This month, Queens College announced an acquisition of 85 Coptic textiles that will be part of the Godwin-Ternbach Museum. The delicate fabric fragments from late antiquity are adorned with sea nymphs riding dolphins, vibrant birds in primary colors, geometric motifs, and portraiture, all visualizing the diversity of pagan and Christian religion and culture that was occurring in Byzantine-era Egypt from the third to seventh centuries. The collection is a gift from the estate of the late Rose Choron, bolstering the ancient holdings of the New York City museum.
“They wanted to donate all these pieces to a small museum that would use them and teach with them as opposed to a larger museum that would put them in storage,” Elizabeth Hoy, collections curator and manager of the museum, told Hyperallergic. Although some New Yorkers may be unfamiliar with the art institution in Queens, it has more than 6,000 objects from Early Mesopotamia up to 21st century art. From May 15 to 20, selections from the Coptic textile acquisition will go on view alongside an exhibition of contemporary Taiwanese fiber art.
A larger exhibition on the textiles is tentatively planned for 2018 or 2019. Back in 1999 the collection was exhibited at the Krannert Art Museum at the University of Illinois, and traveled to the Harvard University Art Museums and to the Indianapolis Museum of Art. Choron, who started collecting the textiles while studying psychology in Zurich, once stated that she was drawn to their “unbelievable variety in style and character, which may be graceful, sophisticated, carefully crafted in one piece, and utter naive, grotesque, almost crude in another.” Like those textiles recently displayed in Designing Identity: The Power of Textiles in Late Antiquity at New York University’s Institute for the Study of the Ancient World, the Godwin-Ternbach Museum textiles were often everyday garments that became burial shrouds, preserved by the dry Egyptian climate.
“Unfortunately what happened was when they were discovered, the most decorative parts of the tunics that the buried were wearing were cut out and sold on the market,” Hoy explained. “I think it’s also really interesting that the Egyptians would, as their tunic would start to fall apart, cut out the embroidered parts themselves and reattach them. You can see the ancient stitches where they sewed it onto something else.”
One bright yellow piece of linen has a wide-eyed portrait of a wealthy woman on a lobed square animated by green birds and whimsical sea nymphs; another sleeve band has a black wool scene of swimmers and ducks sewn on linen. Greek gods like Eros appear along with followers of the Roman Bacchus, while Egyptian flora and fauna mingle in the patterns.
“There were just so much cross cultural happenings in terms of different religions in Egypt for this time period,” Hoy said. “These textiles are a really amazing visual representation of that, showing the Greek and Roman influence and the Christian development and what would go on to influence Islamic art. There was so much going on, it just really shows that this idea of globalization is very old.”
At Queens College, the rare textiles will be an active teaching and scholarly resource for the students. In a release, Professor Warren T. Woodfin, the Kallinkeion assistant professor of Byzantine studies who helped facilitate the acquisition, stated that their “number and variety should make these pieces fertile ground for student research, whether into the textiles’ subject matter, weaving techniques, style, or even the history of collecting.”
Read more about the Coptic textile acquisition at the Godwin-Ternbach Museum of Queens College’s Kupferberg Center for the Visual and Performing Arts.