berlin’s museums also experienced a reunification process. In 2001, the Pergamonmuseum reopened, housing today’s Museum für Islamische Kunst, Berlin, which reunited the former East and West Berlin Islamic art collections. With worldwide unique knotted carpets and rare fragments, the carpet collection of the Museum für Islamische Kunst still belongs to the most important and oldest collections worldwide.

Carpet hall in the current Pergamonmuseum. Photo: Milena Schloesser

Video: The History of the Berlin Carpet Collection

It is impossible to imagine European cultural history without carpets from Islamic cultures. As evidence of the continuous cultural exchange between Europe and the Near and Middle East, they also form a focal point in the permanent exhibition of the Museum of Islamic Art.

Video: Staatliche Museen zu Berlin, Museum für Islamische Kunst / Stefan Matlik

Outlook: A vision for the future

The carpets currently displayed in the Museum für Islamische Kunst represent a broad cross-section of the character of the collection, but also convey the losses and weaknesses resulting from their turbulent history.Existing gaps could certainly be minimized by loans, such as those from the Kunstgewerbemuseum, and gifts, and the museum continues to receive exceptional support from passionate and dedicated collectors. This support follows a long tradition of support without which the Museum für Islamische Kunst could not have attained its premier status. 

Museum für Islamische Kunst Acquires Silk Tapestry from the Estate of Alfred Cassirer

The Museum für Islamische Kunst has recently acquired a remarkable 16th-century silk tapestry from the workshops of Kashan, Iran. This masterpiece of textile-making forms part of one of the most valuable groups of tapestries in the world and originates from the estate of the art collector Alfred Cassirer. Alfred Cassirer, a German-Jewish industrialist and art collector, acquired this rare piece and other major items in the 1920s, on advice of the Museum für Islamische Kunst intending to fill gaps in the Berlin collection. Although he never formally donated them, the collection, partially destroyed by the Nazis in 1934, was returned to his heirs in 2012, who later facilitated the acquisition of the remaining pieces by the Museum with support from the Ernst von Siemens Kunststiftung and the Cultural Foundation of the German Federal States.

Once the renovated and refurbished Pergamonmuseum reopens, it will be possible to present the great diversity of the museum’s carpet collection and its history in a significantly larger space.

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