25 May 2015

"Roman in the Provinces" life at the edge of empire

Funerary relief of woman, Palmyra, 125 - 150 CE.

The exhibit "Roman in the Provinces: Art on the Periphery of the Empire" is a timely, welcome and fresh look at the material culture of various peoples conquered, in the military sense, but never quite subjugated culturally, by Rome.  In the eastern-most regions of the Roman Empire, today's Syria and Jordan, the emperor was acknowledged in public inscriptions incised not in Latin, but in Greek - the heritage of Alexander the Great's earlier victories.

The woman memorialized in the sculpture shown above is depicted as a proper Roman matron, with the spindle and distaff symbolic of domestic virtue, but her name, Shagal, in carved in Aramaic, the spoken language of ancient Palestine and Judea.  In addition to linguistic traditions, pre-Roman, and, eventually, early Christian rituals, thrived within a framework of Roman governance.

The show, artfully installed in the two floors of the McMullen Museum at Boston College, features a breadth of objects in glass, clay, stone, fiber, and metal.  A special highlight, and the focus of this post, are the more than forty textile fragments, some over 1400 years old, lent by collectors Donald and Barbara Tellalian, and rarely exhibited. One of precious fragments, of a rooster, is featured on the exhibit poster.   A note on dates and materials: dates given are all CE, Christian Era; the textile fragments are made of dyed wool and plain linen.

Left: exhibit poster. Right: Textile fragment with rooster, Egypt, 5-6th cent.

From the exhibit wall text, "Weaving Identities":

While most textiles have perished, a significant number survived in graves in the dry earth of Egypt.  Many date from the fourth to ninth century and are made of linen and dyed wool.  Just as today, in late antiquity textiles were everywhere.  Their principal use was for clothing that in addition to covering the body could also express various identities: gender, age, social status, profession, religion, and cultural and regional affiliations.  In homes, textiles covered cushions and beds and served as curtains and tablecloths.  In churches they were used as altar cloths, chalice covers, and screens.  In pagan temples they were presented as lavish gifts to the gods whose images they sometimes clothed.  Highly valued, textiles often were reused until threadbare.

Commonly produced in the home, textiles were also made in factories in late antique Egypt.  Limits on their cost are set in the price edict of Emperor Diocletian, where they are the most mentioned item.  The demand for textiles throughout the empire and their portability meant that their imagery was widely disseminated.  They bear motifs drawn from the many cultures found within the empire, decorations that also appear in other media like mosaic, glass, stone, ceramic and metal.  Many of these images allow for multiple interpretations depending on the context of their use and their audience.  Grapevines, for example, held significance for both pagans and Christians, though in different ways.
Textile roundel, Egypt 5-6th cent. Photo: Yale University Gallery.

For example, in the textile roundel above we know the central female figure is a deity, because of the nimbus, or halo, around her head, but her exact identity is open to interpretation. She may be Tyche, a Greek goddess whose Roman counterpart, Fortuna, brings prosperity, but, placed in the center of a cruciform shape, she may also represent a Christian saint.

From the wall text we learn that the fragments are, well, fragmentary, because these pieces were cut from larger textiles by dealers who felt only the decorated portions were worthwhile. So it is hard to understand how these little pieces of cloth might have been used in apparel or home furnishings.  A few fortunate survivors show  more of the body of the garments embellished by the roundels and borders.

Fragment of decorated tunic, Egypt, 7-8th cent.

In the image above, the neckline of the tunic featured decorative bands which continue vertically; the vertical bands are clavi (from the same root word as clavicle).  In the image below, a detail of a 3rd century fresco in Sicily, the hunters wear tunics with similar decoration. The roundels near the bottom hem of their tunics are orbiculi.

Mosaic, Villa Romana del Casale. source: http://www.villaromanadelcasale.it/

Tunic, Egypt. 7-9th cent.

The image above is from //www.metmuseum.org/exhibitions/listings/2012/byzantium-and-islam/blog/topical-essays/posts/fashion and shows a tunic with its clavi and orbiculi intact. This basic t-shaped garment was the everyday wear for men and children; women wore a longer garment called the tunica.

Elaborate tapestry weaving was used to decorate the home too, including the cushions and covers of the stone couches on which upper class citizens reclined during banquets, in good Roman fashion.  Although the figure below is memorialized dressed in Palmyrene priestly attire, he reclines, Roman style, on a couch covered with banded textiles.

Funerary relief with banquet scene, Palmyra, 200-250 CE.

Cushion cover fragment, Egypt 5-6th cent. 

