The Walters Art Museum in Baltimore, Maryland houses a series of three large panel paintings depicting the abduction of Helen, queen of Sparta, by the Trojan prince Paris: The Departure of Queen Helen and Her Entourage for Cythera, The Abduction of Helen from Cythera, and The Reception of Helen at Troy. The works, completed around 1469, are most often attributed to the Italian painter Dario di Giovanni and unnamed collaborators.
In their article for The Journal of the Walters Art Museum, “Dressed in Tin: Analysis of the Textiles in the Abduction of Helen Series,” researchers Pamela Betts and Glenn Gates examine the textiles rendered in the series, with a focus on the tin-relief textiles or applied relief brocade technique. This tin applique used throughout the series both emphasized the luxurious Italian silks and brocaded velvets depicted in the painting and underscored the wealth of the family commissioning the work.
When the Walters’ conservation treatment of these paintings began in 2010, examination of the series with X-radiography identified further details that had been obscured with restoration material or otherwise hard to discern. Textile motifs that appeared through this process included pinecones, thistles, flower buds and, notably, stylized pomegranates. Through the first half of the thirteenth century, the silks originally imported into Italy were mainly of Byzantine origin. Later, silk textiles would be brought into the region from Central Asia, Iran, and Syria—featuring a combination of Chinese, Central Asian, and Islamic designs, many of which included fruit. Weavers in Lucca, Venice, and Florence began imitating these imported luxury silks and over time developed their own local, proprietary patterns. By the end of the fourteenth century, Italians were producing highly desirable textiles. Early designs included geometric patterns, animals, birds, and plants; by the fifteenth century many of these textiles incorporated pomegranate patterns.
Used for its symbolic and religious meaning as much as its sharp sweet-tart taste, the pomegranate was widely revered as a symbol of abundance, life, and even life beyond death. Ancient Egyptians, for example, were buried with pomegranates in the hopes of passage into the afterlife. In ancient Greece, pomegranates were central to both myth and medicine. Dioscorides, a Greek physician, pharmacologist, and botanist, recommended pomegranate seeds and rind as birth control. Christianity, Judaism and Islam alike, all hold the pomegranate in high regard, and its imagery frequently referenced.
For more information about textiles in this series and the work of the Walters Art Museum, visit The Journal of the Walters Art Museum.
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