Thursday 21 November 2013


Evolution of Large-Scale Textile Motifs

THL Asa Gormsdottir / Eve Harris, October 2011

1. Preamble
2. Sassanid and Coptic Textiles
3. Byzantine Fabrics
4. Lampas and Palmettes
5. Italian Heraldic Fabrics
6. Pomegranate Velvets
7. Fragmentation: 16th Century Fabrics
8. Turkish Brocades
9. Conclusion
10. Bibliography

Part of the enjoyment in historical recreation is making clothes appropriate to one’s preferred
period(s) of study. Choosing appropriate plain or subtly patterned fabrics (such as herringbone
and lozenge twills) in wool, linen or silk has become almost a matter of fact for many
experimental archaeologists when recreating elements of European dress, but often difficulty
arises when a large-pattern textile is contemplated.

The intent of this paper is to develop an elementary pattern guide to recognizing and choosing
larger-pattern fabric designs appropriate to royalty, upper class and ecclesiastical dress during
the generally accepted SCA period of study, 600-1600 A.D. Sassanid and Coptic designs,
Byzantine heraldic fabrics, Italian and Turkish patterns will be reviewed in chronological order
and their characteristics discussed. In addition to images of extant fabrics and secondary
painting sources, images of modern fabrics possessing similar characteristics are also included.

What is Pattern?
Pattern can be defined as a repeating sequence of elements organized in a predictable way.
Simple or complex, a perfect pattern is mathematically precise and consistent. Keys to pattern
recognition include shape, content, embellishments and colour.

In 600 A.D. weaving was arguably an already mature art. While refinements such as special
weaves (lampas and velvet) and greater perfection in dyeing were yet to come, sophisticated
repeat patterns, in silk and in wool-on-linen, sometimes using gold thread, had long been
produced in Egypt (including Alexandria) and Persia or imported from China via the Silk Road
(Volbach, 15-16). Weaves from Babylon and Assyria (present-day Iraq) were prized in the
Roman Empire (Volbach, 9).

Persian (Sassanid, now present-day Iran) and Egyptian (Late Classical and Coptic) designs
exercised the greatest influence over the future Byzantine Empire’s renown in silk manufacture.

“Sassanid (third to seventh centuries A.D.) textiles, which greatly influenced Indian silk
brocades of a later period, were known for their beauty and unique patterns. The
designs were the result of a fusion of three ancient textile traditions – the Mesopotamian,
Chinese and Hellenic…motifs used extensively in different forms were the lotus, lion,
bull, elephant, tree of life, and vase of plenty among others.” (Agrawal, 35-36)

The design scheme of surviving Sassanid textiles almost exclusively consists of heraldic
animals and noble scenes presented in bordered roundels. The roundel borders are filled with
smaller disks resembling coins. The colour scheme is very rich: its palette is essentially identical
to that found in Persian carpets up to present day. Deep rich reds, blue-greens, golden yellows,
creams and blacks are all common, and even in their faded state the extant Sassanian textile
fragments exude warmth, vigour and dignity.

Sassanid, 6th-7th C. Silk twill. Shows the royal senmurv (Volbach, Plate 21)

Sassanid, 4th C. Silk twill. Pheasant 
(Volbach, Plate 23)

Central Asia, 9th C. (carbon dated)
Polychrome silk samite. Roundel is 11' 3/4
diameter. “…still retains the elegance of the
Sassanian earlier models”. From a Carlo
Cristi exhibit at the International Asian Art Fair

Meanwhile, Egyptian textiles in the fourth and fifth centuries A.D. still contained Classical motifs.
The graceful examples shown below are delicately woven and in sophisticated taste. In the first
example, the nereid/sea-monster motif alternates direction with each row. As well, the motifs in
each example are enclosed in a roundel with a border. Cellular arrangement of motifs in
roundels, palmettes or medallions is a common feature of large-pattern textiles
throughout many centuries.

