Saturday, May 11, 2013

Early Textile Art

Marie-Therese Wisniowski

I have often stated on this blogspot that there are three necessary conditions that all artworks possess: (a) they must be “engaged”; (b) they are non-functional; (c) they are aesthetic.

In prehistory textile production was a very time consuming exercise. For example, it has been estimated that using prehistoric processes it would take a total of one hundred and seventeen hours in order to produce a textile, thereby making it an extremely valuable commodity that would be readily traded and certainly repaired rather than discarded.

As we are thinking reeds, just to create a fabric to protect oneself from the elements is hardly typical of our overall needs. Fabrics were created with motifs for religious and non-religious purposes. In doing so, the functionality of the garment was only a purpose and not the total purpose for its creation.

This prehistory does create a dilemma for the modern artists who use fabrics or textiles as their medium to generate their art. Inevitably the historical functionality of fabrics now places much of their work, which has transcended functionality, into the category of the decorative arts - a category that is shared by such diverse areas as glassware, jewelry, lampshades, furniture etc. In modernity, the constant barrage of labeling continues to name art on fabrics and textiles as “decorative art”, even though such art has long escaped this demeaning title; tapestries, art cloth and art quilts – to name a few - have no function other than to be engaged as a work of art.

I therefore will not name this post - “Early Decorative Textiles” - as was the title of the book from which I have procured the images[1]. It is their “art” that stands before you and not the function of the fabric, since in most cases only remnants have survived the elements.

Early Textile Art
Human beings differ form animals in a number of aspects but the three that come to the fore is that we can control fire, we are capable of formulating ideas using abstract thought and moreover, we are the only species that makes clothes to protect ourselves from the elements (cold, heat, rain and wind) and from each other (armour).

Needles first appear in Western Europe on Upper Palaeolithic sites about 35,000 years ago. They show not only a newly found skill in working bone, but also suggest that skins and furs were being used to make such items as clothes, shoes, tents, blankets, nets and bags, as well as the production of thread. Due to the organic nature of the material, none of these articles have survived.

Late Magdalenian, about 12,500 years old
. Note the lack of eyelets.
From the cave of Courbet, Penne-Tarn, France.
Courtesy of the British Museum.

By the Bronze Age (4th millennium BC) clothes may have been made of linen, since fragments were found of plaited and woven cloth in such localities as Egypt, Pontic- Caspian steppes and the lake dwellings of Switzerland, which have been dated as early as the 3rd millennium BC.

Left Figure: Yamnaya Culture (Pontic-Caspian steppes), Dneprorudny village: (a) two imprints of a cloth with a twined warp obtained from a single ceramic vessel; (b) diagram of a textile weave. Right figure: Northern Caucasus Culture, Bamut Burial Mound: (a) imprint of a cloth with a twined warp; (b) diagram of a textile weave.

Patterned textiles in which the basic weave has been supplemented by inlaid weft threads have been found in Egypt, dating from the 22nd Dynasty (945 – 745 BC).

A fragment of ancient tapestry found in a Coptic tomb in Upper Egypt. In the lower portion of it the pattern appears light on dark. As a matter of fact, it was wrought in white and red upon a linen warp; but, as it happened, only the white threads were of linen, like the warp, the red were woolen, and in the course of fifteen hundred years or so much of this red wool has perished, leaving the white pattern intact on the warp, the threads of which are laid bare in the upper part of the illustration. See - "Project Gutenberg" - for more details.

Egyptian reliefs and wall-paintings, like those at Beni-Hasan (2380 – 2167 BC) show what the earliest primitive horizontal looms looked like. The vertical loom made its appearance during the New Kingdom (ca. 1550 – 1070 BC). The warp then lay either vertically or horizontally, and the fabric ws opened with a batten until.

Sketch of the vertical loom and how it was operated.

Though Egyptian paintings have made an important contribution to the study of the development of weaving techniques, other Mediterranean countries, above all Greece and the Kingdoms of the Near East, have provided a wealth of written sources that indicate the first flowering of weaving must have occurred there. For example in the Illiad Homer speaks enthusiastically of “Babylonian cloths” etc.

Grecian Clothes Depicted on the Vase.

Apart from wool and linen, the Assyrians of the 7th and 6th centuries BC were also familiar with silk, which was obtained using their own silkworms. Cotton was mentioned by Herodotus.

Bust of Herodotus. He was born between 500 BC and 470 BC.

