How to breathe new life into ancient textiles

People were astonished when László Török (1941–2020), an outstanding scholar of ancient Egypt, chose a tiny fragment of textile as the emblem of his Budapest exhibition on Coptic art in the early 2000s. Why would someone hold a shabby fragment of ancient clothing in such high regard? 

Textile with lion figure, early 4th century, 5 x 5 cm. Cairo, Coptic Museum 6615
Cover of the catalogue for the Budapest exhibition

Török, who played a leading role in recognising the artistic value of Late Antique textiles and even acquired a small collection of his own, would surely be happy to see the exhibition on view in Berlin’s Bode Museum until 31 October 2022. 

The one-room show exhibits nine pairs of artworks. The museum’s Late Antique textile fragments from Egypt are placed in the central display cases. These small pieces, barely ten- to twenty centimetres in width, are surrounded by their monumental “copies” – contemporary paintings hung on the walls, and measuring about 1.5 to 2 square meters. Viewers can simultaneously engage with both members of each pair; each object, whether cloth or painting, has its own space and its own autonomous viewpoint.

Think Big! Exhibition interior. Photo: Á. M. Nagy

The paintings were created by American artist Gail Rothschild (1959–), who began experimenting with this technique in the early 2000s: transferring – and transforming – ancient textile fragments into large-scale paintings. The nine textiles that this time serve as her models were personally chosen by her from the museum collection. She sums up her artistic credo as follows: a “Brooklyn-based artist collaborating with museums internationally to breathe new life into ancient textiles”. She worked for three years on the nine paintings on display, joining forces with experts from the Berlin museum and other researchers. When the work was finished, it was only natural that an exhibition be organised in which the textiles and the paintings are displayed together – any museum would happily welcome such a show.

Gail Rothschild, Portrait, 2022 © Gail Rothschild

At first sight, the paintings look only like enlarged copies of the ancient woven fragments: their entire surface is covered with an endless pattern of painted warp- and weft threads. In most cases, the background is constituted by the modern monochrome fabric placed beneath the ancient fragments. This makes the artworks stand out sharply in the paintings, which are so minutely detailed that even single loops are clearly visible.

To reach one possible answer, we may as well use the title of the exhibition as a starting point: “Think Big!” This is much more than a reference to Gail Rothschild’s technique of creating a blow-up image of her models, especially since the subtitle reads: Portraits of Late Antique Egyptian Textiles. Visitors may be surprised when they realise that the artist regards the museum objects as her subjects, recognising their unique characteristics and almost endowing them with individual personalities. This endeavour is highlighted by the individual titles given to each painting, which reveal the associations each fragment generates in her.  

This is how the clavus, or ornamental border, of a woollen tunic becomes Head and Shoulders: because in Rothschild’s eyes the pattern takes the shape of a figure with no hands or feet.

Tunic fragment, 7th–9th century, 40 x 27 cm. Staatliche Museen zu Berlin, Skulpturensammlung und Museum für Byzantinische Kunst 19/68. Antje Voigt / CC BY-NC-SA 4.0. | Gail Rothschild, Head and Shoulders, 2019. Acrylic on canvas, 200.5 x 114.5 cm

When rotated, the decoration of a dress’s neckline resembles an open-mouthed sea monster (Leviathan).

Fragment of clothing, 7th–9th century, 25 x 35 cm. Staatliche Museen zu Berlin, Skulpturensammlung und Museum für Byzantinische Kunst 8/2010. Antje Voigt / CC BY-NC-SA 4.0. | Gail Rothschild, Leviathan, 2020. Acrylic on canvas, 152.5 x 235 cm

There is only one painting with a title that actually evokes the subject of the textile itself (Adoration), but here, too, the commentary of Gail Rothschild is telling: she sees one of the magi as a lady from the 1950s clutching her purse.

Gail Rothschild, Adoration, 2019. Acrylic on canvas, 144.75 x 178 cm | Tunic roundel, 7th–10th century, 19,5 x 25 cm. Staatliche Museen zu Berlin, Skulpturensammlung und Museum für Byzantinische Kunst, 4614. Antje Voigt / CC BY-NC-SA 4.0

One could discard these comments as mere fun and frolic, but they are far more than that: they open a door towards taking these objects seriously. Let me highlight two aspects of this: the conceptual richness of the exhibition, and the lessons it teaches to a classical scholar.

