Textile Masterpieces

At The Museum of Fine Arts, Boston December, 1989

Luxurious textiles made of cotton, silk, or wool were highly prized symbols of wealth and power in many different times and cultures.   Textiles often played a public role, adorning festive occasions and solemnizing religious rituals.  Soft and sensual, yet surprisingly strong, textiles were also an intimate part of the daily lives of the people who owned them.  Carpets and wall hangings brought color and warmth into their homes and palaces.  Bed hangings and curtains decorated the beds where they slept and made love, gave birth, and died.

These extraordinary pieces from the Museum of Fine Art’s textile collection, which is one of the finest in the world, were chosen for their beautiful colors, dazzling designs, and exquisite workmanship.

A 17th century Italian bed-hanging embroidered with silk and metallic yarns shows Orpheus playing on a golden lyre.  He is sitting underneath a leafy tree, surrounded by fabulous animals and birds – peacocks and griffins, hunting dogs and deer, butterflies with golden wings.  Flowers float through the air – iris and lily, peony and rose.  Big single blossoms in full bloom are embroidered in shimmering, iridescent colors flecked with gold. Seeing this bed-hanging first thing in the morning with the sun shining on it must have felt like waking up in a shower of gold.

A knitted silk pile carpet from Persia shows princes hunting on horseback, leaping through rocky mountains, chasing after graceful, frightened deer.  The rug’s border shows the turbaned princes sitting on carpets and feasting after the hunt.

Many textiles look like little gardens, fragrant with flowers.  There are big, highly stylized plants on a velvet panel from Turkey that looks like Art Nouveau.  Delicate birds perching in flowering trees adorn a Mughal silk shawl from India.  The 18th century French designer Philippe de LaSalle, who trained with Francois Boucher and sketched in the royal botanical gardens, brought a light, elegant touch to natural history in a wall hanging which shows a gnarled and knotted branch of deep pink coral, intertwined with dark red roses and a pale green flowering vine.

Ritual textiles were used to decorate churches and shrines, to shroud the bodies of the dead and to preserve holy relics.  On the islands on Indonesia, hanging textiles were used as the backdrop for ceremonies of marriage and birth.  Tiny yellow diamonds dance a jazzy pattern across the dark red background of an Indonesian ceremonial cotton textile showing ships loaded with treasure.

Geometric designs predominated in ancient Peruvian textiles, which were woven from wool yarns.  A burial mantle from 200 BC is embroidered with 60 different birdmen, wearing masks and wings and carrying serpents.  1,824 little squares decorate a 16th century Inca shroud.  Each one contains a pictorial symbol – crosses, diamonds, and zigzags in red, black, white and a faded blue.   A whole mythical universe inhabits a Chinese silk temple hanging woven in gilt-paper-wrapped yarns.  Golden tigers, elephants, cranes and fierce dragons fly high above the clouds in a sumptuous royal blue satin sky, alongside Tibetan masks and Buddhist wheels.

Textiles are displayed throughout the museum, and I kept noticing textiles in the paintings, too.  One of the daughters of Edward Boit in John Singer Sargent‘s painting is sitting on a pale blue Chinese wool pile carpet that probably came to Boston in the 19th century on one of the merchant ships of the China Trade.  The Virgin in Rogier van der Weyden‘s Saint Luke Drawing the Virgin and Child is draped in many skirts and shawls of dark blue and brown silk, each one trimmed with an elaborate border of gauzy gold.

Peter Paul Rubens’ Queen Tomyris is watching the beheading of Cyrus in a dress made of yards and yards of heavy gold-embroidered white silk brocade.  In an Indian miniature, a beautiful woman in a silk sari sits waiting for her lover on a little carpet decorated with hundreds of tiny, ruby-red flowers.

Rugs and blankets, shrouds and shawls:  textiles touched the lives of the people who lived with them.  Slumbering in storerooms, rolled up and protected from light, these textile masterpieces have kept their vibrant colors and something of their human warmth.  Now, unfurled, they look like magic carpets, poised to rise.

by Rebecca Nemser for rebeccanemser.com

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