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Interwoven Globe: The Worldwide Textile Trade,
1500–1800

September 16, 2013–January 5, 2014

Trade Textiles in Religious Contexts

Priest's Robe (Shichijô) Buddhist Vestment (Kesa) (detail). Japan, 18th century. Lampas, silk; squares:silk satin, brocaded, silk and gilt paper-wrapped thread; 46 x 83 in. (116.84 x 210.82 cm). The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, Purchase, Joseph Pulitzer Bequest, 1919 (19.93.111)

Textiles performed many functions in the Christian Church, from altar hangings to copes and chasubles. Expensive trade textiles from Iran, Turkey, India, and China found their way into European churches as gifts from wealthy patrons, reflecting the donor's high social status. The clergy, who wore vestments made of rich foreign cloths, communicated an authority and a sophistication that came with having access to the wider world. Textiles used in ecclesiastical services were printed or woven with large patterns in eye-catching colors and often embellished with metallic thread. In dim, candle-lit interiors, the vibrant hues and glittering silver and gold threads created an impressive aura that reinforced the eminence of the priesthood. In the Americas, Catholic missionaries encouraged local artisans to produce textiles decorated with religious iconography as a means of actively engaging converts.

Trade textiles, stitched into hangings or robes, were also found in other religious and spiritual settings, including Jewish synagogues, Buddhist and Hindu shrines, and even ceremonial Native American garments. Their popularity in such a variety of ecclesiastical settings attests to the particular cachet such textiles acquired due to their expense, their distinctiveness, and perhaps even their connection to distant, exotic lands.

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