Believed Egyptian, 4th-5th C. Silk twill.
“Nereids riding sea-monsters” (Volbach, Plate 1)

Egyptian, 4th C. Wool on linen.
“Venus and Adonis” (Volbach, Plate 19)

However, the calm, naturalistic air of these scenes and their Classical content was ending:

“Two main factors brought the naturalistic style favoured by antiquity to an end: the
collapse of the Western Empire in the fifth century and a change in economic structure
as a result of which a new social order was established and to which the language of art
had to be adapted.” (…) “the old classical motifs were gradually replaced by new
subjects drawn from Eastern mythology, by portraits, and, above all, by Christian
themes.” (Volbach, 49)

Initially, the Coptic work seems to flounder under the influence of the Sassanian textiles, groping
into the Christian themes with coarse, almost childishly drawn figures using primary tones of
red, orange, blue in conjunction with white and black accents. These transitional fabrics soon
developed the fixed frontal gazes and rigid poses associated with Byzantine iconography.
Coptic, 6th-9th C. Border fragments. “Two gold bands, and central polychrome band
with red ground, woven with roundels enclosing a stylized horseman, with animal
below and behind, a snake above, a smaller figure carrying a bird in front, alternating
with conjoined flower filled amphorae and stylized foliate roundels”
Coptic, 7th-9th C. Fragment with a red ground, “woven
with rows of roundels and foliate motifs, filled with
stylized leaves and flowers motifs, with remains of
bright polychrome.” 32 in. (81 cm.) long

Labyrinthine politics, suffocating bureaucracy - and decadent luxury - are synonymous with the
Eastern Roman Empire, in succeeding centuries renamed the Byzantine Empire:

“…the splendour of the Byzantine court is its applied art. (…) (Byzantine) textiles … were
of such amazing quality that the demand for them was universal.” (Volbach, 122)

Yet the designs, motifs and colour palette were stolen wholesale from Sassanid originals,
including such mythological animals as the senmurv1 and hippocampi2. Most 7th through 9th
century Byzantine fabrics exhibit exceptional kinship and derivative relationships with surviving
Sassanid originals.

“Symbolic beasts copied from Eastern fabrics also played a decisive role in architectural
sculpture in Italy, France and Spain, and the lion, the eagle and the elephant, all
symbols of sovereignty, were the main motifs in the court art of Byzantium.” P. 15

Winged horses, griffons, eagles and other birds were universally popular and were used for
hundreds of years.

“The double-headed eagle, an ancient Mesopotamian motif and the royal emblem of
Byzantine kings, was also the royal insignia of the Mysore state….It was also a popular
ancient Egyptian motif symbolising power.” (Agrawal, 69)

Like the Sassanid fabrics previously seen, the essential Byzantine design consists of bordered
roundels, joined by smaller disks or lozenges to other roundels in a grid. “True roundels…(are)
the almost invariable pattern of Byzantine silks”. (Volbach, 13) Within these roundels are
heraldic animals, singly or in pairs (normally statant and regardant).

Byzantine, 7th C. Hippocampi silk. (Volbach, 57)

Byzantine, 7th C. Silk serge reconstruction. “Lozenge pattern
with leaves in the shape of a cross”. (Volbach, Plate 53)

Note the similarities of the Hippocampi silk above with its Sassanid ancestor in the previous
section. The fairly simple design of the second example above, in faded purple and gold, is
probably one of the few Byzantine fabrics for which a modern substitute could be obtained. In
the current textile market, true heraldic fabrics are uncommon and hard to find.

Byzantine, 9th-10th C. Lions. Purple silk serge
(Volbach, Plate 66)

Likely Byzantine, 11th C.
“Reconstruction of the pattern on the silk
cloth recovered from the tomb of Edward
the Confessor in Westminster Abbey.”
(Crowfoot, 86-7)

Byzantine, 11th C.
Two griffons. Silk serge and
wool (Volbach, Plate 69)

While the polychromatic scheme is changing, the Sassanid character of these Byzantine fabrics
is still easily recognizable.

Although they would remain popular as an ecclesiastical pattern for centuries yet, in the 10th
century the once colourful roundel-based patterns had essentially run their course. New, largely
monochromatic patterns using palmette grids were coming into favour.

