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Reviewed by:
  • Designing Identity: The Power of Textiles in Late Antiquity ed. by Thelma K. Thomas
  • Mary Harlow
Designing Identity: The Power of Textiles in Late Antiquity Thelma K. Thomas, Ed. Princeton: Princeton University Press 2016. ISBN: 978-0691169422

This exhibition catalog contains excellent colour illustrations, catalog information, and accompanying scholarly chapters. It will appeal to a wide audience of textile archaeologists, specialists in Late Antiquity, museum curators, collectors, and art historians as well as to those with a general interest in the past and in textile art. [End Page 287]

The first section, "Textiles for Clothing and Furnishings: Putting Late Antique Roman Society on Display" is introduced by Thomas's chapter on "Material Meaning in Late Antiquity," which discusses how textiles, both within the household and on the body, help form the cultural identities of individuals and groups. Noting the role of curtains and soft furnishing in transforming the social spaces of the late antique house, Thomas provides commentary on the symbolism and implications of certain iconographic programs, such as the continued use of images of Penelope as a motif interweaving textile production and female virtue, and the pervasiveness and polyvalent use of Dionysus and Dionysian imagery. The article illustrates how textiles can be used to create a range of ambiences and to render a single space multi-functional, depending on the needs of the household.

The multiplicity of meaning that can be ascribed to particular images is also part of Jennifer Ball's discussion of "Charms: Protective and Auspicious Motifs." Ball highlights the use of certain symbols, such as knots, the cross/ankh, and vegetal imagery, which act as charms to ward off evil and the attract prosperity—noting the prevalence of amuletic motifs on children's clothing, especially borders and cuffs where evil may enter the body.

In "The Continuity of Late Antique Patterns," Evans focusses on the interplay between continuity, tradition and innovation as reflected in items from Egyptian burial context now at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. Intricately woven vines and vegetal motifs which make reference to prosperity and abundance; hunters or soldiers, and exotic animals illustrate the employment of Dionysiac imageries, motifs that, according to Evans, came to represent commonly held notions of "the good life," and lost their associations with paganism. As a case-study of the new cultural and religious dispensation introduced by Islamic aesthetics, Evans uses depiction of the eight-pointed star.

The first section ends with a short chapter, again by Thomas, on "Making Textiles and Assessing their Value" which describes some of the techniques of textile production, from the cultivation of raw material through to the end product. This is an essential part of assessing the value and craftsmanship of textiles and of understanding the key role they played in the economic, cultural and visual world of Late Antiquity.

The second section, "Late Antique Textiles in Modern Times: Collecting and Collections," considers the fate of some collections in US museums. Writing on curtain hangings from the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, Kondoleon expands many of the points made by Thomas by stressing the need to view the architectural space of the late antique house as an expression of the owner's world and his place within it. She draws attention to the shared iconographic repertoire of workshops in different media (weavers, wall painters, and mosaicists), all effectively used to create the overall effect. Kondoleon argues that textile fragments, particularly those on which imaginary colonnades are woven, are part of the desire to create an illusion of space and lightness effected also through wall paintings. Weavers of textiles could create imagery which played with real and pictorial space, with images that were idealised or realistic. Textile designs could defined space but also blurred boundaries, it could serve as decoration yet also present highly symbolic imagery.

In "Collecting and Exhibiting Late Antique Textiles at the Brooklyn Museum," Bleiberg offers a brief overview of the fortune of this collection. It seems [End Page 288] to have fared far better when under the care of ethnographer Stewart Culin in the 1920s than it has subsequently, despite the creation of a permanent gallery of Coptic Art in 1943. Culin had encouraged engagement with contemporary...


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