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Textile fragment

  • Place of origin:

    Egypt (made)

  • Date:

    400 - 600 (made)

  • Artist/Maker:

    Unknown

  • Materials and Techniques:

    Slit tapestry weave in wools and linen on woollen warp

  • Museum number:

    258-1890

  • Gallery location:

    Medieval & Renaissance, Room 8, The William and Eileen Ruddock Gallery, case 2

The Christian faith was preached in Egypt before the end of the first century AD, although its practitioners were persecuted as they were elsewhere in the Roman Empire. The Emperor Constantine officially recognised Christianity in the 4th century, and his successor, Theodosius, declared it the religion of the empire in 391 AD.

Different forms of cross were used symbolically in Christianity. One form was peculiar to Egypt, the crux ansata or ankh, the sign of life. This cross was Christianised from an Egyptian hieroglyphic. In Egyptian mythology, Osiris, the god of life, death and fertility, used the sign. He is said to have lifted it over the bodies of the dead in order to raise them to immortal life. As a result, the ankh came to be the symbol of life in Egyptian art.

Physical description

Tapestry woven fragment, in coloured wools and undyed linen thread on yellow woollen warps. Looped crosses, ankhs, repeated in a horizontal row, between two straight purple bands with guilloche ornament in colours. Within the ankh are respectively the X P monogram, the X-form combined wtih a cross ( + ), and two crosses with dots in the angles. Above the upper band on the left is another looped cross, and further to the right is a small equal-armed cross with dots in the angles. There is a selvedge on the left, marking the limit of the cloth in that direction; there are the remains of twisted cord of red wool along the bottom.

Slit tapestry and eccentric tapestry weave: undyed linen, pale green, green, pink and red, pale blue and blue and purple, now faded to brownish shades.

The fragment is mounted on backing.

Place of Origin

Egypt (made)

Date

400 - 600 (made)

Artist/maker

Unknown

Materials and Techniques

Slit tapestry weave in wools and linen on woollen warp

Dimensions

Width: 37.9 cm, Height: 32 cm

Object history note

Bought from Rev. Greville J. Chester, 2 Russell Chambers, Bury Street, London WC in 1890 for £2, among a batch of other textiles. RP 2591/1890 (no longer available) and RP 3392/1890.

Historical significance: Significant as an example of the use of Christian symbols in Egyptian textiles.

Historical context note

The Christian faith was preached in Egypt before the end of the 1st century, and suffered much the same vicissitudes as elsewhere in the Roman Empire. In the 4th century, Christianity was officially recognised under the Emperor Constantine (in 325AD) and his successor, the Emperor Theodosius declared Christianity the religion of the empire in 391AD. This object reveals the presence of Christianity through a combination of cross and monogram.

The ankh (looped cross) in red containing the monogram was probably in the middle of the object. The small cross above it was at the base of an ornament in purple, of which only a shred is now preserved.

Forms of cross
One form of the cross is peculiar to Egypt, the ankh or looped cross. It is the Christianization of the hieroglyphy ankh, or crux ansata, "the sign of life". Osiris, the Egyptian god of life, death, and fertility, is said to have lifted this sign over the bodies of the dead in order to raise them to immortal life, it thus came to be the symbol of life in Egyptian art. This cross was later used by the Copts because of its similarity with the sign of the cross, as the sign of redemption. It had Christian significance in Egypt as early as the 4th century. It was deliberately adopted by the Christians because of the ancient prophecy that Christian cults would disappear when the hieroglyphic sign for life was worshipped. It is also used in manuscripts, Gnostic papyri and on funerary stelae. On some textiles, like this, the crux ansata is surrounded by the alpha and omega; sometimes, its loop even contains the chrisma or Grecian cross.
This type of decoration, and the size of the fragment suggest that such weavings may have been used as altar cloths.

Monogram
From the 5th century onwards, a break with the classical Hellenistic style occurred and Christian motifs increased. The monogram of Christ was used in Egypt in both of the two principal forms in which it is to be found in early Christian art: the Constantinian form (a combination of the letters X P) first appears independently on works of art in the first half of the 4th century. It has been suggested that the monogram in this form is restricted to the period AD 323 to 493 but the monogram was used at Ravenna in the 6th century. The simple cross, with arms of equal length, was in use before the end of the 4th century.

Similar piece in Musée du Louvre (inv. AF5556).

Collecting context
Rev George Greville Chester dealt with the Museum between 1870 and 1938. This piece was selected from twenty-five pieces received on approval on 29th April 1890. Eight pieces were returned, and the rest registered as 243 to 261-1890. (RP 3392/1890)

Descriptive line

Tapestry woven fragment with rows of ankhs and crosses; 400-599, Egyptian; Akhmim.

Bibliographic References (Citation, Note/Abstract, NAL no)

Kendrick, A. F., Catalogue of Textiles from Burying-grounds in Egypt (London: HMSO, 1921), Vol. II, pp. 12-13, pl. IV
Rutschowscaya, Marie-Hélène, Coptic Fabrics (Paris: Adam Biro, 1990), p. 80
Friedman, Florence D., Beyond the Pharaohs: Egypt and the Copts in the 2nd to 7th centuries AD (Rhode Island: Museum of Art, Rhode Island School of Design, 1989), p. 216

Production Note

From tomb at Akhmîm, Upper Egypt.

Materials

Linen; Wool

Techniques

Slit tapestry

Subjects depicted

Cross

Categories

Images Online; Christianity; Tapestry; Africa

Collection

Textiles and Fashion Collection

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