Many of the textiles found in Egypt, the southernmost province of the Byzantine Empire, are woven in linen and wool and decorated with a great variety of motifs. Meant to be worn and to decorate domestic and religious spaces, the works on view in this exhibition feature designs that generally refer to abundance and prosperity. Many of the motifs—among them birds, beasts, and humans; personifications of the seasons; members of the retinue of the wine god Dionysos; and vine scrolls—originated in classical and pharaonic art, with Christian crosses added in the Byzantine era. Often called Coptic textiles and once thought to have been exclusively Egyptian, these textiles are now recognized as exemplars of motifs popular throughout the Byzantine world. Similar motifs appear on works in other media, including silver, ivory, ceramics, and mosaics, as the photographs accompanying the exhibition demonstrate.
Textiles like these were often recovered from the dress and wrappings of the dead found in Byzantine and early Islamic-period burial grounds in Egypt. The dry environment preserved many textiles, although often in a fragmentary state. Decorative elements were at times cut from the larger plain-weave textiles, as interest focused primarily on the interpretation of motifs.
The Museum began to acquire these Egyptian textiles soon after its founding in 1870, but owing to their fragility, many of the works shown in this exhibition have not been displayed for decades.