Dressing Up in Late Antique Egypt: A Review of ISAW’s ‘Designing Identity’

by contributing editor Jake Purcell

One of the joys of being in New York is the relative plethora of late-antique objects scattered throughout the city. The Met does not exactly have a late antique room, but, in a corridor gallery alongside a staircase, you can make your way around the Mediterranean from a Roman case to a Byzantine case and across many cases of various Germanic groups (Visigothic, Frankish, or Avar, to name a few). The pieces of Germanic metalwork collected by J.P. Morgan that did not make their way to the Met share a room with cuneiform tablets and seals at the Morgan Library, also home to some famous late antique manuscripts. Recently, the Cloisters hosted a number of late Roman and Germanic rings that were part of the Griffin Collection, some of which are still on display. The numerous university libraries serve as another source of material: in a couple of weeks, my students will visit a handful of late antique papyri in Columbia’s Rare Books and Manuscripts Library.

To these treasuries, we can now add the Institute for the Study of the Ancient World—at least, until May 22. The exhibition Designing Identity: The Power of Textiles in Late Antiquity includes more than fifty textile objects (and a handful of non-textile items), almost all of which were probably associated with Egypt between about the third and seventh centuries CE. Curator Thelma K. Thomas assembled a diverse collection of stunning items on loan from the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston, Dumbarton Oaks, the Brooklyn Museum, the University of Michigan’s Kelsey Museum of Archaeology, the Cleveland Museum of Art, and the Met, among other institutions. The result is a delightful and refreshingly current exhibition that teaches its viewer what to make of an unfamiliar and occasionally opaque corpus of material.

Designing Identity conceives of identity principally as a set of choices about personal and household adornment that yield a display. The various objects demonstrate how a wealthy, mostly eastern Roman elite could thus express “ideals of self, household, and society through materials, techniques, and the types and decorations of garments and furnishings.” The first gallery shows how this might work through a case study of different uses of specifically Dionysian motifs in different household items. A second room demonstrates a large chunk of the range of possibilities for expression, often within categories like Christian or pagan, abstract or figurative, starkly minimalist or boldly colored.

'Designing Identity' has a lot of delightful twists. Take this hanging (fifth century, possibly from Egypt, now belonging to the MFA) with a servant dressed in a tunic who is pulling back a curtain in a stone arcade. How often do premodernists get to see cloth depicted in cloth, let alone alongside stone and flesh and in such vivid polychromy? Elsewhere in the same gallery, there are three complete tunics: one for an adult, one for a child, and one for a doll.

‘Designing Identity’ has a lot of delightful twists. Take this hanging (fifth century, possibly from Egypt, now belonging to the MFA) with a servant dressed in a tunic who is pulling back a curtain in a stone arcade. How often do premodernists get to see cloth depicted in cloth, let alone alongside stone and flesh and in such vivid polychromy? Elsewhere in the same gallery, there are three complete tunics: one for an adult, one for a child, and one for a doll.

Textiles emerge as an extremely effective source for talking about elite identity. They were widely traded, and so a wide range of choices were likely to have been available to eastern Roman elites. Textiles were also valued highly—by weight, silk cost more than ivory or silver. Finally, it’s so easy, given their relative rarity now, to forget how ubiquitous textiles were in the late-antique world. The category “textile” includes clothes, other kinds of personal adornment, wall hangings, and furniture coverings, to name a few of the types of object on display. Textiles also reflect a version of identity that is firmly grounded in materiality. The exhibition explains how linen and dyed wool were paired to create dramatic contrasts of dark and light, how thicker threads of linen were used to weight down the bottom of tunics so they would drape properly, and how threads of different thicknesses could be fused to generate sculptural effects. Identity here is not abstract philosophizing, but the product of resources, labor, and expertise.

The exhibition asks a lot of the visitor. The panels themselves do some serious heavy lifting: whether it be narrating late antiquity as something other than the fall of Rome, explaining the techniques used to produce textiles, providing an overview of the different associations that Dionysus could have, and teasing out the complicated geometry and cosmology behind some of the more abstract patterns. It is often left to the viewer to combine all of this information to determine how any individual object might display identity. Smaller acts of historical imagination are explicitly encouraged along the way, however—perhaps as a way of encouraging the viewer to practice. For example, the exhibition often describes how a textile might be draped over a piece of furniture in situ, and asks the viewer to imagine a room coated in hangings and also awash in portable objects of silver and ivory.

Identity in the late antique world is a big, hairy topic of scholarly research. In fairly basic strokes, there are the persistent questions of antiquity about what it meant to be Roman, made even more obscure in late antiquity by the fracturing of the empire into western and eastern portions. What were the elements of Romanitas and Hellenism? Turning to the Germanic groups, to what extent is it helpful to think of the distinctions among them as ethnic distinctions? Scholars have done a lot of work to break down the idea of a culture package in which language, material culture, and personal characteristics must all go together, but how do these elements relate to one another, and what constrains the range of possible expressions that an individual can make with, say, a tunic?

Designing Identity does not set out to raise all of these questions, most of which emerge concretely only when zooming out beyond Egypt to the late antique world more broadly. (The move need not have been quite so big—late antique textiles, and Egyptian textiles in particular, traveled widely; and could be used, for example, to wrap relics in Merovingian Gaul.) The exhibition does, however, provide a set of tools for thinking in specific ways about how identity functioned in the context of late antique Egypt: identity emerged out of a set of choices intended to convey social standing, function, and belief to a viewer through objects.

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