Woven portrait busts were a popular way to decorate clothing and soft furnishings in late Roman (third-fourth century C.E.) and Byzantine (fourth-seventh century C.E.) Egypt.  Records show that woven busts could sometimes portray real people.  For example, the Emperor Gratian (d. 383 C.E.) sent the Consul Ausonius a tunic inwoven with a portrait of Constantius.[1]  While the weaving displayed here, a bust of a woman surrounded with a jeweled border, may represent a real person, the textile gives no indication of her identity.  Three textiles with similar imagery, materials and techniques, two in the Victoria and Albert Museum and one in Berlin’s Staatlichen Museen, also do not specify their bust’s identity.  Like the Cooper Hewitt textile, these examples do not include identifying attributes, like cornucopia that accompany figures of the god Dionysus.  Perhaps these busts were generic figures, or perhaps the identity of the figures held personal, rather than public, relevance to their owners.  Shading in the depiction of the jewels in the framework aims to resemble the cabochon rubies and roughly faceted emeralds used in fine jewelry.  The depiction of the Empress Theodora in the Basilica San Vitale uses similar shading to depict the Empress’s jewels.



[1] Francisque Michel, Recherches, p. 20, note 2 (Ausonius ad Gratianum imp. Pro cons. XXI.)., cited in Kendrick, Albert Frank. Catalogue of Textiles from Burying-grounds in Egypt. Vol. 1. London:  HM Stationery Off., 1920, p. 55.

 

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