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Woven silk

  • Place of origin:

    Syria (possibly, made)

  • Date:

    780-900 (made)

  • Artist/Maker:

    Unknown

  • Materials and Techniques:

    Silk compound twill

  • Museum number:

    8558-1863

  • Gallery location:

    Medieval & Renaissance, Room 8, The William and Eileen Ruddock Gallery, case 10

The scene on this textile and the related piece (see image) of a man wrestling a lion, represents the symbolic theme of man's victory over animals. A number of these 'lion-strangler' silks have been found in western Europe, some of which can be firmly dated to the period given. The survival of at least seven silks with similar patterns suggests that they must have been in considerable demand by the wealthy and powerful. They would appeal to a wide group of 'consumers' as the image can be variously interpreted as that of the Christian figures Samson or David or the pagan, classical hero Hercules.

The context in which this and the related piece were found, in a Cathedral in Switzerland, suggests that they were seen there as having Christian symbolism.

Physical description

Woven silk with 'lion-strangler' design; silk compound twill. The design is composed in horizontal rows: in the middle row, the focus of the design, a figure strangling a lion is reproduced facing alternately to left and right; above and below an undulating border of pattern frames the figurative design. The colours used are dark blue, green, yellow, red and white on a red ground.

Place of Origin

Syria (possibly, made)

Date

780-900 (made)

Artist/maker

Unknown

Materials and Techniques

Silk compound twill

Dimensions

Height: 25 cm, Width: 35.5 cm

Object history note

Acquired from Canon Franz Bock's collection.

Historical significance: This object is important because it shows the type of scene which probably influenced Romanesque art. It is also typical of the collecting of Canon Franz Bock.

Historical context note

Imagery
The scene represents the symbolic theme of man's victory over animals: a hero or gladiator wrestles with a lion. The man is depicted in Hellenistic-Byzantine style and wears a classical short tunic, a chlamys or cloak fastened at one shoulder, and a pair of sandals. This outfit might point to a gladiator for the circus. However, the figure portrayed may also be that of one of the heroes from the Old Testament, Samson or David, or Hercules from classical mythology. Potentially, it could therefore satisfy the Judeo-Christian or pagan observer. These identifications were first suggested by Wolfgang F. Volbach, and then repeated by various scholars (e.g. C. Delvoye in 1969). The design looks back to classical prototypes, and its model may have been one of the labours of Hercules. However, the typical attributes of the classical hero are absent: the beard, the lion skin, and club. The figure is not likely to be Daniel as his arms are not raised as orant, as in traditional depictions. The most likely argument for Samson as the figure was presented by Marie Risselin-Steenebrugen in 1981.

Extant examples
Medieval, Byzantine features are present in the rather rigid and ungainly stance of the combatants and the stylised floral forms. The broken circles above and below the figures suggest that the design was adapted into a frieze from a series of roundels, a common method of composition used in both Byzantine and Near Eastern textiles. The border pattern has been arbitrarily broken by the scalloped arrangement, so that it is incompletely shown: it represents a rose-stem with blossom and two buds. This design, which is frequently found on early medieval silks, was a stylised development of the naturalistic floral forms used in the late classical period.

At least seven textiles of so-called 'lion strangler ' or 'Samson' silks have been found in Western Europe, mostly in a religious context. Their precise function is not however known. The choice of design might have been religious or superstitious. The survival of several silks with similar yet different patterns suggests that they must have been in considerable demand, probably from the rich and powerful. The designers were most likely either trained in the Byzantine tradition or strongly influenced by it. There are slight stylistic variations between designs on other silks of this type which may indicate that several workshops were weaving similar designs.

These silks are the product of Byzantium and the Islamic Near East which played a predominant role in textile production and trade in the Mediterranean until superseded by Venice in the 13th century. Two basic interrelated factors led to this role: maritime supremacy in the Mediterranean and the conquest of Constantinople in 1204.

Collecting context
It formed part of the collection of the German collector, Canon Franz Bock (1823-1899), a major figure among collectors of the second half of the nineteenth century. He bought or received fragments of medieaval silk from many ancient cathedrals and religious foundations and then sold them to major public collections in Europe - the South Kensington Museum, Paris, Lyon, Vienna and Berlin. As a result, there are often pieces form the same silk in widely separated places.

Descriptive line

Silk with as scene of a figure wrestling with a lion, possibly Syria, 780-900

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

Muthesius, Anna, Byzantine Silk Weaving: AD 400 to AD 1200 (Vienna: Verlag Fassbaender, 1997), pp. 65-74, pl. 21a.
Williamson, Paul, ed., The Medieval Treasury: The Art of the Middle Ages in the Victoria and Albert Museum (London: V&A publications, 1986), pp. 80-81, ill.
Woolley, Linda, 'A Mediaeval Treasury: The Figured Silks in the Victoria & Albert Museum' in Hali: The International Magazine of Fine Carpets and Textiles, 1988, vol. 38, pp. 20-27, pl. 6.
Lyon, Musée Historique des Tissus & Martiniani-Reber, Marielle. Soieries sassanides, coptes et byzantines V - XI siècles (Paris: Ministère de la Culture et de la Communication Editions de la Réunion des musées nationaux, Inventaire des collections publiques francaises 30, 1986), pp.99-102
Baumstark, Reinhold, ed. Rom und Byzanz: Schatzkammerstücke aus bayersischen Sammlungen (Bayerisches Nationalmuseum: Hirmer Verlag, 1998) pp. 122-124.
Risselin-Steenebrugen, Marie, 'A propos d'un tissu du haut moyen-âge et du tympan au Samson de la collègiale de Nivelles', in Bulletin de la commission royale des monuments et des sites (Bruxelles, vol. 10, 1981), pp. 5-19

Production Note

These types of silks were made in several centres around the east Mediterranean area. This and the related piece were found in the Cathedral of Chur in Switzerland.

Materials

Silk

Techniques

Weaving

Categories

Christianity; Ecclesiastical textiles; Textiles

Collection

Middle East Section

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