Egypt, Byzantine period, 6th century
slit-and dovetailed-tapestry weave; wool
Overall - h:178.70 w:110.50 cm (h:70 5/16 w:43 1/2 inches)
Mounted - h:197.40 w:128.20 d:6.40 cm (h:77 11/16 w:50 7/16 d:2 1/2 inches)
Leonard C. Hanna, Jr. Fund
This tapestry glorifying the Virgin Mary is among the rarest objects in the museum’s collection. In a composition borrowed from imperial Byzantine art, Mary is shown seated on a jeweled throne with the Christ child and flanked by archangels Michael and Gabriel. Above, Christ appears in a radiant light supported by two angels. Portraits of the apostles, identified in Greek, appear in the surrounding wreath symbolizing eternal life. This portable sacred textile was presumably displayed at the front of a public or private place of worship.
This unique tapestry is one of the earliest Christian icons to survive. Woven icons were among the miraculous works shown to pilgrims in Jerusalem according to Abbot Adomnan of Iona (about 624-704) who described a linen cloth "said to have been woven by Saint Mary, and is for this reason preserved in a church and venerated by the whole population. Pictures of the twelve apostles are woven into it, and there is also a portrait of the Lord." The abbot’s description of the woven icon suggests it must have been similar to the tapestry displayed here.
The delicate effects of shading in the facial features, garments, and vegetation were achieved by weaving the panel sideways with at least 20 colors, just as medieval tapestry weavers did centuries later in Europe. The high cost of dyes caused this majestic icon to be far costlier than painted images.
on the lintel of the architectural setting, the Greek inscription translates as: The Holy Michael, The Holy Mary, The Holy Gabriel. The wide foliate border is decorated with fruits and flowers and, in the lower part, with medallions containing the busts of apostles whose names are inscribed nearby in Greek and are translated as: Andrew, Matthew, Paul the Apostle, Luke, James, Phillip, Mark, Thomas, John, Matthias, Peter, and Bartholomew.