Tuesday, September 24, 2013

The cope of St Mexme and a case of leaping leopards

model Madeleine in brown velvet Fiere 
from Luigi Bevilacqua

I stumbled across this delightful accessory recently and thought I'd propose it as the it-bag for textile lovers. It's a handmade luxury item and I have to say that I enjoy seeing those hip cat "Byzantine" leopards on the prowl again. 

photo St Tyl detail of the cope of St Mexme
If you've interested in textile history, you have may have seen these leopards before. The actual fabric is a samitum weave hanging in the Musee des Beaux Arts of Chinon. It is one of those intriguing fabrics with a long history that is all the more fascinating  because we may never unravel the truth about it's origins. It is called the Cope of St Mexme which is an ecclesiastical vestment shaped like a long cape said to belong to the abbot Mexme of  the 5th century. Most ancient textiles come down to us today either through the church or through the tomb. We have the church treasury of St Etienne in Chinon to thank for the safeguarding of this one, exceptional because of its great size and its excellent state of preservation for an ancient textile. 

Textiles of this kind of course took time to produce and were exceedingly precious.  They traveled well, as did weavers and their skills, so tracing the origins of ancient textiles is often difficult. Many Islamic or Byzantine fabrics were re-used and made into paraments - vestments or hangings for the church.  In 1853, a woven inscription was found under some trim at the top of this cope where a hood was sewn on that permitted the dating of the cloth. It reads, in Arabic, happiness to its possessor

Most textile experts consider that the cloth dates to the end of the 11th century, but where it was made remains a mystery. The Museum in Chinon states its provenance as in Moorish Spain, but I've also read Sicily and the site Qantara says Egypt. Wherever it was actually woven, it is of the rich Fatimid style which had spread throughout the Mediterranean basin during the time of the powerful dynasty from 909–1171. At some point the cloth came to France and was made into a garment but obviously, it could not have been worn by the 5th century saint. Such religious 'conversions' were frequent and didn't concern anyone; it was the quality of the cloth that mattered.

Expositions 3973
velvet Fiere 
from Luigi Bevilacqua
This fabric and the bag above come from the weaving studio Luigi Bevilacqua of Venise, one of the rare weaving houses today that still has a sophisticated hand-loom production. Designs similar to this one were created even on into the 17th century and then again probably revived in the 19th, but the Venetian design above has all the exact same elements of the ancient cope of St Mexme- confronted leopards with their young, attacking birds, tree of life. Only the leopard spots have been staggered to suit the modern eye. Does the weaving house have a piece of this same textile in is archives? Knowing the important trade relations between Venice and the East, it wouldn't be impossible. Another story of textile travel is surely behind this.

An article at Qantara explains the subject, "Decorations comprising animals facing each other on a symmetrical axis had been used in Middle-Eastern countries (Iran and Iraq) since Antiquity, particularly on cylinder seals. The vegetal axis symbolized—at least during the Sassanian period in Iran—the tree of life associated with the primordial waters; it is part of Persian cosmogony, which influenced—and still influences—Iranian art....This type of decoration spread rapidly throughout the East and was also adopted in the West."

Fiere 32973
brocatelle Fierefrom Luigi Bevilacqua
"The tamed leopards evoke one of the favourite themes of oriental artists: the prince’s hunting exploits, the symbols of his power, which were crowned with a banquet and music. In the Umayyad period, treatises on hunting mention animals used for hunting: dogs, falcons, and leopards—highly prized animals which required specialist training. Certain sculptures in the round from China (Tang Dynasty), which depict a huntsman carrying a leopard on the croup of his horse, suggest that this type of hunting is Chinese in origin. It quickly spread throughout Islamic countries and appeared on luxury objects, such as ivories, and was combined with hunting using a falcon: in Spain during the caliphate period, Sicily in the eleventh and twelfth centuries, and Fatimid Egypt. It spread to the West through Muslim Spain."

Photo : Handmade bag with our Leoni Bizantini 32173 velvet by Köln based Anette Stahlhofen. Further info: http://a-stahlhofen-taschenmanufaktur.de/
bag from stahlhofen-taschenmanufactur
For the pleasure - for variety - there is also a Byzantine Lion bag.
Which will it be?


  1. Wonderful Gesbi. So interesting and I would love to have the bags.

  2. arrrrgggghhhhh! you're killing me here! i had only just pledged to myself that it was time to STOP ALREADY with the handbags.......