Grape vines and dancing warriors decorate a 6th-century CE tunic from Egypt, with two figures drinking from wine glasses hidden on the shoulder, a jovial detail you’d only see up close. Its Dionysian motifs, arranged in bands and circles, suggest it was a garment meant for reveling; yet the murky stains on the linen are evidence of its final use as a shroud. Most textiles that survive from Late Antiquity were, after use by the living, turned into clothes for the dead. The bacchanal imagery of a tunic worn for a feast transformed into symbolism of good spirits for the grieving or the god of wine’s journey to the underworld.
Over 50 examples of textile garments and furnishings are on view in Designing Identity: The Power of Textiles in Late Antiquity at New York University’s Institute for the Study of the Ancient World. Curated by Thelma K. Thomas, associate professor of fine arts at the Institute of Fine Arts, it includes loans from the Metropolitan Museum of Art, Brooklyn Museum, Cleveland Museum of Art, Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, and other institutions. These are usually in storage, their fragile fibers rarely on public view, as it’s only through their use in cemeteries that the textiles resisted decay. Designing Identity looks at how their imagery reflects the lives and beliefs of Late Antique Mediterranean society.
Christianity was overtaking the polytheist religions of the Roman Empire, and on the textiles these devotions often mingle, such as a maenad dancing alongside a cross. Even with the rise of Christianity, there remained a strong belief in magic, with symbols and patterns of protection appearing on many textiles.
For example, the tunic of a child has two large roundels with winding lines on a hood, to pull down as protection against the evil eye and other dangers. A furnishing covered with flourishing vines might have been a totem for prosperity. Others have more direct charms, like a beautifully intricate fabric fragment decorated with overlapping patterns in a large L-shape and circle, a woven version of Solomon’s demon-repelling knot.
Designing Identity approaches each of these objects as something very personal to the owner, although they were all part of the wealthy elite, rich enough to commission a handmade garment with the fine stitching. What differentiates them is the selected imagery, and Designing Identity considers why one person wore a portrait of a woman, while another decorated their home with a tapestry of a satyr. And that imagery gives small glimpses into their lives. The blue hair on portraits in one late 6th to 7th century CE tapestry indicates it was viewed by flickering candlelight, when the vivid colors, woven with different lengths of thread for shadowy depth, would have been subdued and natural.
On entering one of the two exhibition galleries, a beautiful painted shroud greets you, the woman’s gaze as she’s paused mid-stride arresting centuries after the textile was placed in a tomb, sometime between the 2nd and 3rd century. Her garb is Roman, with a basic tunic and gold jewelry, but by her side is the Egyptian god Anubis. She belonged to both cultural worlds in life, and death. Like each of the objects in Designing Identity, the shroud offers a rare view of Late Antiquity through one of its most personal materials.
Designing Identity: The Power of Textiles in Late Antiquity continues through May 22 at the Institute for the Study of the Ancient World (15 East 84th Street, Upper East Side, Manhattan).
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