Ah, to have lived in the late Roman or early Byzantine empires! Not that life was always that great, but you could dress and decorate with fabulous textiles – if you were rich. Designing Identity: The Power of Textiles in Late Antiquity, the current exhibit at NYU’s Institute for the Study of the Ancient World, provides a fascinating window into that time, specifically the period known as “late antiquity” from about the late third through the seventh century CE, during which Constantine built a new capital, Constantinople, in the eastern half of the empire, and Christianity began making inroads into polytheistic cults. The map at the beginning of the show and the explanatory texts throughout provide needed context.
The 50+ textiles on display would have belonged to the wealthy elite, as making these elaborately decorated garments and wall hangings would have been labor intensive.
The first gallery focuses on Dionysius, whose cult was very important. In this room, all the pieces have images of him, or grapevines (his symbol), or associated gods. In the central case is a stunning short linen tunic, from 5th-6th century; it’s undyed surface provides a perfect background for the bands of woven black wool depicting lions, panthers and dancing warriors. Take a close look at the square panels over the shoulder, with their images of female captives and two men sitting above them, which may reference Dionysius’ campaign in India (and certainly says a lot about the status of women). In the same room are fragments of several wall hangings in vibrant colors, featuring Dionysius, a satyr and Maenad, that would have hung together in the same arcade. There’s one especially lovely hanging with portraits of Dionysian figures framed in roundels of grapevines. Nearby are two small cases, one holding a silver gilt repoussé ewer with Dionysian figures, animals and fish; the other contains the base of an ivory box with carvings of Dionysius’ triumph in India, as well as small carved ivory figures.
Did you know that symposia were originally drinking parties…. plus ça change…
The second gallery explores the ways that clothing and luxury textiles were symbols of status, character and identity, and the role of charms in designs. Greeting you inside the entrance is a magnificent full-length linen shroud, from the 2nd-3rd century, painted with the image of a woman who looks straight at us. Her fringed tunic, gold jewelry and pearl earrings clearly indicate her wealth and high social status.
Against the left wall is a Tunic Fragment with Decorative Bands of Jewels, Crosses & Flowers, the bands woven in blue, yellow, red and black wool on beige linen, from the 5th-7th century. Further along is a Fragment of a Tunic Representing Marine Motifs, and Maenad & Cross Pendants, which is all in beige and tan wool, excepting the upper part whose cross and pendant in color incorporated both pagan and christian motifs.
On the walls and in the cases are numerous exquisite fragments with roundels with geometric motifs, knot-like patterns and interlaced ornamental designs, a few of which have retained their original purple color – there’s a fabulous one with vegetal motifs on the back wall, hung below a larger fragment. You’ll also find fragments with 8-pointed stars with very intricate, lace-like weaves; take a look at the one with the bust of a warrior in its center.
Towards the end, you’ll come across what may have been the original hoodie – a child’s hooded tunic in blue, with woven figures on brown bands on the front and sleeves.
There’s a lot to see in this exhibit; the quality of the pieces is very high, and you’ll want to linger at many of them, so leave yourself time to see it all.
Designing Identity: The Power of Textiles in Late Antiquity runs until May 22nd. Run to see it!