It is worth taking a step back to examine the first aspect. Collecting ancient textiles became fashionable in the late nineteenth century with the launch of large-scale excavations in Egypt. Textiles and weaving were regarded as a form of applied art, but only rarely served as models for contemporary fashion designers and even more rarely for artists. The breakthrough came at the dawn of the third millennium: and this is what the story evoked in the first paragraphs of this essay exemplifies. We are only beginning to see ancient Egyptian textiles with fresh eyes and to value them as genuine works of art. This exhibition is a proof of the impact generated by this change.

The key (or at least one key) to this shift lies in the irreparably fragmentary nature of the objects themselves. Although the Egyptian climate permits the survival of organic material like wool that rotted away in colder countries like Italy and Greece, the number of completely intact pieces is few and far between. The attempt to reconstruct the lost “original”, which classical archaeologists have been making for generations in other fields, from sculpture to painting, can hardly play a role here (at most, we can be content with matching cut-up pieces of individual costumes). Their one-time materiality has dissolved: instead of the gentle fall of the draperies and the plasticity of the clothes when worn, we see stiffened fragments that look more like painted images. In the majority of cases, we have no idea of the original context of these pieces, since many were unearthed in clandestine excavations. (Six of the nine textiles exhibited in Berlin have only approximate proveniences: five come from Panopolis, one from Arsinoe, and we know nothing about the rest.) Their fragmentariness makes them absolutely unfit for bold reconstructions of the “this is how it was” kind. It does, however, open the way to interpretations of the “this is what might have been” sort.

The textiles on display originally decorated pieces of clothing or were part of household items rather than haute-couture garments. All stages of the production process, from spinning the yarn to sewing the clothes, characteristically took place in specialized workshops or privately at home. (In antiquity, textiles were highly valued: while today less than 1 per cent of the textile production is recycled worldwide, back then fabrics were safeguarded and mended till the very end of their lives.) The ancient artefacts on display are fragments of everyday antiquity. Although most of what survives of ancient art served personal uses, it is with items of clothing that we can most easily envisage the one-time flesh and blood owners who wore them and used them, and whose relationship with what they wore must have been just as close and personal as ours. These textiles, much more than other types of artefacts, serve as poignant mementoes of the personal dimensions of the past and the individual colours of ancient lives that are otherwise lost to us forever. Ancient textiles are fragments in this sense too.

This is why Gail Rothschild’s seemingly flippant associations can feel so liberating. Her creative flights of thought, and the boldness with which she expresses what she sees in the pictures, has the power to inspire viewers to form a personal relationship with the artworks on display. The false caution that expresses itself in the question “what am I supposed to see?” is replaced by sincere wonder and broadened horizons.

The other aspect is none the less significant. The paintings are nice illustrations of the close ties between academic scholarship and contemporary art. Just like the researchers with whom she collaborates, Gail Rotschild conducts a dialogue with the past, albeit according to very different rules. She transforms the textiles of her choice not into texts but paintings. She too works with persistent precision to re-construct and to revive selected pieces of antiquity. In order to accomplish her work, she too must know three things: the past, the present and herself. She too avoids being mechanical, using her own questions and her own perspective to address the past.

Let us take a look at her painting Vanitas, inspired by the fragment of a curtain or spread decorated with fruit placed on stylised leaves in a footed bowl: a customary representation of abundance in ancient art.

Fruit basket, 4th–5th century. Staatliche Museen zu Berlin, Skulpturensammlung und Museum für Byzantinische Kunst, 4639 / Antje Voigt CC BY-NC-SA 4.0

To the painter, however, the scene recalled the vanitas still lifes of European art, which were intended to remind viewers: “all beauty shall pass”. There are only two dots that survive of the leaf design on the right edge of the textile – in the painting, with a minimal modification of the design, these dots are transformed into the empty orbits of a grinning skull, thus intensifying the new interpretation of the composition alluded to in the title.