The image above, featuring a dancer surrounded by bowls of fruit, is a cushion cover which, unusually, retains remnants of its fringed loop decoration; it must have been quite a plush item to lean on when new.

Larger fragments give an exciting glimpse of how color was used in these antique textiles. In the piece below the decorated band connects red and black borders. The image is a bit difficult to see but the pattern features a figure with a halo and upraised arms, flanked by pairs of nude figures with shoulder cloaks, and birds. Bacchus? Christian saint? It's a mystery.

Textile fragment with dancers and birds in heraldic pairs, Egypt 8-9th cent.

Some of the textiles are clearly associated with Christianity, such as the roundel below, which shows an ankh, the ancient Egyptian symbol for life, retooled as a Christian cross. The proto-cross is surrounded by a pattern of vines and grapes, suggesting that this fragment decorated an altar cloth used for celebrating the Eucharist, possibly in an Egyptian church.

Textile roundel with interlace, Egypt, 4th cent.

Mosaic, San Vitale, Ravenna. http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:San_Vitale_in_Ravenna_06.jpg

The image above, depicting a mosaic from the Basilica of San Vitale, a church whose construction began in 526 CE, shows an altar with decorative roundels.

On the other hand, some of the textile fragments have an imperial Roman connection, such as the fragment below, featuring an eight-pointed star encircling a tree of life motif, with an outer border of dancers. The purple color, which may be true Tyrian purple, or, in this case, an imitation of that expensive dye, was traditionally only permitted on clothing used by emperors or senators; later the color was also allowed on certain religious garments.

Some of the textiles have retained their colors remarkably well, including the complex band below, sandwiched by rare remnants of plain linen weave.

Textile band with birds and foliage, Egypt, 7th cent.

Textile band, detail.

The exhibit included pre-recorded video demonstrations of glass-blowing and intaglio carving, but revealed little about the process by which these decorative bands were created, one of the few weaknesses of an otherwise stellar exhibit. To be fair, perhaps the process has yet to be researched and described.  It's clear, though, this that embellishment was time-consuming and hence a costly luxury, conveying status on the wearer.

Textile fragment with roundels with dancers, grapevines and lions. Egypt, 5-6th cent.

Detail, showing plain linen and dyed wool.

So, aesthetically, the late antiquity approach to the embellishment of clothing seems to favor attaching decorated bands or roundels to plain linen garments. Perhaps some dyestuffs were too costly to use to color entire garments, or perhaps representational motifs on garments gave the wearer status, or even protection, like a woven amulet. The band in the image above features colored ducks, a symbol of abundance, as well as grapevines surrounding a red fruit, which might well be a pomegranate, symbol of fertility.

The narrow bands as well as the roundels typically incorporate beautiful borders as well as central motifs - a lot of thought was given to the transition from field to edge in the design, and this is found in other objects, large and small, in the exhibit. Just one example is the newly-restored floor mosaic fragment below, from the church of Bishop Paul, in Gerasa (now Jorash, Jordan.)

Mosaic floor fragment, limestone, c. 526 CE.

Border detail, floor mosaic fragment.

For an exhibit on culture at the boundaries of an empire, it seems fitting to end with a craftman's careful attention to another kind of periphery, in a timeless work of art.

There is a catalog, with 15 essays, accompanying the exhibit, ISBN 978 1 892 85022 5.

14 May 2015

Wedding bouquet memory

Happy daughter with floral arrangement.

My daughter wed last year, carrying the colorful bouquet in the image above.  When the newlyweds jaunted off on their honeymoon the floral arrangements came home with us.  It seemed very sad to just discard the flowers after the ceremony, but how to preserve them?  Dried flowers make me expect Miss Havisham to descend the stairs, ruined wedding dress trailing behind. Not a mental picture to conjure up for a happy memory.  

I happened to have a book on digital printing on fabric, borrowed from the library, lying around, and one of the images was a floral wreath. Eureka! I dug out pieces of white fabric and black fabric, carefully dis-assembled the bouquet and laid everything out on a table in the porch. 

Flowers on white.

 First, I tried the blossoms and stems on white fabric. Not so much impact.


Voila! On black fabric, dynamite!  Since I hadn't planned ahead for this - and the flowers were fading fast - my only option was a piece of black linen from my stash. I would recommend using black velvet for a nicer background.

I photographed the wreath on the black fabric, played a little bit with it in Picasa to even out the tones and got the image printed and framed in a chunky black frame, with no mat (spacers keep the glass off the photo surface.) This is my gift to the couple for their first anniversary next week. Do you think they will like it?

Bridal wreath picture, sitting in my garden.