“…Geometrical patterns, based on palmettes for example, were becoming much more
fashionable. A preference was shown for single colours, and, as a result, delicate
intermediate tones gradually disappeared.” (Volbach, 143)

These intricate designs found a showcase in lampas. A compound twill, lampas resembles our
modern-day damask.

“It is uncertain where in the Middle or Near East lampas weaves originated, although the
technique had certainly evolved in Arab workshops by the late 10th century… the cloth
construction… subtly exploited the lustrous quality of the fibre by contrasting the pattern
with that of the ground. This was achieved by bringing the main warp to the surface
of the cloth…” (Crowfoot, 107)

The following Byzantine examples represent “proto” lampas and lampas. The “proto” lampas
had more of a textured design:

“Many of these silks were used for vestments…They are a monochrome pale grey,,
greenish-yellow, red, green or blue-black, with textured design and a characteristic
shimmer like that of satin. The complicated patterns are similar to those on the multicoloured
fabrics: palmettes, rosettes, acanthus leaves, flowers and contiguous
medallions” (Volbach, 145)

The rich and varied colour schemes of the roundel fabrics seen in previous centuries had
(temporarily) vanished.

“…lampas-woven fabrics in the 11th century (were) usually in monochrome white, ivory,
yellow, green or more rarely purple. (…) By the end of the 11th century a more colourful
range of lampas cloths was being woven in western Europe, principally Sicily and Spain,
and metal thread was introduced to highlight details of the patterns…” (Crowfoot, 107)

Byzantine, 11th C. Chasuble of Bishop Willigis (975-1011)
“Two different types of palmettes in pointed oval surrounds”
(Volbach, Plate 70)

Byzantine, 11th C. Slashed silk lampas.
Bird roundels. (Volbach, Plate 71)

According to Santangelo, “The commonest type (of lampas or diasprum) … is one without
circular frames, showing parallel and alternating rows of confronted birds and quadrupeds,
separated by palmette-shaped leaves.” (Santangelo, 19)

These palmettes would prove to be an enduring component of many fabrics, whether undulating
in flowing s-curves (the proto-lampas above), in squat little rows, or as stand-alone polychrome
emblems, especially in Turkish and modern Indian fabrics.

Venetian, before 1329. Green brocade. Contains “four
different types of palmettes”. (Santangelo, Plate 21)

Florence, early 16th C. Green velvet, with pattern
of “interlaced chestnut branches on ivory silk
ground” (Santangelo, Plate 49)

The 16th century green and ivory velvet above displays the continuing s-curve style.3

Venetian, before 1329. Red silk, “brocaded with pine cones in relief
and lotus plants on ground speckled with gold” (Santangelo, Plate

Florentine or Venetian, 1565-1600. Brocaded chopines.4

Giovanni Bellini, Madonna and Child Enthroned, 1488
Venice. (Jestaz, Plate 90)
Note the dark red wall hanging patterned in black with green
and white

Modern brocade with similar palmette/medallion characteristics
Fabricland, c. 2009

While cities like Sicily, Lucca and Venice had been producing silk fabrics for hundreds of years,
by the late 13th century their works had achieved parity with the acknowledged industry leaders:
Byzantine and Asian fabrics:

“The 1295 inventory of the Vatican Basilica mentions Luccan, Genoese and Venetian
textiles on a plane of absolute equality with panni di Romania, produced in regions
subject to the Byzantine Empire, and with panni tartarici, produced in the Islamic
countries of Asia.” (Santangelo, 17)

Their technical excellence is shown in the following formal compositions of palmettes and
confronted animals, the first being brocaded in silver which has since tarnished:

Lucca, first half of 14th C.
“Diasprum…showing confronted peacocks
and gazelles brocaded with silver”
(Santangelo, Plate 10)

Venetian, 14th C. “Gold brocade on red
ground, with touches of blue” (detail)
(Santangelo, Plate 25)

Varanasi silk, early 20th C. (Agrawal, 133)
While lacking heraldic elements, the red ground
and brocaded motifs with small flowers above
are similar to the 14th C. Venetian brocade

At least until the Ghibbeline occupation in 13145, Luccan textiles were favoured above the
products of Venice:

“The patterns and motifs take on new life even when they are merely adaptations from
older symbols and motifs. Heraldic emblems lose the immobile fixity of the coat of arms
…” (Santangelo, 30)

