Textile Society of America


Date of this Version



Silk Roads, Other Roads: Proceedings of the 8th Biennial Symposium of the Textile Society of America, September 26-28, 2002, Northampton, Massachusetts


Copyright 2002 by the author.


In keeping with the theme of the symposium’s title, “Silk Roads, Other Roads,” the medieval roads that this essay will travel converge in a number of ways. Most importantly, two distinctive art forms came together for a brief period in Germany during the tenth and eleventh centuries, the period of Ottonian and Salian rule. The two products, silk and illuminated manuscripts shared important qualities. Not only were they among the most luxurious objects of the middle ages, but they also assisted bishops and rulers advance their political programs. This phenomenon developed as a result of increased interaction with a major source of the silk, the Byzantine world. Once the silk reached the West it became an integral part of gift exchanges between secular and ecclesiastical leaders and played a role in the burgeoning liturgical pageantry of the period. A unique creation resulted from this intersection of art forms. From the mid tenth century until about 1040 manuscript artists painted ornamental pages in their books inspired by the precious woven fabric.

Examining the art forms separately, documentary evidence from the early middle ages reveals that silk played a multivalent role in Germany in the tenth and eleventh centuries. The fabric made its way to Western Europe through diplomatic gifts from Byzantium, through trade and by smuggling. From the sixth century on the papacy was a particularly fortunate recipient of the costly material, as is evidenced by descriptions of diplomatic gifts in the Liber Pontificalis, a semi-official biography of the early popes. This source places great emphasis on the value of the gold and silver gifts they received but the detailed descriptions of silk indicate the great esteem the popes held for it. In their original context, many of these silks were used to wrap the most precious objects belonging to a church, a saint’s relic. We are fortunate to have large repositories of silk fragments of various sizes in museums and cathedral treasuries all over Europe, most originating from the Byzantine and Islamic worlds. Two surviving wrapping fabrics illustrate this point. From the tenth century, a large piece of silk twill associated with the relics of St. Abundius originated in Eastern Persia. This work contains repeating rows of medallions, filled with animals, one of the most common decorative styles in Byzantine silk weaving. Each medallion is woven in a color that contrasts with the background. An especially lively work produced in the 9th century traveled to Rome where it was used to wrap the relics of St. Hippolytus. The relics and the fabric were translated to Gerresheim later in that century, then moved again to St. Ursula’s in Cologne in 922 where they remain today. (Fig. 1) Their portability enabled more than just a few people to see them. Relics held a prominent place in medieval society in this period, and the demand for them in Northern Europe was great. They quickly became part of the liturgy of the mass by means of display in the worship service or by being part of a procession. The idea of silk concealing and protecting highly cherished and important objects applies to vestments and metaphorically to manuscripts.

Less common, but still surviving in significant numbers are silken liturgical and royal vestments. The shimmering quality of the silk made the celebrants of a mass resplendent as light glinted off the fabric when they moved through the church. Like the silk-wrapped relics, these luxury objects cloaked important people – bishops, kings and popes. When these men enveloped themselves in the sumptuous fabrics they entered into active participation in the pageantry of the liturgy, and elevated their status to something analogous to royalty. The garments they wore were outward signs of their prerogative to rule over their respective sees. Furthermore, ecclesiastical reforms originating from the monasteries at Cluny and Gorze took place in the tenth century and spread throughout the German territory that directly impacted liturgy and even liturgical vestments.