Beginning in earnest in the late nineteenth century, with the emergence of the discipline of archaeology, excavations found a bounty of Late Antique textiles in Egyptian ceme­teries. These textiles were divided among institutions participating in the excavations and were also sold on the antiquities market. Spurred by intense interest in ornament and craft, the market focused on well-preserved decorative passages from textiles. Museum collections were thereby shaped by the tastes of some of the most influential early collectors, including wealthy businessmen and academics who donated their collections to museums with the intent to educate not only the general public but also the craftspeople who worked in the textile industry. Museums acquired as well spectacular examples of virtuoso tex­tile artistry, some of which are on display here. This exhibition is composed of some of the best examples from six important American collections: the Brooklyn Museum, The Cleveland Museum of Art, the Byzantine Collection at Dumbarton Oaks Research Library and Collection, the Kelsey Museum of Archaeology of the University of Michigan, The Metropolitan Museum of Art, and the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston.

Museums continue to play important roles as incubators of scholarship on textiles and textile arts. Designing Identity presents the results of recent studies of Late Antique textiles used for dress and furnishings, paying special attention to their social functions, aesthetic values, and meanings in Late Antiquity.  Essays in the catalogue explore as well some of the ways these textiles have inspired modern art, fashion design, textile industry and commerce.


The term “Late Antiquity” is often used to designate the later Roman and early Byzantine empire (from about the late third through the seventh century CE). At the turn of the fourth century, Christianity began to displace traditional polytheist cults under the aegis of the emperor Constantine. At the ancient site of Byzantion in the eastern half of the empire, he es­tablished a new capital, known as both New Rome and Constantine’s City—Constantinople. The new capital was nearer to the empire’s wealthiest regions (Egypt and Syria), to its eastern frontier with the rival superpower Persia, and to the roots of Christianity in Palestine and the Greek-speaking East. During this period, the empire reached its greatest extent, encom­passing the Mediterranean and a large swath of the Middle East. The governing elite maintained its authority through traditional social systems and networks, which were forged through a traditional education based in Greco-Roman cultural heritage. By the late seventh century, however, much of western Europe had been lost to smaller, successor kingdoms and the east to the emerging Islamic empire.

Both the continuity and the extraordinary cultural changes of Late Antiquity are strikingly evident in the textiles in this exhibition. These labor-intensive, costly items would have be­longed to those with sufficient wealth to expend on a display of social standing. Designing Identity explores how the wealthy elite expressed the ideals of self, household, and society through materials, techniques, and the types and decoration of garments and furnishings. The first gallery focuses on the uses and expressions of textiles with mythological imagery, particularly Dionysian, mainly within the context of the home. The second gallery displays a wider range of types of garments and decorative themes, drawing from the repertoires of pagan mythology, personifications of good things, and bounteous nature, as well as from charms intended to attract the good or ward off the bad. Other motifs decorating clothing were chosen to represent character, often by emphasizing virtue through the portrayal of ex­emplary figures such as heroes, divinities, and saints. In the selection of model personas, gender too played a constitutive role.


Most Late Antique textiles survived in arid climates that inhibited the decay of these fragile organic remains. Complete and nearly complete examples have been preserved in Egyptian cemeteries, thanks to a change in burial practices in Late Antiquity, when the bodies of the deceased were dressed in layers of reused clothing and shrouds. Consequently, the textiles on display here illuminate the funerary contexts in which they were found in their final reuse during Late Antiquity.


The English word Copt derives from the Greek word for Egyptian, through the intermedi­ary of the Arabic word for the latter: Qibt. “Copt” has come to identify most precisely Egyptian Christians of the Coptic (Miaphysite) Church. The term was also once applied to all Late Antique Egyptian culture. Egypt, however, belonged to a wider world of Late Antiquity, embracing many different religious traditions. In this exhibition, the term Coptic is not used to describe any of the textiles, as religious affiliation can be impossible to determine based on imagery alone.

This exhibition has been generously supported by the Selz Foundation, the Coby Foundation, Ltd, the Sarofim Foundation, Agnes Gund, Nellie and Robert Gipson, Frances Marzio, and the Leon Levy Foundation.  Additional funding provided by Furthermore, a program of the J.M. Kaplan Fund, and Sameh and Slyvia Iskander.