In Fall 2019, Washington DC hosted two major (and jointly planned) exhibits of late antique and early medieval textiles. One, at Dumbarton Oaks, focused on fabrics made for wear and their treatment by modern dealers and collectors, thus furthering a line of inquiry pursued by recent exhibits in New York.1 Its opening was accompanied by the launch of a very fine online Catalogue of the Textiles in the Dumbarton Oaks Byzantine Collection.2 The second exhibit, at the George Washington University Museum and the Textile Museum, explored the use of fabrics as hangings or covers in architectural space. This novel focus, the scale and beauty of the objects, and the high scholarly quality of the printed catalog all merit special praise.
Visitors mounting the central stair of the Textile Museum to approach “Woven Interiors” were greeted by a splendid six-foot-tall tapestry, here depicted in the left foreground of Figure 1. The hanging portrays an archway, itself hung with a curtain, which is pulled to one side by a man whose belted tunic sets off his chunky calves (Cat. no. 1).3 It formed an ideal introduction to a truly exceptional exhibit for several reasons.
First, the format: the large scale qualifies it as a piece, not to be worn, but to be hung; a function playfully referenced in the curtain that it, in turn, depicts. Second, the image: if this presents at first as a scene of welcome, it is at the same time a representation of labor. The catalog identifies the standing figure as a servant, specifically an ostiarius. Nor is he the only such figure in the exhibit: a similarly dressed man, executed in plush loop-pile, stood nearby within yet another archway (Cat. no. 23). As Elizabeth Dospěl Williams writes in her catalogue essay on “Private Spectacle,” such representations raise questions of social context: “we can only imagine the lively effects that these woven representations of servants imparted in the presence of actual servants at work” (38). They simultaneously lead outside of textile into other media, as standing servants also figured frequently in late Roman wall painting, mosaic, relief, and silver.4 And they lead back to their most immediate surrounds, drawing attention to the work of the standing guards who uphold the twenty-first-century institution of the art museum.
Third, the details. Here too there is a subtle play between image and reality. The columns support the archway, even as they present, not as solid stone, but as braided cords in yellow and pink, the interstices filled with repeated vegetal motifs in a light green. The interwoven motifs bring a fictive architectural feature still closer to the medium of textile. They too find parallels within the exhibit: the more complex (and strikingly mismatched) interlace patterns that fill the columns in Cat. no. 4 likewise reflect upon the intersection between structural function and woven medium. And they too point to contemporary experiments in other media: columns both real (those of Hagios Polyeuktos in Constantinople, whose solidity was dissolved by inlay; those of the Red Monastery at Sohag, represented in the catalogue as Fig. 9, which were painted over with lattice work and wavy lines), and imagined (as in the florally elaborated frames of the London Canon Tables).
Fourth, and finally, the condition. The hanging seems to consist of two substantial (and further smaller) fragments: of which one shows the left-hand column, man, and curtain; and the other, the right-hand column and arch. These look to have been cut from their original surrounds and mounted upon a modern backing. The resulting composite is convincing enough, even as it raises questions. Why, for example, is the column at right more faded than that at left? Or, more fundamentally, who did the cutting, who did the mounting, when, and why? Perhaps there are no sure answers, but the explanation given in the catalogue has a whiff of euphemism: “The unadorned, plain-woven sections that once surrounded the servant and the arch have been removed in a later conservation effort” (20).
All of the pieces exhibited at the Textile Museum were borrowed from North American collections. The routes that led from Egypt to America, and by which archaeological artefacts were converted into marketable commodities, would have borne closer scrutiny in the exhibit, as they carry specific implications for the study of architectural textiles. In her catalogue essay on “Comfort at Home,” Sumru Belger Krody notes that “the fragmentary nature of most surviving textiles makes it difficult to guess their original functions” (81). The observation is crucial, while the objects themselves help to qualify the concept of “original function.”
To begin, all of these objects are eminently portable. Even if a hanging or a cover were recovered during excavation of a particular room of a house, this would be evidence only for its deposition, not an exhaustive account of the range of functions that it may once have served. The present-day status of these museum orphans is, in other words, partially reflective of their original functions; their twentieth-century sellers and purchasers perhaps not so different to their ancient makers and owners.
