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Christian Imagery on Silk Textiles: The Annunciation Silk

Nazanin Hedayat Munroe, Artist and Art Historian

Posted: Wednesday, June 27, 2012


Annunciation, 8th–9th century. Made in Alexandria or Egypt, Syria, Constantinople (?). Weft-faced compound twill (samit) in polychrome silk. Vatican Museums, Vatican City (61231)

«The red Annunciation silk depicts the seated Virgin dressed in royal purple, receiving a message from the angel Gabriel, encircled by floral medallions referencing a jeweled garden. The fragment is believed to be part of the same textile as a Nativity scene that survives at the Vatican.»1 Both fragments include jeweled medallions with floral motifs encircling the Biblical scene, in which the figures are modeled and the faces have detailed expressions. Though the fragment was discovered lining a reliquary casket believed to house the sandals of Christ, the delicacy of the design and fineness of the silk suggest that it may have been used as a garment.

The Byzantine tradition of donning garments with figural designs dates back to the Late Antique and Early Christian periods, when clothing with Christian and non-Christian figural images was intended to protect the wearer from harm. The later date of this piece (eighth to ninth century) may point to a renaissance of figural design with the same imagery following the second period of iconoclasm.

The inherent value of this textile derives partly from its materials, but mostly from the complexity and superiority of its execution. It was created on a drawloom, requiring an advanced figure-harness mechanism to control the execution of the pattern. One of the most technically advanced examples of its kind from the middle Byzantine period, this silk is likely to have been produced in an imperial workshop, where weavers had the time and resources to render the complex design.

[1] Thomas, Thelma K. "Annunciation," Byzantium and Islam: Age of Transition, 7th–9th centuries. Ed. Helen C. Evans. (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2012), 152.

Further Reading
Maguire, Henry. "Garments Pleasing to God: The Significance of Domestic Textile Designs in the Early Byzantine Period." Dumbarton Oaks Papers, Vol. 44 (1990), 215–224.

Muthesius, Anna. Byzantine Silk Weaving: A.D. 400–A.D. 600. Vienna: Verlag Fassbaender, 1997.

Thomas, Thelma K. "Silks," Byzantium and Islam: Age of Transition, 7th–9th centuries. Ed. Helen C. Evans. (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2012), 160-161.


  • Sedef Piker says:

    I am so glad you wrote about this particular textile because I have a question about the design that I have not been able to find an answer for.
    Part of the design that is visible in the upper section of the fragment is a tulip that can be found on many objects in Islamic decorative arts (Iznik tiles, plates) I was wondering if you have any more information about its origins.

    Posted: July 2, 2012, 2:46 p.m.

  • Nazanin Hedayat Munroe says:

    There are direct and indirect correlations between Ottoman and Byzantine textile design. When the Ottomans gained control of former Byzantine territory from Istanbul (Constantinople) to Bursa (Prusa) in 1453, they inherited a thriving silk textile industry, complete with techniques and motifs. Many of the workshops in Bursa remained in use and produced the majority of Ottoman velvets for export as well as domestic markets, while textile workshops in Istanbul were focused on producing compound weaves for use in the Imperial Palace.

    Taking into account the Ottoman "inheritance" of Byzantine design, it's still difficult to determine whether the motif in the upper corner of the Annunciation textile has a direct correlation with the tulip motif found in Ottoman decorative arts, particularly since the "Tulip Period" is associated with the reign of Ahmed III (1703-1730), relatively late in the development of the Ottoman repertoire.

    Also, I'm not entirely certain that the flower you reference is a tulip, as the design is not complete. The floral motif in the corner could likely be a palmette design, which is prevalent as a motif in the Classical [Hellenistic] period, and continued into the Late Antique period. As far as the origins of the tulip as a motif in Ottoman Turkey, most scholars agree that the abundance of floral motifs in the decorative arts reflects a passion for gardens shared among craftsmen and connoisseurs alike.

    Posted: July 5, 2012, 10:36 a.m.

  • Peggy Morton says:

    I have a religious textile That may be from the 15th -17th century but not sure. Can I send photos for you to see? Thanks Peggy

    Posted: July 25, 2015, 11:51 a.m.

  • Anne Dunleavy says:

    Dear Ms. Morton:

    Thank you for your comment, but as a matter of policy, the Museum does not verify or appraise works of art. You might try consulting an art dealer, appraiser, or auction house in your area for assistance; your local university may be able to refer you to the most appropriate resource. Best of luck!


    Anne Dunleavy
    Website Managing Editor

    Posted: July 31, 2015, 5:48 p.m.

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About the Author

Nazanin Hedayat Munroe is an artist and art historian specializing in textiles and costume. She holds an MFA in textile design and an MA in Islamic art, and is currently working with the Museum's Department of Islamic Art researching textiles in the collection.

About this Blog

This blog accompanied the special exhibition Byzantium and Islam: Age of Transition, on view March 14–July 8, 2012.