Lucca, 14th C. Silk with pattern of birds
(Santangelo, Plate 9)

Modern heraldic silk fabric. Lions and palmettes. Dark red ground; warm beige
detail that appears golden in some lights. Courtesy Susan Carroll-Clark by way
of Designer Fabric Outlet, c. 1999

Succeeding heraldic fabrics of the later 14th and into the 15th centuries display a growing
freedom and tendency to dispense with the ordered X/Y grid in favour of diagonal compositions
full of life. The design and chromatic implications from the rise of Genghis Khan (re-establishing
trade links throughout Asia and thus to Europe) and the fascinating fruits of Marco Polo’s travels
are noted:

“The colours of the oriental cloths also display a different palette from those produced in
western centres, and the tints of pink, turquoise, orange and green were to have almost
as an important influence on the colouring of textiles, particularly those produced in
Italian cities from the second quarter of the 14th century, as the exotic patterns were to
have on cloth design.” (Crowfoot, 100)

The predictable vertical or horizontal scrolling shapes are transformed into diagonal scenes full
of movement:

Lucca, 14th C. Dalmatic (detail) (Santangelo, Plate 15)

Many such inspired textiles contain “humourous” scenes with “good-natured caricatures” and
fantastic animals “who rush down from the row above” (Santangelo, 30). Of Luccan textiles,
“The motifs are Gothic: castles, galleys, heraldic emblems, hunting scenes, especially with
huntresses, fabulous and real animals, all combined in light and airy compositions” (Santangelo,

Not heraldic in composition, but certainly in the same free, diagonally driven spirit and
complementing the great pomegranate velvets are the following delightful silks brocaded with

Venetian, early 15th C. “Tunicle, brocaded with gold” (detail)
(Santangelo, Plate 28)

Venetian, 15th C. Pile-on-pile velvet, brocaded with gold
(Poli, precise citation lost)

A popular textile motif found in many paintings of the 15th and 16th centuries, the pomegranate
motif is a fat, pine-cone shape covered with petals or scales. This central element can also be
described as an artichoke, a pineapple, a lotus flower, a poppy seed head or a tree of life.

Typically the heart is embedded in a broad, many-lobed border, often enhanced with florets or

Most often used in velvets, the pomegranate motif typically appears in a united, vertical design
of fleshy stalks or branches. Some examples show the motif meandering along the fabric on its
own independent stalk.

Pisanello. Design for a velvet.
Before 1455.
(Santangelo, Plate 15)

Italian, early 16th C. Brocaded velvet
(Santangelo, Plate 44)

Florence, 3rd quarter, 15th C.
Vestment of Pope Nicholas V
(Santangelo, Plate 51)

Pomegranate patterns are frequently grand in scope. It is not uncommon to see a single motif
as broad as two hand span. On some surviving vestments, the pattern is so large that the
garment simply can’t do it justice. Heavily banded with orphreys6, many chasubles resemble
disjointed puzzle pieces than a coherent design.

Many surviving or painted pomegranate fabrics have gorgeous jewel-tone colour schemes, such
as garnet, deep brown and purple, all with gold. The Magdalen below sports a particularly delightful example.7 In addition to countless paintings, pomegranate patterns are found
throughout the Lady and the Unicorn tapestries (late 15th century) and on the mid-15th century
Ricasoli-Adimari Marriage Chest (Santangelo, Figures 21-22).

Jan Van Eyck, 1436. The Virgin of Chancellor
Rolin (detail)
“…attired in an opulent, brownish, mink-trimmed
brocade coat with a raised pomegranate pattern
in gold thread.” (Schneider, 36)

Rogier van der Weyden, c. 1450
Isabelle du Portugal
Visited October 12, 2011

Rogier van der Weyden
Magdalen (right wing of the Braque
family triptych), 1452
eyden/ Visited October 10, 2011

During the second half of the fifteenth century, as the motif matured, the colour scheme became
more monochrome. The patterns lost much of their exuberance in exchange for studied
elegance. Some designs appear almost incised, as by an engraving tool.

