The ancient, tattered tapestries of "The Roman Heritage: Textiles From Egypt and the Eastern Mediterranean, 300 to 600 A.D.," at the Textile Museum, 2320 S St. NW, are not what one expects. Those who like to dream of the Egypt of the Pharaohs, or of the saints and Caesars of the latter days of Rome, may find them disappointing. Despite their gods and goddesses, their nymphs and winged horses, few of them are glorious. Their imagery is often crude; their scale is domestic. Yet they conjure up a world.
Byzantium was thriving, Christianity was spreading, lions wearing jewels and gold dust in their manes were killing one another in the Colosseum when these works were made. "This was an age," writes curator James Trilling, who put this show together, "of wars, insurrections, assassinations, riots, heresies, universal intolerance, violent sectarian strife, barbarian incursions, and the displacement of people on an unprecedented scale." One feels little of that violence in these humble bits of cloth. Instead, they call to mind a time of gradual transition. The old, the antique Roman world is already dying; the new, the medieval world is already being born.
The oldest tapestries on view portray goddesses with ibises, or the young Dionysus in his crown of leaves. A number of the newest already show the cross. But the styles of these objects have changed only slightly. A lethargy of sorts, a slow but steady fading of tradition, is felt throughout this show.
The 117 objects on display are tunic decorations or bits of weaving cut from cushion covers, shawls, wall hangings or shrouds. Although almost all were recovered long ago, probably by grave robbers, from the dry sands of Egypt, not one of these fabrics seems particularly Pharaonic. They look colonial. The practice of mummification had already been abandoned when these things were woven, but the colonialized Egyptians still dressed their dead in riches. Though few whole tunics have been saved, the fragments on display are by no means rare.
"They are," says Trilling, "among the most common--and among the least studied--artifacts of the Roman world. More than 30,000 have survived."
We know from the clothing seen in old mosaics that many of these bands, squares and medallions were sewn to linen tunics. Their shapes are repeated almost as frequently, and their designs are almost as varied, as those of modern neckties. The shape of the medallion, while it isolates and frames, and thus confers importance on the image in it, also subordinates that image to an overall design. These medallions might enclose deer or dogs or lions, or abstract interlacings, or faces, crosses, leaves. Some are monochrome, others brightly colored. One of the most beautiful is a tunic roundel from the late 4th century. Worked in linen thread that has been wound with gold, it shows a bearded face surrounded by an intricate design of interwoven lines.
The colored fragments here are even more impressive. One shows a running animal wearing a red collar. It seems to have a dog's paws and the long ears of a hare. Another piece as splendid is a fragment of a hunting scene which links the rounded modeling of old Roman painting with the more abrupt and flatter forms of Byzantine art.
Many of these textiles have long been known as "Coptic." But that term, with its hints of Christianity in Egypt, fits rather poorly. They don't look Christian or Egyptian. Their style is the style of the last days of Rome. Many have never been exhibited before. Trilling's catalog is fine and his show is moving. "The Roman Heritage" closes Sept. 11.