Moreover, many of the hangings shown are in a specific sense generic and interchangeable; or rather, they toy knowingly with stereotype and exchange. Take, for example, the basic element of a figure standing between columns and under or beside an arch, the most common means of dividing up and filling the surface of a hanging, one repeated across many registers and at a variety of scales. The figures can be, as we have seen, servants (Cat. nos. 1 and 23), and also perhaps dancers (the astonishing Cat. no. 31, here identified as a cover). But they can also be gods (the gloriously louche Dionysus of Cat. no. 8), or even their mothers (the Virgin and Child of Cat. no. 30). How is each figure like the others? What qualifies them all to occupy the same relative position?
Each of these objects, in short, carries with it an imperative to look closer—between the columns, beyond the surface—and to discover the details that distinguish it from a notional norm. The exhibit design was brilliant in its simplicity, the rooms ingeniously suffused with sufficient light, each hanging granted plenty of space to breath. One was thereby invited to stand for five, ten, fifteen minutes in front of a single object and inquire into its secrets. Very often these were funny; indeed, I cannot remember an exhibit of ancient art as successful at drawing out its humor. What of the nereid in Cat. no. 12, whose hair is more finely coiffured in her mirror than on her head; what of the impossibly vain lion of Cat. no. 48, who turns mid-stride to pose with wind-blown mane? These are subjective impressions, but of a kind inseparable from the weaver's labor at the loom, from the play between repetition and variation, drudgery and satire.
In her opening chapter, Gudrun Bühl distills a principle for the interpretation of such complex and changeful objects that takes into account both the specifics of craft and the supra-medial imperatives of form:
We are better served if we analyze and valorize the processes of making (the materials and applied techniques) and the processes of designing (everything that drives the conceived and executed plan to choose a certain pattern and decor) in tandem and as equally important, mutually reinforcing layers that together constitute the range of significance and functions in each finished piece of fabric (17).
At root, then, this exhibit dwells at the nexus between commodity and labor; between the specific human intelligence that informs each unique work of weaver's art, and their ultimate fate as objects bought to be mixed, matched, spliced and (very often, as again on Cat. no. 1) brushed aside.
Woven Interiors was a brilliant success, both aesthetically and intellectually. Many exhibits invite visitors to “learn about,” but this understanding of the pedagogical function is (for me at least) wearying if considered as sufficient. Very few exhibits, by contrast, invite visitors to “think with”; to bracket the didactics, if only temporarily, and discover their own modes of engagement with the materials on display. “Woven Interiors” succeeded at both.
The accompanying catalog is equally superb. It is both a worthy after-document, a record for posterity of the mental and organizational efforts that produced the exhibit, and a major contribution to scholarship, specifically to the social semiotics of space (and not only in Late Antiquity). Ultimately, if not always explicitly, it proposes ways of thinking with “contextless” objects, not by falling back upon unreflective aestheticism, but by engaging the imagination instead. Although the catalog was not widely distributed, a digital version is available as a free download.5 Whether on display, as in Figure 1, or back in storage, that man in the tunic stands by, holding the curtain open. As many guests as possible should find their way to the pleasures within.6
Note especially: “Designing Identity: The Power of Textiles in Late Antiquity,” Institute for the Study of the Ancient World, New York, NY, February 25 – May 22, 2016; and “From the Desert to the City: The Journey of Late Ancient Textiles,” Godwin-Terbach Museum, Queens College, Flushing, NY, September 13, 2018 – January 17, 2019; the latter reviewed by Alicia Walker in Studies in Late Antiquity 3 (2019): 313–29.
I cite objects in “Woven Interiors” by reference to the printed catalogue. When possible, I also provide a hyperlink within the text of this article to the relevant online collections database.
Note e.g. Katherine M. D. Dunbabin, “The Waiting Servant in Later Roman Art,” American Journal of Philology 124 (2003): 443–68.
I would be remiss if I did not thank Elizabeth Marlowe for stimulating conversation and lots of good laughs during a January visit to the show at the Textile Museum. All of the false notes are naturally my own.