Hallstatt is in upper Austria. It is internationally renowned for its prehistoric salt mines (1600 - 1200 BC). The climatic conditions in the mines are such that organic materials – such as textiles – were preserved for over 3000 years. They are some of the oldest dyed textiles in Europe, since they have been dated from the Bronze Age (ca. 1600 – 1200 BC) to the Early Iron Age (Hallstatt Culture, 850 – 350 BC).

Iron Age woven cloth from the Hallstatt salt mines.
Courtesy of Natural History Museum, Vienna.

Some of the first Bronze Age Scythian burials documented by modern archaeologists include the kurgans at Pazyryk in the Ulagan (Red) district of the Altai Republic, south of Novosibirsk in the Altai Mountains of southern Siberia (near Mongolia). Specimens of silk cloth were found in Palmyra (Syria), which means they must reached there before 272 BC, when the city was destroyed.

Horseman, Pazyryk felt artifact, ca. 300 BC.

The caravan route that brought raw silk from China to the borders of Persia and Bactria had been operating since 114 BC. About this time the use of gold thread was becoming established. Chief centrs of silk industry developed at the western end of the caravan route, in towns like Tyre and Berytus (Beirut).

Numerous paintings and mosaics, like those in the Piazza Armerina in Sicily, show garments with decorative panels and applique work.

The great Roman villa near Piazza Armerina in Sicily, built in about AD 300, has mosaic floors. Of their many lively scenes none has given more delight than the group of bikini-clad maidens playing a musical game with a ball!

Byzantium, which Constantine the Great chose as his capital in AD 330, became in due course one of the main centers for the production and distribution of cloth. As a result, links with Eastern manufacturers became even stronger, as did those of Rome with the western half of the empire.

Cloth was woven in the women’s quarters of the imperial palace, and part of the output was reserved for the emperor himself and his chief officials. The dyers, gold-embroiderers and tailors were so tied to their work that before they could stop for even a moment they had to find someone to take their place.

Textiles of the 4th - 5th Century[1]

Nereids riding sea monsters. Fragments of four rows. Silk twill. 4th - 5th century. Sion Cathedral treasure. Formerly used as a reliquary cloth. There are other fragments in the Berlin and Zurich museums. Similar motifs in Alexandrian bone carvings suggest that the cloth may have been made in Eqypt. There are related fabrics with maenads in Sens, with horses in St. Maurice d’Agaune, and in Rimini.

Nilotic scene. Artistic panel. Wool on linen. Ca. 5th century. Louvre, Paris. Pagan motifs were frequently used by Coptic weavers, who developed them according to their own taste. The design includes children, nereids, fishermen, ducks, fish and lotus flower.

Two nereids; borders with birds. Length 1.43 meters. Wool on linen. Egyptian from Akhmim; 4th century. Collection Dumbarton Oaks, Washington. The Nereid on the bull-like animal might represent Europa with Jupiter, the other with the mirror perhaps Venus. Related to Egyptian wool-embroidered fabrics. Similar motifs are found in contemporary sculpture: reliefs from Ahnas in Coptic Museum in Cario or from Oxyrhynchus in Alexandria Museum.

Textiles of the 3rd - 4th Century[1]

Cloth with tapestry-woven bands with a design of vin tendrils and birds. Wool on linen. Egyptian, 3rd - 4th century Victoria and Albert Museum, London. There are related bands with similar Hellenistic designs and colors in, for example, Berlin.

Peacock. Rectangle panel. Wool on linen. Wide linen surround of looped weave. Egyptian, 4th century. Staatliche Museen, Berlin. There are related realistic animal subjects in Brussels and elsewhere. The panel is reminiscent of early designs like those in catacombs in Rome and Cyrene, but this particular design definitely does not have a Christian significance.

Head of Dionysus. One of a pair: in the other the head is looking in the opposite direction. Linen and wool. Egyptian, 3rd - 4th century. Textile Museum, Washington. The garland of vine leaves in the hair identifies it as Dionysus. Still completely Hellenistic in style.

Textiles of the 4th - 5th Century[1]

Orante. Fragment, probably of a wall hanging. Wool on linen. Looped weave. Egyptian 4th - 5th century. Textile Museum, Washington. The man, a saint or priest, wears a tunic decorated with a cruciform design and stands between two tall candlesticks (the left one missing). Between the candlestick and nimbus round his head are two letters. The technique employed links the fragment with earlier looped weaves, but there is a considerable degree of rigidity and stylization in the design. There is a similar piece from Akhmim in London.

The sacrifice of Isaac. Egyptian, 4th - 5th century. Cooper Union Museum, New York. Fragment with a powerful, fluid representation of a Biblical scene and an artistic pattern based on familiar motifs.

