Being from Ireland, I’m pretty used to heading into a museum and seeing artefacts which have been preserved in the acidic, anaerobic environment of an Irish bog. The items in the newest display at the Douglas Hyde Gallery, however, were preserved in very different conditions: the dry desert climate of Egypt.
The “Coptic Textiles” exhibition is tucked into a small corner of this small gallery, which is itself tucked into the side of the Nassau Street entrance of Trinity College. It includes a number of pieces made between the 5th and 11th century.
They are a vivid illustration of the kinds of cross-cultural contacts which existed in medieval Egypt. As well as the indigenous Egyptian and Romano-Egyptian motifs, there are distinct hints of Byzantine or Islamic artistic influence. Some of them are tiny fragments; others, like the example I’ve included here to the left, are largely intact. This one—showing a cavalryman or maybe a saint—is some sort of medallion which I imagine must once have been affixed to clothing.
I do have to talk in terms of hints or possibilities, though, because the puzzling omission from this exhibition was the almost complete lack of interpretive material. I understand that pieces can have shaky provenances or can be difficult to date precisely, but there was no explanation as to the individual pieces—no illustrating maps, nothing about manufacturing techniques, no explanation even as to how the exhibition was arranged. I thought I detected clusters of motifs or techniques, like several small, vibrant pieces which seemed to show humanoid monsters with exaggerated male genitalia, but it was difficult to understand them without context. Overall, “Coptic Textiles” is no doubt fascinating for those who are interested more in the aesthetic qualities of textiles, but a little frustrating for those of us who would like to learn more about the textiles’ history.
The exhibition runs at the Douglas Hyde Gallery from now until 19 March.