Greetings from Roman Egypt

THE DAILY PIC: A textile show at ISAW gives a window onto Christian Rome.


THE DAILY PIC (#1545): This decorative panel from a tunic was woven in around the year 500 AD (aka, 500 CE), in Egypt when it was part of the flourishing Eastern Roman Empire, for which we now use the misnomer “Byzantium.” The panel (Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, Inv. 35.87 1931) is in the wondrous little show called “Designing Identity: The Power of Textiles in Late Antiquity” at NYU’s Institute for the Study of the Ancient World, a fairly recent addition to New York’s cultural and intellectual scene thanks to funding from Shelby White and her Leon Levy Foundation. (Disclosure: I am currently a fellow in the Levy-funded Center for Biography at the CUNY Graduate Center.)

The show reveals a few things about the world its objects come out of:

— The Roman Empire was as committed to extravagant display and craft as most other pre-industrial cultures have been. The austere, white-on-white, bank-and-courthouse image that we have of Romanitas was a creation of 18th-century neoclassicists. (Italian artists in the 15th-century came closer to the mark, with their visions of ancient Romans as favoring golden curlicues and purple pomp.)

— There was amazing uniformity to the visual culture of Rome. Most of the textiles in the ISAW show have strong links to the imagery and stylings that we know from classical antiquity’s statuary, reliefs, mosaics and murals. Think about it for a minute, and you realize that this tunic decoration from Egypt could almost as easily have been the design for a mosaic floor in Roman Britain.

— As I said, the textiles at ISAW mostly represent themes and motifs matched elsewhere in classical culture, although sometimes their weavers used a very crude, early-medieval manner in rendering them. I wonder if this gives us a kind of prehistory for the “substitutional” model that ruled a bit later on in Byzantine Christian icons. In Constantinople, so long as two icons featured the same religious figures and poses they counted as the same objects, no matter how utterly different they might look. Was this just a holdover from an attitude that had already prevailed in Rome, even in secular imagery?

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