Artistic panel. Wool on linen. Egyptian, from Akhmim; 5th century. Collction Berard, Paris. Four vine leaves in a cruciform design are centered on a small square containing a male head. Christian symbolism has been imputed to this design.

Textiles of the 6th - 7th Century[1]

Senmur. Silk twill. From the reliquary of St. Leu in Paris. Sassanian, 6th - 7th century. Victoria and Albert Museum, London. The senmurv – like fish of the hippocampus type – was one of the most important Sassanian royal devices and it remained in constant use not only in post-Sassanian period (224-637 AD) but also in Byzantine fabrics. The motif also occurs in the reliefs at Taki Bostan (457 – 459/483) and in silver reliefs. There is a second piece in the Musee des Arts Decoratifs, Paris.

Cock. Silk twill in superb condition. From a reliquary in the Sancta Sanctorum. Sassanian, 6th - 7th century. Museo Sacro, Vatican. The cock has a numbus and faces left. Between the surrounds are palmette motifs. In color this fabric is close to the Vatican pheasant material, but its design is reminiscent of Sassanian silver ware and of cliff reliefs at Taki Bostan. The freedom of design suggests the material was woven in Persia a little after the Sassanian period.

Patterned material of silk twill. Height 67 cm. Iranian(?), 6th - 7th century. Aaachen Cathedral treasure. Patterned fruit baskets with handles forming a medallion-like design. The strong luminous colors and the stylized plant motif indicate a Near Eastern origin, although no instance of similar fruit baskets has yet been found in Sassanian art.

Textiles of the 8th - 9th Century[1]

Annunciation. Artistic band of silk serge: double warp. From the Sancta Santorum, Rome. Syrian (?), 8th century. Museo Sacro, Vatican. In five colors. Two medallions have survived. The palmettes between the circles provide the clearest indication of the persistence of Sassanian influence. Otherwise, the band is very similar in style to the silks thought to have come from Syria. Perhaps it is the cloth that according to Liber Pontificalis was presented to Leo II (795 – 876).

Medallion with a quadriga design. Silk serge. From Charlemagne’s tomb in Aachen. Byzantine, 8th century. Aachen Cathedral treasure. Height 76 cm, diameter 66 cm. Another piece of this fabric is now in the Cluny Museum in Paris. The surround is decorated with heart-shaped flowers. On either side of the victorious charioteer is a servant with a whip and a garland. Underneath are two others distributing money (a symbol of generosity) as in Byzantine ivory consular diptychs. The subject is also reminiscent of the charioteer fabric in Brussels.

Medallion with elephant-strangler design; very fragmented. Silk serge. Byzantine, 9th century. Collection Dumbarton Oaks, Washington. The bottom half has been lost. This piece has much in common with the lion-strangler on St. Victor’s sudarium in Sens, but it is noticeably more mannered. This can be attributed to the influence of Islamic art. The motif itself is considerably older, occurring as it does in the art of ancient Babylon.

Textiles of the 10th - 11th Century[1]

The two images above belong to the same cloth and are that of a hippocampus and an elephant. Silk serge. Details of a large piece of material illustrating a hippocampi (senmurv), elephants and winged horses in contiguous medallions. Spanish, 11th century. Museo Nazionale del Bargello, Florence. Though this fabric uses all the favorite animal motifs of Sassanian art, it may still be a copy of a Byzantine piece. The elephant motif should be compared with the famous material from Charlemagne’s tomb in Aachen, and the winged horses with the fabric in the Vatican. There are other fragments of this cloth in Berlin, in Museo d’Arte Moderna in Barcelona and in Cooper Union Museum in New York.

Eagles. Purple silk serge. Fragment. Height 1.6 cm, Eagle 75 cm. Byzantine, ca. 1000. The sudarium of St. Germain. St. Eusebe, Auxerre. One of the most beautiful examples of the type of imperial eagle, which was also used to decorate the emperor’s reception rooms. It is very similar to the design on the chasuble in Bressanone. Double-headed eagles were also popular. There are examples of these in Vich, Berlin, Paris and in Abegg Foundation in Berne.

Griffon. Only the protome of the animal survived. Fragment from reliquary. Silk serge. Spanish, 10th - 11th century. Church treasure, Maastricht. Connected with the large lion fabrics in Cologne and Siegburg and the winged lion material in Amsterdam. Probably made in Byzantium.

[1] W. F. Volbach, Early Decorative Textiles, Paul Hamlyn, New York (1969).