Gail Rothschild, Vanitas, 2020. Acrylic on canvas, 167.75 x 142.25 cm

This is precisely what makes a scholar of ancient studies feel so at home in this exhibition. Gail Rothschild’s paintings are snapshots of the passing of time: they are artistic equivalents of a historian’s approach to the past. In this respect, I consider the painting entitled Unravelings – my personal favourite – the most telling example. Here the artist has rotated the fragment, aligning it not with how it was originally positioned, but with how one should view a scene of two shepherds with animals. But the composition is just an incidental element of this painting. The vast surface is filled with the restorers’ fabric placed underneath the ancient textile: the monotonous rhythm of the modern machine-woven cloth clashes sharply with the vivid irregularity of the hand-woven ancient textile.

Two decorative bands are figured on the fabric of this ancient item of clothing: in the painting, we can even separate the threads that were used to attach them to the fabric. There is a stray thread between the two figural bands – no trace of it appears in the textile. The paintings are thus only seemingly figural: the structure of the composition is formed of layer over layer elaborated with excruciating detail, with the holes, lacunae and stray threads that mark out the rhythm: an artist’s stratigraphy spanning centuries.

Gail Rothschild
Unravellings, 2021
Acrylic on canvas
176.75 x 157.5 cm
Tunic fragment, 5th–6th century, 11,5 x 12,5 cm
Staatliche Museen zu Berlin, Skulpturensammlung
und Museum für Byzantinische Kunst, 4586. Antje Voigt / CC BY-NC-SA 4.0
Gail Rothschild
Shepherd's Pie, 2021
Acrylic on canvas
129.5 x 167.75 cm
Tunic fragment
5th–6th century, 11 x 12 cm
Staatliche Museen zu Berlin
Skulpturensammlung und Museum
für Byzantinische Kunst, 4586. Antje Voigt / CC BY-NC-SA 4.0
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What’s more, the condition of the textiles that serve as models for the paintings may also change. Such is the case with the fragment that Gail Rothschild used for her work Shepherd’s Pie: it has had the restorers’ modern fabric removed. The painting is thus not only a snapshot of the textile but also a condition report that already reflects the ageing of the object and the passage of time. (The two latter fragments belonged to the same tunic.)

All of this, however, is countered by yet another, hitherto unmentioned characteristic of these ancient Egyptian textiles: the unified nature of their style and visuality. Created between the fourth and tenth centuries AD, they span crucial centuries of Egyptian history, from the Graeco-Roman period through the spread of Christianity, to the consolidation of Muslim rule. They are not tied down to specific periods like Attic geometric art or Etruscan black-figure vases, which can be precisely dated to specific generations. Time stands still when it comes to textiles. Looking back on them from the twenty-first century, when, as we keep saying, time flies and everything changes and everything is relative, these aspects converge into a fascinating diachronic game played between the textiles, the paintings and the viewer, with layers of time piled up like logs in a heap of firewood.

To sum up, displayed in the common space of the exhibition room, the contemporary paintings of Gail Rotschild and the textile fragments created by unknown ancient weavers offer the viewers a chance to set the ancient in dialogue with the modern. As is often the case, some seize the opportunity, and others let it pass. What more can a curator of ancient art or an artist open towards antiquity hope to accomplish?

Árpád M. Nagy

• On Late Antique art: Török László, Transfigurations of Hellenism, Leiden–Boston 2005.
• On the textile collection of László Török, Coptic Textiles from Hungarian Private Collections, Budapest 2005.
• János György Szilágyi, Wisest is Time: Ancient Vase Forgeries. In: J. M. Back et al. (ed.), Manufacturing a Past for the Present. Forgery and Authenticity in Medievalist Texts and Objects in Nineteenth-Century Europe, Leiden–Boston 2015, 173–223.
• Gail Rothschild’s website, with an introduction to the Berlin exhibition:
• The catalogue for the Berlin exhibition: C. Fluck – K. Mälck (eds), Think Big! Gail Rothschild porträtiert spätantike Textilfunde aus Ägypten, Regensburg 2022. 

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