David Ganz

Divine Handcraft. The Power of Picture Textiles in the Middle Ages

Picture Textiles. Divine Handcraft The traditional concept of artistic “design,” as art theory and aesthetics developed it from the early modern period onwards, always implied a single mind exercising perfect mastery of forms and materials. In this view, which was established by Renaissance art theory, textile art was a sort of handcraft that was not considered art because it lacked mental disegno. In textile art, the material but also the technical dimension of art-making was all too obvious. Producing textile artworks was impossible without such technical devices as the spinning wheel or the loom, as well as a strict subdivision of labor among numerous hands. Yet in different cultural contexts exactly these technical dimensions were the criteria for holding textile art in high esteem. Hence, the production of textiles could become a metaphor for processes of “designing” that went beyond the limits of the human: the world as a robe, the sky as a tent, those and similar metaphors were more than just projections of human concepts onto nature. This applies especially to picture textiles that were used as clothes. In antiquity, as well as in the Middle Ages, picture robes were considered works of divine handcraft: they transformed human bodies with all their obvious defects and weaknesses into bearers of superhuman power. I want to explain this in slightly more detail, discussing the outstanding case of the so called Sternenmantel (Star Mantle) of the German Emperor Henry II.

Nowadays, the Sternenmantel is exhibited together with other luxury garments of the Ottonian period in the Diözesanmuseum Bamberg, which holds one of the most extraordinary collections of historical textiles. To modern visitors, however, the first impression of these royal robes will be one of an especially fragile medium: they have been preserved only as fragments. Indeed, calling the Sternenmantel of Henry II a ruin may not be overstating the issue. Large parts of the original fabric were destroyed when the mantle underwent a thorough restoration in the fifteenth century. Late medieval alterations to this masterpiece of Ottonian textile art included replacing the original backing of the embroideries with a new ground fabric of blue silk damask. Yet from the painstaking scientific examination of the textile’s microstructure we know that the restorers of the fifteenth century were keen on preserving a series of extremely precious elements. When transferring the embroidered pictures from the original ground fabric of purple silk they maintained their compositional ordering with remarkable accuracy. Other elements that were preserved include the dedicatory inscriptions that inform us that the mantle was initially commissioned by Ismahel, a prince of Apulia, as a gift for Henry II, who in turn donated it to the treasury of Bamberg Cathedral.

What can a luxurious picture-textile like the Sternenmantel, despite its ruinous state, tell us about the enactment of power for which it was used? This question can only be answered by reflecting upon the performative quality of textiles as a medium. The belief in weaving as a world-generating principle was widespread in both antique and Medieval cultures. Authors like Philo of Alexandria considered God a type of weaver who produced a pictured textile:

For the art of variegation has been looked upon by some as so obscure and paltry a matter that they have relegated it to weavers. I on the contrary regard with awe not only the art itself but its very name, and most of all, when I fix my eyes upon the sections of the earth, upon the spheres of heaven, the many different kinds of animals and plants, and that vast variegated piece of embroidery, this world of ours. For I am straightway compelled to think of the artificer of all this texture as the inventor of the variegator’s science, and I do homage to the inventor, I prize the invention.[1]

When talking about the power of medieval picture textiles, I want to address three questions: How is the technical dimension of weaving and embroidering involved in the structure of the textile? Which are the role models of social performance assigned to the dressed person? And to what extent are picture textiles defined as artificial territories on which human persons and divine forces can interact?

The Garment as a World Picture

The short inscription on the mantle’s left half provides us with a summary of the subject of the embroidered pictures: “description of the whole world” (DESCRIPCIO TOCIUS ORBIS). What are the elements in which the description is composed? Two different groups of motifs can easily be distinguished:

The first group refers to the sky as it is treated in astronomy. It mainly consists of 32 constellations depicted in mythologized, figural form. Among these, all twelve signs of the zodiac are present, although not as a coherent group. Other astronomical pictures represent the northern and the southern hemisphere of the night sky, as well as the planets Sol and Luna. The main source for this iconography is illuminated compilations of the Aratea poem, which were among the most important sources of astronomical knowledge in the early Middle Ages.

