Dressing Ancient Bodies and Spaces


Woven Interiors: Furnishing Early Medieval Egypt
The Textile Museum

Ornament: Fragments of Byzantine Fashion
Dumbarton Oaks Museum

Some of the most fragile and ephemeral relics of ancient life are now on display in Washington, D.C., where two concurrent exhibitions present textiles from late antique and early medieval Egypt.

Art collections around the globe contain hundreds of thousands of these so-called Coptic textiles, but they are rarely exhibited. Excavated mainly in the 19th and early 20th centuries, most of them come from the antiquities market and survive usually as fragments, from which it is difficult to tell their original form and function. We are mostly sure only about their final uses: Worn-out tunics, curtains, or rugs, they come primarily from graves, as they were ultimately repurposed as burial shrouds.

The Textile Museum exhibit Woven Interiors: Furnishing Early Medieval Egypt—co-organized with Dumbarton Oaks—presents furnishing textiles. Including floor and wall covers, bedding, tablecloths, and curtains, furnishings were omnipresent in the late antique and early medieval world: in both religious and secular settings. The exhibit and accompanying volume address the issues of techniques and aesthetics of furnishing textiles and their interplay with other visual elements, such as architecture, mosaics, and wall paintings, in creating interior spaces.

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The Dumbarton Oaks exhibit Ornament: Fragments of Byzantine Fashion focuses on dress. While examining the aesthetic qualities and effects of these textiles, the curators also pay attention to their history as grave goods and archaeological artifacts, critically considering the role of dealers, collectors, and museums in their survival and modern appreciation. Often bearing visible evidence of ancient bodies that were once wrapped in them, these textiles offer an intimate entry point for contemplating ancient lives.

On display at the Textile Museum is also a hanging with the Nereids (nymphs of the calm sea) set in a scene filled with fish, waterfowl, and aquatic plants. The semi-nude Nereids (see the detail here) are riding dolphins and seahorses; border design features grazing winged horses. Made in Egypt between 300 and 599 C.E., the piece used to hang nearly 7 feet long. Complete textiles, such as this one, are rare, because they were often cut up by dealers to multiply their profits.

Related reading in Bible History Daily:

Qumran Clothing Suggests Scroll Authors Were Essene

Tablets of Jewish Exiles

How Bad Was the Babylonian Exile?

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