Conserving St. Ambrose’s 4th-century silk tunics

University of Bonn researchers are working with textile conservators to study and preserve delicate silk tunics attributed to Saint Ambrose, the 4th century Archbishop and patron saint of Milan whose skeletal remains are on display in Milan’s Basilica di Sant’Ambrogio. The silks are also kept at the Milan basilica and are venerated as relics of the saint. The textiles have not been conclusively dated to the 4th century, but they are certainly from late antiquity which makes them very rare survivals that can lend unique insight into the period.

“These are marvelously beautiful vestments of sumptuous silk that have been ascribed to the saint,” says Professor Dr. Sabine Schrenk of the department of Christian Archaeology at the University of Bonn. One of them has intricate depictions of hunting scenes with trees and leopards, while the other valuable textile is kept rather simple. […]

In the course of many centuries,time took its toll on these famous textiles. “If these fragile silk threads are to be preserved for a long time to come, it is critical to remove harmful layers of dust,” says Cologne textile restorer Ulrike Reichert, who has headed her own restoration workshop in the Dellbrück neighborhood for many years, specializing in preserving early silk textiles. The cloth is painstakingly cleaned with a tiny vacuum cleaner and delicate brushes. “For this we have had to carefully free the material from the protective glass that had been laid over it,” says Professor Schrenk’s colleague Katharina Neuser.

Since the textiles are far too delicate to travel, conservators have brought their mobile restoration lab to Milan to do the work on site. In addition to stabilizing and repairing the damage of centuries of display under heavy glass or sandwiched between other fabrics in a chest, the restorers hope their analysis will illuminate the evolution of relic worship in Early Christian Italy. Saint Ambrose himself, along with other doctors of the Church like Saint Augustine, Saint Jerome and Saint Cyril of Alexandria, was an early advocate of veneration of relics.

The tunics were revered as relics of Saint Ambrose at least by the 11th century, and probably earlier. A red cross was woven onto one of the textiles in late antiquity or early Middle Ages, an indication that they were held to be of religious significance. A woven band kept with the tunics dates to the 11th century. The inscription describes the silks as Saint Ambrose’s vestments to be held in great reverence.

Restorers believe the band was the work by Archbishop Aribert of Milan (1018-1045) who had political reasons as well as religious ones to emphasize the significance of Saint Ambrose. Saint Ambrose had famously stood up to Roman emperors on a number of issues, refusing two orders from Western emperor Valentinian II that he surrender two churches in Milan for Arian worship and excommunicating Eastern emperor Theodosius I for the Massacre of Thessalonica. Aribert wanted a strong Ambrosian archbishopric that held virtually independent temporal power over northern Italy. He created a princely court in Milan, as luxurious as a royal court only under ecclesiastical rather than princely control. He even called his bishops cardinals, as if he were Pope in the North.

At first he was a strong supporter of the German emperors, an alliance that strengthened his political position in the region. However, when he allied with the great lords of northern Italy against the lesser vassals, arbitrarily confiscating lands and denying them feudal rights of inheritance, the resulting conflict that would pit him against the Holy Roman Emperor Conrad II and his son Henry III. Aribert refused to restore fiefdoms he had taken from the minor nobility and refused even to defend his actions before the emperor, insisting that as Archbishop of Milan, he was equal in authority to the emperor and if the emperor wanted those lands back from the see of Milan, he could just try and take them. Indeed, in a presage of the Investiture Controvery that would poison relations between the papacy and imperial throne for decades staring in the reign of Henry III’s son Henry IV, Aribert had personally crowned Conrad II with the Iron Crown of Lombardy making him King of Italy.

Conrad’s attempt to besiege Milan failed thanks to Aribert’s enhanced defenses and a militia he had created from every class of Milanese citizen. Conrad died in 1039 and the conflict between the archbishop and Henry II was finally resolved by diplomacy in 1040. Even though Pope Benedict IX had sided with Conrad and excommunicated Aribert in 1038, in the end the archbishop maintained control over his territory with his political and military strength, a lesson that future popes less in harmony with the Holy Roman Emperors would take to heart.

So the study of these silk tunics really covers centuries of religious, political and social history. Researchers hope it will shed light on economic history of late antiquity as well. There is a widely held belief among historians that in the 4th century silk thread was all imported from China and then woven in the eastern Mediterranean, mainly Syria. Professor Schrenk suspects there may well have been a silk weaving industry in Milan, however, because it was a center of imperial power as the capital of the Western Empire from 286 to 402 A.D.

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6 Comments »

Comment by dearieme
2014-09-04 06:07:32

“The textiles have not been conclusively dated”: why might that be, I wonder?

 
Comment by Roman
2014-09-04 06:30:24

Good question. I thought about that also. There must be the way of finding the way the fabric was made and maybe and the type of fabric itself. I am sure back in the days they would use different techniques and dyes so it should not be that extremely hard to find out about the age, but I might be wrong since I do not know much of fabrics of any kind.

 
Comment by dearieme
2014-09-04 18:28:57

radiocarbon dating should be pretty easy.

 
Comment by Ella
2014-09-04 21:57:15

Radiocarbon dating would require the destruction of a portion of the garment, which the Milan Basilica may not be willing to provide the authorisation to do, particularly given the outcome of radiocarbon dating the Shroud of Turin.
It may also be difficult to conclusively date due to the general lack of information we have regarding the middle ages and before. There would be a lack of textiles to compare it to, and possibly only limited written evidence of the styles, dyes and materials of a given area in a given time period. And as the garments are silk, we may not even be talking European records.

 
Comment by anja
2014-09-09 10:14:03

The church doesn’t want to admit that its really just a tablecloth. :skull:

 
Comment by Sandra D
2014-09-14 19:18:00

From the pictures, it is difficult to determine if the decoration is laid silk or embroidered silk as it appears to be raised off the material.

 
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