The second group of motifs is related to the Christian heaven, comprising saints, the symbols of the four evangelists, angels, and, in the very center of the composition, the figure of Christ enthroned who represents the unifying principle of the universe. What is really innovative here is the way in which the creators literally intertwined these two registers, defining the semicircular surface as a spatial matrix of alternating positions in a regular and symmetric order. Particular attention should be paid, therefore, to the systematic use of different shapes of frames for the images on the cloak. Symbols of the saints and evangelists are surrounded by circular boundaries, whereas the constellations have eight pointed frames formed by two interlaced squares. In the very center of this order a third form appears: the enthroned Christ is surrounded by a square, whose quadrangular shape is emphasized by symbols of the four evangelists on each corner.

The arrangement of crosswise interlaced geometrical figures strongly resembles the way in which the warp and woof are related in woven textiles. Additionally, the alignment of identical motifs is derived from ornamental techniques in weaving. So the pictorial order of constellations and heavenly beings is structured according to the principles of textile production itself. This offers us a concrete foundation for relating the Sternenmantel to the popular idea that weaving is the originating principle in creating the universe.

Divine Investiture

A second performative context is connected to the Sternenmantel’s original function. What were the expectations and associations that accompanied the emperor’s investiture of this cosmic picture robe? From several details of the mantle’s program it becomes clear that its designers were well aware of at least two ancient role models which they wanted to evoke: the Jewish High Priest whose robe the Bible describes as a picture of the whole world, and an emperor cast in the tradition of Alexander the Great who wore a picture robe representing the zodiac, according to classical sources. Additionally, a close reading of the dedicatory inscription along the hem reveals, at least partially, how the mantle may have been perceived: “O ornament of Europe, Emperor Henry, you are blessed. May the king who rules forever increase your realm” (O DECUS EUROPAE, CESAR HEINRICE, BEARE // AUGEAT IMPERIUM TIBI REX QUI REGNAT IN AEVUM).

The dedication is about the relationship between two rulers: the emperor Henry and Christ as king. The first one governs the earthly realm, the second the whole universe. The mantle in a certain sense mediates between the emperor and Christ. By wearing this garment, Henry would have come under the protection of Christ, the most powerful leader. The cosmological order represented on its surface contributed to the connection between the visible reality of the ritual performed by the emperor within an invisible realm. The far celestial spheres of constellations, angels and saints would have acted as forces that protected the ruler.

When discussing the performance of the Sternenmantel, it is important to briefly comment upon the visuality that it assumed when worn on the body of the emperor. Draped around the emperor’s shoulders, the fabric could be only partially observed from a single viewpoint. The three-dimensional arrangement of the robe would have ensured that the entire iconographic program was not totally visible from any given perspective. One especially rich and informative side would have been the back with its central axis converging into the central figure of Christ. Yet the dedicatory inscriptions would not have been decipherable at any one time. Legibility, however, was not the sole criteria for the fabric’s design. The “agency” of the textile’s semantic potential was activated not by being read but by being woven, embroidered, and worn.

Textiles as Territories of Interaction

Research into the mantle has revealed that the dedicatory inscriptions, which date back to the Ottonian period, testify to a twofold process of donation. The commissioner of the mantle, prince Ismahel, documented his gift by hexameters written in large, highly ornamented capitals, along with blessings to the emperor. A much smaller caption placed above this text indicates the common denominator of the program and gives the name of the donor.

