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 Medieval Textiles and the Role of Women

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Churches of Armenian Istanbul Unravel the Past

A new book, Splendor & Pageantry:  Textile Treasures from the Armenian Orthodox Churches of Istanbul, (Citlembik Publications, Istanbul, 2011) is making a scene in the scholarly world. Ron Marchese, professor of ancient history and archaeology at the University of Minnesota Duluth was assisted by Lisa Fitzpatrick from UMD’s Visualization and Digital Imaging Lab (VDIL) in capturing the images for the book. Co-authored by Professor Emerita Marlene Breu of Western Michigan University, the catalogue contains over 170 images of textiles used by the church, and holds some discoveries that were previously unknown to most of Istanbul's local population.

ronandlisa
Ron Marchese and Lisa Fitzpatrick in UMD's Visualization and Digital Imaging Lab
textile
Detail of an embroidered patch

“Even the Patriarch of Istanbul hadn’t seen some of these items before. He was very excited with the finds,” Marchese said.

Marchese traveled to churches in Istanbul, Turkey, to catalogue religious textiles. Using equipment borrowed from UMD’s VDIL, he took photographs of the items on site. Back in the VDIL, Fitzpatrick enhanced the images, removing the glare caused by the metallic thread. The results were unparalleled images of great archaeological significance. "The level of visual detail in these textiles revealed by the advanced digital technologies is awe-inspiring," Fitzpatrick said.

Armenia was the first country to adopt Christianity, doing so in 304 AD, and their religious artifacts are some of the oldest in existence. Images depicted are confirmed to be as old as 1604 AD, and some of those portrayed were created even earlier.

“No publication in the world shows this much detail on ancient artwork,” Marchese said. “This high definition showcases the amazing level of workmanship involved in crafting these relics, which have great significance to the church.”

Equally incredible are the creators of the works: Armenian women who lived in Istanbul and wanted to contribute to their church, despite the limits to their participation. The women were weavers and embroiderers of high renown, whose names were not recorded. “We have the names of those who sponsored the projects,” Marchese said. “We know who contributed what, who it went to, and when. We don't have details on those who crafted the textiles. We do know that they were women.”

The results speak for themselves. Marchese, pointing to a full-page picture of a man’s face, said, “This is, in reality, the size of my fingernail. When I show this to my colleagues, their jaws drop; nobody can believe that something this detailed is so small.”

Size isn’t the only challenge to the women artists who were responsible for crafting religious items for Istanbul churches; weaving is a very difficult process. “What we’re seeing is craftsmanship along the same lines as that of the illuminated texts created by monks in Europe, in a far more difficult medium. What you see here,” Marchese said, gesturing to a picture from the book, “is actual gold and silver woven into thread, inlaid with freshwater pearls and precious gems such as diamonds and emeralds. Armenian jewelers were among the most skilled in the ancient world, and it shows… but that doesn’t mean this sort of work was easy,” he said.

The Gospel stories were told to the mostly illiterate congregation through the images on the cloth. The vestments worn by the religious leaders were designed to create a radiant aura. “The women engulfed the celebrant in precious metals to create a glow and a striking visual impression," said Marchese. "That is the effect these textiles are intended to convey.”

Though their names were not archived, the craftsmanship of the women is now celebrated, thanks in part to Marchese’s work. “This is the kind of thing we (archaeologists) are trained to do. Archaeology is the study of humanity through time, and each find like this adds to the body of knowledge on global culture.”

Written by Zach Lunderberg. Edited by Cheryl Reitan.

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Contact Cheryl Reitan, creitan@d.umn.edu

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