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Byzantine Textiles: Characteristics & History

Instructor: Christopher Muscato

Chris has a master's degree in history and teaches at the University of Northern Colorado.

Textiles are an important art form in many cultures. In this lesson, we'll explore the history of textiles in the Byzantine Empire and see how this art defined one of the most powerful empires in the world.

The Byzantine Empire

Clothes make the man. Or woman. Clothes make the person. This adage is not a modern invention, but in fact an ancient concept. For as long as humans have made textiles, or fabrics and cloths, these have been an important art form used to define individual and social identity. This was rarely more true than in the Byzantine Empire, a massive imperial state based in the city of Constantinople (today Istanbul). As the Roman Empire dissolved in the 4th century, Emperor Constantine the Great consolidated power in Byzantium, renamed it Constantinople, and formed a great empire. Over the next several centuries, it replaced Rome as Europe's greatest power until being defeated by Islamic armies in 1453. For centuries, though, Constantinople was famous for its power, its wealth, and especially its clothing.

The Byzantines knew how to dress for success
Textile

Textiles in Constantinople

Constantinople was located on the eastern edge of the Mediterranean region, situated at the crossroads of Europe, Asia, and the Middle East. As a result, it controlled some of the most important trade networks in the world and became extraordinarily wealthy. The Byzantine people displayed this wealth largely through the clothes they wore. Visitors to Constantinople often remarked on the finery of everyone's clothes that were made from the finest silks and colored with purples and golds, colors traditionally reserved for royalty. In fact, when the 12th century Spanish rabbi Benjamin of Tudela made his visit to the city, he exclaimed that all people of Constantinople looked like princes.

Textiles were not a minor art form to the Byzantines. In fact, it was one of their most cherished and respected crafts, an industry into which immense amounts of money was invested. In fact, textiles were considered high art on the same level as painting, architecture, and sculpture and similarly used by the wealthy to display their status. Many Byzantine textiles followed the conventions of Byzantine paintings and mosaics as well, characterized by flat gold backgrounds and bold lines. Amongst the greatest patrons of textiles was the Church. The Byzantine Church, later called the Greek Orthodox Church, was incredibly rich and powerful. Priests and churches alike would often be covered in elaborate textiles with religious images. Most of the Byzantine textiles that have survived to the present are liturgical garments used in Church rituals.

Religious figures were common motifs in Byzantine textiles
Byzantine textile

Byzantine Textile Style and Techniques

Textiles were important to the Byzantines, but what did they look like? Byzantine textiles were woven, created on specialized looms that were adopted from Asia. The most luxurious textiles, and those that really defined Byzantine wealth, were woven with silk. For a long time, the Chinese controlled the secrets to silk production, and the Byzantines had to purchase the raw silk from China. Around the 6th century, Byzantine monks sent by the emperor Justinian managed to smuggle silk worm eggs out of China. By the 7th century, the Byzantines could produce their own silk and refined the technique to match their own needs.

Byzantine weavers became very skilled with silk, creating intricately woven designs
Textile

On top of the superb weaving, Byzantine textiles are also characterized by an extra level of ornamentation through embroidery. The finest textiles were embroidered with gold thread, an expensive and difficult process. Most embroidery was, again, done for religious textiles to be used in the church.

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