Florence, early 16th C. “Passerini Cope, worn by Leo X while
celebrating mass in the Church of San Francesco at Cortona, on
May 28, 1515” (Santangelo, Plate 48)

Hans Holbein, 1527
Portrait of Sir Henry Guildford, Windsor
(Laver, Plate 15)

As well, ferronerie (ironwork) designs appear. In the second example, increasingly abstracted,
only a fragment in the centre of each motif retains its original character, while the overall design
shows a tendency to break away diagonally from left to right.

Agnolo Bronzino, c. 1545
Eleanor of Toledo and her son Giovanni de’
Medici (Jestaz, Plate 132)8

Milan, second half of 15th C.
(Santangelo, Plate 56)
Crimson velvet, “showing ferronerie pattern”

FRAGMENTATION: 16th Century Fabrics
During the last quarter of the 15th century, the flowing houppelandes, huques and giorneas that
so beautifully showcased the pomegranate velvets and colourful brocades were increasingly
giving way to more form-fitting fashions, often in more sombre tones. After 1525 this movement
was particularly influenced by the costume of Spain, the acknowledged economic and military
superpower of Europe9:

“The dominant feature of Spanish costume was its sobriety and austere elegance.
Though rich, the stuffs used were always in dark tones…This fashion spread (…)
through Italy, and through the courts of Henri II and his sons in France. (…) The solemn,
heavy effect produced by these stiff garments did not preclude luxury…”10

This sober Spanish aesthetic was expressed through tautly fitted doublets, stiffened and boned
“bodies” and heavy cone-shaped skirts. Plain velvets and smooth satins in colours of black,
pearl-grey, white, dark red and purple, cut to fit, were trimmed in black and gold with narrow
braids, embroidery or passementerie and tightly secured with costly buttons. Intricate pink-andslash
patterns11 and strapwork added textural interest.

The focus was no longer on the pattern of the fabric but the fit of the clothes and the richness of
the trimmings, complemented by ruffs, linen undergarments heavily embroidered in double
backstitch, and monumental jewellery. The excesses of costume, temporarily restrained, simply
found another mode of expression. In this environment, except in the Italian city states,
particularly Venice, large-pattern textiles faltered and increasingly took a (literally) backdrop

The Infanta Isabella Clara Eugenia with Magdalena Ruiz
Felipe de Liaño, c. 1584 (Laver, Plate 27)

Erasmus of Rotterdam, c.1523. Hans Holbein the Younger
(Schneider, precise citation lost)

Note the stilted, alternating rows of separate gold and silver motifs on the Infanta’s skirt against
the majestic, older red and gold brocade wall hanging of great palmettes in a network of
boughs. In the latter example, Erasmus is portrayed in scholarly black against a dark green
heraldic silk of griffons, brocaded with gold and touched with raspberry that was probably 50-
100 years old at the time.

At the same time, perhaps reflecting general surfeit, velvet patterns became increasingly
stylized and empty of meaning. Several 16th century cream or beige velvets have survived; their
motifs much smaller and increasingly stylized, blurred by the velvet pile.

Genoa, 16th C. “Cut and uncut brown velvet on yellow ground
(portion). Small floral motifs arrayed in parallel lines”.
(Santangelo, Plate 62)

Genoa, 16th C. Velvet. “Plants and animals in red and green on
cream ground”. (Santangelo, Plate 59)

16th century Italian silks show simplified, miniaturized motifs, stylized past the point of
recognition. Descriptions include “lopped bough” (Dupont-Auberville, 27). Note the small silver
and gold repeats in the violet silk below.

Italian, 16th C. Violet silk, “motifs alternately in gold and silver”
(Santangelo, Plate 69)

Venetian, 16th C. “Polychrome velvet on green satin ground”
(Santangelo, Plate 73)

Despite the prevailing pretty, empty fabrics of the 16th century, the old strain of magnificence
continued in Turkey and Venice, who enjoyed close economic ties. Brilliant velvets in bold
colours embellished with gold thread, depicting palmettes, medallions, fern/feather and flower
motifs appear both in Venetian paintings and on extant fabrics, including several caftans in the
Topkapi museum.

