Making the Invisible Visible: Conservation and Islamic Art

April 2–August 4, 2013

Featured Textile: Fragment from the Dalmatic of San Valerius

Janina Poskrobko
Conservator, Department of Textile Conservation

Dye analysis provided by Nobuko Shibayama
Associate Research Scientist, Department of Scientific Research

Metal thread analysis provided by Mark Wypyski
Research Scientist, Department of Scientific Research

Fig. 1a, b. Overall view of the front (top) and back (bottom) of the Textile Fragment from the Dalmatic of San Valerius, 13th century. Spain, Nasrid period (1232–1492). The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, Fletcher Fund, 1946 (46.156.10)

This textile originally was applied to a dalmatic, a wide-sleeved liturgical garment, of Andalusian manufacture. It belonged to a collection of such garments attributed to the cult of Saint Valerius, the bishop of Saragossa from 290 to 315. The dalmatic was worn on the occasion of the saint's feast day. This fragment has an Arabic inscription in Naskhi script across the bottom: "Good luck and glory and exaltedness and Magnificence" (fig. 1a, b).

Woven in a slit- tapestry technique with eccentric wefts, this tapestry was made from very fine silk and the highest quality metal thread. In this technique, the weft threads are discontinuous—woven back and forth in the pattern field instead of across the full width of the textile—and a characteristic slit is created in areas where the two color fields meet. Non-horizontal wefts were used to weave curved areas and to outline them in striking colors, emphasizing the pattern (fig. 2a, b). The high warp and weft density (22 warp threads per centimeter and up to 60 weft threads per centimeter, respectively) allowed the weaver to create a fine, detailed pattern, reminiscent of miniature painting (fig. 3).

Fig. 2a, b. Detail of the weave structure; front (left) and back (right). Photographs by Janina Poskrobko

Fig. 3. Warp count per 1cm. Photograph by Janina Poskrobko

The gold metal thread used for the background is composed of a thin gilded membrane or leather strip (with an alloy measured at approximately 22-karat gold) wound around a core of silk yarn (fig. 4). Its use makes the textile rich and lustrous, perfectly suiting the Islamic aesthetic that admired luxury and refined beauty.

Fig. 4. Detail of metal thread (x100). Photograph by Janina Poskrobko

A comparison of the front and back of the textile reveals a striking difference in the intensity of red dyes (fig. 5a, b). This is a result of long-term exposure to light, especially ultraviolet radiation, which causes deterioration of natural dyes, some being more sensitive than others. In this example, the red dye obtained from a mixture of madder root (Rubia tinctorum) and a soluble red wood such as sappanwood (Caesalpinia sappan) has retained its original color on both front and back of the textile. However, the orange-red dye derived from safflower petals (Carthamus tinctorius) has faded to a light pink on the exposed front of the textile but is still vibrant on the back, where it has been well protected from the light.

Fig. 5a. View of the front illustrating the condition of two red dyes: the pink-colored weft area shows the faded safflower dye, while the thin horizontal stripe shows vibrant mixture of madder red and a soluble red wood such as sappanwood; Fig. 5b. View of the back, where red dyes derived from both sources have retained their original color. Photographs by Janina Poskrobko

Additional Reading

Von Folsach, Kjeld and Anne-Marie Keblow Bernsted. Woven Treasures-Textiles from the World of Islam. The David Collection, 1993.

May, Florence Lewis. Silk Textiles of Spain. Eight to Fifteenth century. The Hispanic Society of America 1957.

Tejidos Hispanomusulmanes, Instituto del Patrimonio Histórico Español, 2005.