Twelve old flowered rugs are on exhibition at the Textile Museum. Meditating Buddhist monks, pious Muslims at their prayers, sportive Persian shahs and turbaned Mughal emperors once caught glints of paradise in carpets such as these.
Some are merely fragments now, but once upon a time -- when spread on desert sands, or on the floors of mosques, or in the silk pavilions of warriors on campaign -- these tattered things were luxuries, portable and precious. Given half a chance, they'll still fly your mind away to otherworldly gardens, scented and celestial.
The rugs in the exhibit -- "Floral Perspectives in Carpet Design" -- depict three flowered realms more commanding than our own.
One of these is Paradise. As it is described in the Holy Koran, it looks much like a garden "dark green in color from plentiful watering" where the blessed will repose in "shades, cool and ever deepening" and the righteous will be delivered "from the Penalty of the Scorching Wind."
To get an abstract glimpse of that promised garden, imagine yourself kneeling on this prayer rug from Bukhara in today's Uzbekistan.
Two spreading V's of blue rivulets or streams approach and stretch away from you as your head descends. Darker colors edge the blue, suggesting banks in shade. The perpetually blooming roses on the border of the rug are lined up in straight rows that form a world-excluding wall.
This is Islam's paradise. Others are evoked.
In the sacred lotus gardens of Buddhist meditation are muddy-bottomed ponds on which water lilies float. These flowers are depicted on an 18th-century chair seat from Ningxia, China.
An egret wades among them. Unprepossessing, peaceful, this is more than just a garden scene. It is also an instruction for the seeker of enlightenment. For the lotus is the Buddha's bloom. That slowly rising flower -- brilliant in its whiteness and golden at its center -- is rooted in the mud, yet grows from muck unstained. It symbolizes purity.
The third celestial garden encountered in these carpets is bloodier.
It is a game preserve for mighty potentates. No common people poach it. This garden is a magic realm where the flowers aren't mere flowers; they grin at you with devilish faces.
Here lions stalk their prey and winged angelic beings hover in the air. The finest work of art on view, a 500-year-old fragment from Safavid Iran, depicts such a hunting ground -- also proclaiming the valor and the privilege of fearless fighting kings.
Vines twist through this enchanted wood. As antelope and spotted deer dart among the tendrils, lions pounce upon them and draw blood with their claws.
Caught within that sharp embrace, the little deer are open-mouthed, their heads thrown back in agony. You can almost hear them scream, though, of course, melodiously. The flowers knotted into this amazing Persian carpet are like none you've ever seen. The beasts of prey are curious, too. The dog-faced one at upper right is striped like some strange tiger. Its stripes are green.
A 17th-century Mughal fragment on display nearby is similarly gory. On it two war elephants are sticking their sharp tusks into each other's faces, and graceful flowers nod.
These aren't your usual carpet flowers. Most flowers found on antique rugs are conventionally abstracted -- the roses seen in bird's-eye view, the tulips shown in profile. The daffodils by the elephants appear derived instead from 16th-century European botanical illustrations. Several stages of growth, from buds to fully opened blooms, are also represented on this Mughal rug.
It's hard enough to draw a flower. It's a lot harder to show one in a carpet whose warp and woof and colored yarns inevitably favor rectilinear compositions.
That these daffodils and tulips, peonies and carnations bend gracefully and smoothly is one sign of the quality of the carpets in this show.
They were chosen by curators Sumru Belger Krody and Lydia Fraser. All come from the museum's permanent collection.
Floral Perspectives in Carpet Design will remain on view through Feb. 6. The Textile Museum, 2320 S St. NW, is open Monday through Saturday from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m., and on Sunday from 1 p.m. to 5 p.m. Though $5 donations are encouraged at the door, admission is free.