Iran, Safavid, 16th C. Velvet fragment.
Visited October 13, 2011

Paolo Veronese, Marriage at Cana
(detail), 1562-1563 (Jestaz, Plate 115)

Gentile Bellini, Turkish Painter, 1501
Visited October 14, 2011

The medallion borders in Bellini’s painting contain the same small disks as did the Sassanid
fabrics in the same region one thousand years previously.

Turkey, 16th C. “Kaftan fragment, lampas, ogival”
(Agrawal, Plate 25)

Gujarat/Varanasi, late 18th C. ”This motif, the Pankha Buta, is influenced
by the Turkish brocade of the 17th century.” (Agrawal, Plate 70)

Inhabited roundels, palmettes, heraldic beasts and pomegranates are important motifs of 6th
through 16th century large-pattern silk and velvet textiles. Using primary and secondary sources,
this paper has reviewed their chronology and characteristics, and some socio-economic factors
contributing to changes in pattern fashions. The many beautiful fabrics, surviving or preserved in
contemporary paintings and mosaics, are testament to the maturity and excellence achieved by
the weaving industry long before the SCA period opens, and their classic patterns endure today.
With internet access to suppliers all over the world, today’s fabric shopper has access to more
variety, colour choices and price ranges in textiles than ever before. Armed with a basic
understanding of dominant patterns and colour schemes worn by the European nobility and
clergy from the Byzantine empire through the Elizabethan period, artisans can make more
informed fabric choices and produce ever more realistic garments that would truly look at home
in a great painting.

Agrawal, Yashodhara. Silk Brocades. India: Roli & Janssen, 2003.

Crowfoot, Pritchard and Staniland. Textiles and Clothing c. 1150-1450. London: The Boydell
Press, 1992. This edition 2001, reprinted 2004.

Dupont-Auberville, M. Classic Textile Designs. Trans. from L’Ornement des Tissus. London:
Studio Editions, 1989. Reprinted 1996.

Jestaz, Bertrand. Art of the Renaissance. Trans., I. Mark Paris. New York: Harry N. Abrams,
Inc., Publishers, 1995.

Laver, James. Le Costume des Tudor a Louis XIII. Paris: Horizons de France, 1950.

Poli, Doretta Davanzo. I Mestieri della moda a Venezia. Venice: Conzorzio Maestri Calzaturieri
Del Brenta, 1995.

Santangelo, Antonino. Treasury of Great Italian Textiles. New York: Harry N. Abrams, 1964.

Schneider, Norbert. The Art of the Portrait: masterpieces of European portrait-painting, 1420-
1670. Taschen, 2002.

Volbach, W. Fritz. Early Decorative Textiles. Trans., Yuri Gabriel from Il Tessuto nel’Arte Antica.
Middlesex: The Hamlyn Publishing Group, 1969. . Visited October 13, 2011 Visited October 8, 2011 Visited
October 11, 2011 Visited October 11, 2011 Visited October 10, 2011, Visited October 13, 2011
Visited October 14, 2011 Visited October 12, 2011

1 Ancient mythological animal, part wolf or dog, part eagle or peacock
2 Mythological; part horse, part fish
3 A simple dress in a similar velvet, grass-green on fawn silk velvet, was sighted at Fall Coronation, 2011
4 Fabric-covered chopines (high-heeled shoes worn primarily by Venetian and Spanish ladies in the 15th century and for some time afterward) can be an excellent source for fashionable textiles
5 Banished as a result of the occupation, “three hundred families of Guelph (Luccan) weavers transferred their looms to Venice…” (Santangelo, 28)
6 Decorated bands, often embroidered in metallic threads and jewelled
7 Magdalen and Salome figures are generally dressed in the peak of fashion. However, some representations contain grossly exaggerated patterns; their misplaced grandeur probably intended to impute vulgarity and lack of discernment.
8 See François Clouet’s Elizabeth of Austria for a similar fabric, a “robe en damas à fond jaune” (damask gown with a yellow ground) (Laver, Plate 57)
9 Thanks to New World colonial cash
10 Boucher, 227. Other references 224-226.
11 Adapted and refined from Landsknecht soldier fashions

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