Antique Byzantine Art Textiles and Weaving Symbolized the Wealth of the Empire
The Byzantine Empire, or Byzantium, consisted of the remnants of the Roman Empire after the fall in the 5th Century AD. The Byzantine Empire continued to exist for another thousand years until it would later fall to the Ottoman Turkish Empire in 1453. Throughout its history, the Byzantine Empire achieved a high level of art and culture that would have an impact on the civilizations that followed. Traces of Byzantine art can still be found in the artwork of the Ottoman Empire and others. Among these works of art, their skill and advancement of the Byzantine textile arts is one of their most notable contributions to global culture.
The Church and Byzantine Art
Many of the surviving examples of Byzantine art is of religious nature, particularly those displaying iconography. The images of saints and important people were carefully controlled and standardized by the Christian Church. Byzantine artwork spread throughout the world and included art and architecture in Italy, Egypt, Arabia, Russia, Romania, and many places in between. Few pieces of Byzantine textiles have survived through the years, but we can understand their high level of development by examining miniatures and paintings of the time.
Antique Artistic Byzantine Textiles
It is easy to see from these paintings that Byzantine art textiles were in vibrant colors, with a preference for reds and blues. They also used bright oranges and purples. This shows a highly developed control of the dye processes and procedures. At that time, all of these brilliant colors would have been created using only plant dyes.
Currently, one of the largest collections of Byzantine art textiles in the world is housed in the Byzantine and Christian Museum in Athens, Greece. This museum has about 1,000 antique textile pieces dating from the 5th to the 12th centuries. From this collection, we can learn quite a bit about Byzantine textiles. One of the things that stands out the most about this collection is the level of fine detail and advanced textile weaving techniques that were used, particularly in objects intended to be used for religious purposes.
Antique Textiles in Byzantine Constantinople
Constantinople, in Anatolia, was seated at the crossroads of the Middle East, Asia, and Europe. As such, it was home to one of the most extensive trade networks in the world. The Byzantines of Constantinople became extremely wealthy, and they dressed to show off their success. Visitors often commented about the finery of the clothing worn by the populous. They were made from the finest silks, in purple, and laden with gold threads. These were typically reserved for royalty elsewhere, but it seems that in Constantinople, this was more common street attire.
The textile arts were one of the most respected crafts to the Byzantines. They were considered high art, just as much as painting, sculpture, and architecture. Many of the textiles followed the standards set forth to control the other arts by the Byzantine Church, which would later become the Greek Orthodox Church. For the most part, the body of existing textiles are those used by the Church for special occasions, rather than those worn for everyday purposes.
In the early part of the Empire, China had strict control over silk production. The Byzantines had to purchase silk from the Chinese. However, in the 6th century AD, the Byzantines acquired the secret of silk production. The story goes that a group of monks was sent to smuggle silkworm eggs out of China. By the 7th century, they had mastered the production techniques to the point where they no longer had to import silk from the Chinese. Many of the finest silk textile examples that have survived, were woven in intricate patterns and then embroidered with gold thread.
The silk industry in Constantinople was divided into five highly specialized guilds.
They were the:
The weavers held a place of high status in Byzantine society. It is thought that cheaper Syrian silks were intended for the populace and that true Byzantine silk was reserved for royalty. It had been mentioned that there were 2,500 Jewish dyers in Byzantine Pera, to give you an idea of the size of the industry.
Much of the attention of academic scholars has been placed on textiles used for clothing. However, equally spectacular rugs were produced, too. The rugs that adorned palaces and the homes of the people were used to show status and wealth.
Byzantine rugs show similar border designs and colors as Islamic rugs of the time. Bright reds and blues were the dominant colors, much as they are today. Border designs of Byzantine rugs included florals, plant motifs, vines, and leaves. The centers often represented people and events. Sometimes, these rugs were hung on walls and used as tapestries to provide decoration and insulation.
These beautiful works of Byzantine art show the expert knowledge and craftsmanship of the weavers. Often, they combined wool, cotton, silk, and gold threads into a single piece. Textile art helped to define the wealth and power of the Byzantine Empire. You can find the roots of Islamic and Persian design in the borders and patterns of the rugs. The Byzantine textiles and rugs that still exist are a world treasure from one of the greatest Empires in history.