Historiographical sources of the period inform us that Ismahel was Prince of Apulia who led a series of rebellions against the Byzantines from 1009 to 1018. After he was defeated at Ofanto, near Cannae, in October 1018, he went to Germany to seek further aid. In April 1020 he was in Bamberg where he met Pope Benedict VIII and Henry II at Easter. A few days later, Prince Ismahel died. He was buried in the Chapter House of Bamberg Cathedral. The inscriptions on the mantle corroborate the hypothesis that Ismahel commissioned the garment as a gift for the emperor from whom he sought further military help.

At the time of his death the work on the fabric was not finished. It was this moment that gave Henry the opportunity to alter parts of the text. Henry’s inscription reads: “May this gift be welcome to the highest being” (SUPERNE YSYE SIT GRATUM HOC CESARIS DONUM). The inscription added by Henry makes it very likely that the emperor never wore this luxurious robe but immediately endowed it to God, in addition to the other royal gifts he gave to the Cathedral’s treasury.

The two groups of inscriptions document a radical alteration in the function of the garment, from a ceremonial robe to a treasury object. In regards to this change in the function of the fabric, the different positioning of the captions is extremely significant: Ismahel’s dedication is written along the hem of the mantle, while Henry’s petition is inserted in the very center.

In antique weaving techniques the creation of the hem was dependent on the construction of the loom. In this tradition, textiles were characterized by strong borders which functioned as an intermediate boundary between the clothed person and society. The border zone of the hem is the area a supplicant would normally touch when prostrate or kneeling down before a superior who wore the vestment. Thus, the inscription acted as a textual representative of the donor, performing a permanent touching and blessing. Stitching the blessings along the border would “charge” the garment with Ismahel’s wishes for Henry.

When Henry decided to bestow the mantle to the church treasury of “his” cathedral, he opted to place his inscriptions beneath the image of Christ, in an area that can be defined as a threshold that served to open a door to the “highest being” represented on its surface. This choice implies that the Sternenmantel was no longer considered simply as a piece of clothing. Rather it was treated as a textile map representing the cosmos and allowing for direct communication with God.

In conclusion, I want to formulate some provisional results of my research. Firstly, a close reading of the formal structure and the semantics of the inscriptions corroborates the initial hypothesis that the power associated with the Sternenmantel resulted from the idea that the creation of a garment and the creation of the world were closely related to each other. Secondly, the change of function between Ismahel and Henry proves that the power that was socially assigned to artifacts could develop a dynamic of its own. The Prince of Apulia surely didn’t want his precious gift not to be worn, whereas the emperor in a certain sense was forced not to wear it because the power inherent in the robe was too large. Thirdly, the donation of the mantle to the Cathedral’s treasury was a first step towards the later musealisation of the garment, so we can wonder to what extent an art historian conducting his research, far from being a remote observer, becomes unavoidably entangled in a long series of transactions with his objects.

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Renate Baumgärtel-Fleischmann: “Der Sternenmantel Kaiser Heinrichs II. und seine Inschriften,” in: Walter Koch (ed.): Epigraphik 1988. Fachtagung für mittelalterliche und neuzeitliche Epigraphik, Graz, 10.–14. Mai 1988. Wien 1990, pp. 105–125.

Idem: “Die Kaisermäntel im Bamberger Domschatz,” in: Bericht des Historischen Vereins Bamberg, 133 (1997), pp. 93–126, here pp. 94–96.

Ernst Maass: “Inschriften und Bilder des Mantels Kaiser Heinrichs II.”, in: Zeitschrift für christliche Kunst, vol. 12, no. 11 (1899), pp. 321–342, 361–376.

Stephen C. McCluskey: Astronomies and Cultures in Early Medieval Europe. Cambridge, MA 1998, pp. 140–145.

Elizabeth Carrol Waldron O’Connor: The Star Mantle of Henry II. New York 1980.

Jacques Paul: “Le manteau couverte d’étoiles de l’empereur Henri II,” in: Le soleil, la lune et les étoiles au Moyen Âge. Aix-en-Provence 1983, pp. 262–292.

[1] Philo of Alexandria: De somniis [On Dreams], 1.203.

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