Although several scholars have tried to displace silk from its key role in trade assumed by the term Silk Road and have argued for the equal if the not greater influence of other goods, the importance of silk is not so easily dismissed. The reason for this might have less to do with the actual rank of silk in terms of the economics or volume of trade goods—this has yet to be quantified—than with the stories that became attached to this fabric and the hunger to learn its secrets. Although China was the only culture with the knowledge of cultivating silk at the start of the Silk Road period, within a few centuries the technology had dispersed to other cultures along the trade routes.
The piece shown above—which has been called the Mozac hunter silk—was made in Byzantium. The empire probably had its own silk production centers from the fourth century using imported thread, cultivation of its own silkworms from possibly as early as the fifth century, and sophisticated looms producing complex patterns as seen here by the eighth century. This piece therefore has many stories to tell, not only of the diffusion of silk production, but of the cultural dialogues and influences seen in the design—here a medallion containing a hunting image, a motif found across the Silk Road. Both the technique and the motif have been subject to different interpretations by scholars, showing how our dialogue with objects from the past is often renewed and we can rarely assume that it has reached a conclusion. There is also the story of the changing functions and value of this silk as it traveled westwards, passing through the hands of emperors, taking on religious significance in a Christian setting and currently a museum artefact.
The story of this silk takes us from Asia into Europe, then on the fringes of the great trading network known as the Silk Road. Though Europe still had no silk production centers of its own, silk was nevertheless highly valued there, especially among the courts and clergy. It was therefore a perfect diplomatic gift, being light and portable. And it was even more so if the design reflected the power of the giver. We do not known if this piece was intended for such purposes or whether, indeed, the purpose was decided in advance of its commission, but at the very least it was probably woven with the possibility that it would become a diplomatic gift.
Our first record of this piece is a source referring to the translation—rehousing—of the relics of Saint Austremoine from the church at Volvic, in the modern Puy de Domes in France, to the Abbey of Mozac, some four miles to its east. The translation happened under the patronage of King Pepin, who, it is recorded, provided a piece of silk to wrap them, had the bundle marked with his royal seal, and traveled with them to their new home.
The name Pepin in this record was originally believed to refer to the Carolingian king, Pepin the Short (r. 751–68), father of Charlemagne, and the date was interpreted as February 1, 764. However, as Maximilien Durand points out, the Pepin referred to in the document about the rehousing of Saint Austremoine’s relics was more probably Pepin II of Aquitaine (838–64), and the date should be read as February 1, 847, or probably 848. Other textual evidence discussed by Durand supports this later date, as does the recent technical analysis of the silk by Sophie Desrosiers.
For now, therefore, the weight of evidence suggests an early or mid-ninth-century origin for the silk. This leaves uncertain how Pepin II acquired the silk, although Durand suggests it was perhaps a gift from Emperor Theophilos (r. 829–42) to Louis the Pious (r. 814–40) in recognition of his help in the campaign against the Arabs. It would then have passed down to Louis’s heir, Pepin I of Aquitaine (r. 797–838) and thence to his son, Pepin II. The piece has been cut and stitched, suggesting it might have been made into a piece of clothing, but we do not know whether this was before or after Pepin’s acquisition.
The abbey at Mozac was a much grander affair than Austremoine’s original burial place in Issoire and the church at Volvic. It had been founded in the sixth or seventh century by Calmin and his wife Namadie, both who also became sanctified. The abbey was endowed, it is recorded, with relics of Saint Peter (Saint Pierre), to whom the church was dedicated: those of Calmin and his wife later joined them.
There is no evidence to suggest that the relics were moved over the next few centuries. In 1197 there was a new “recognition” of Saint Austremoine, and the relics were checked in their shrine by Bishop Robert of Clermont. He reported seeing the silk with Pepin’s seal intact and, on cutting the tie (to avoid breaking the seal), also found the relics intact. He re-placed them inside the silk. In the sixteenth century a wooden reliquary was made to house them, decorated by an Italian artist with paintings of the twelve apostles (shown below).
In 1790 during the French Revolution the abbey was dissolved and became the parish Church of Saint Peter. It is possible the relics were disturbed. When the reliquary was opened on October 24, 1839, it was found to contain several objects. These included four teeth in a glass vial contained in a porcelain vase, as well as several parcels of bones wrapped in linen with a parchment tie on which was written “Relics of Saint Austremoine.” There was also a letter of Jean-Pierre Massillon (1663–1742), bishop of Clermont from 1717, concerning the disposition of relics. On January 29, 1852, the bones were listed by a vicar-general and a doctor as a right femur; a left femur; part of a right tibia and a left tibia; a large part of a pelvis; three vertebrae; a kneecap; the base of a skull; almost an entire head; two rib fragments; part of a heel bone; and several small pieces impossible to identify, but also including finger and toe joints.
We now reach the latest chapter in the story of this hunter silk, its removal from a sacred back to a secular setting and a return to the concentration on the silk itself. With the French secularization of the church initiated by the French Revolution, church property, such as St. Calmin’s reliquary—mentioned above—started to be sold. The piece was described by Hippolyte Gomot in his 1872 history of the church as having four hunters and four lions. It seems that, possibly because of Gomot’s publication, interest in the textile grew and the church was able to sell fragments, providing much-needed funds to help with its restoration. Two other pieces are known in the Borgelli Collection in Florence and in the Abegg-Stiftung in Riggisberg.
Lyon was a center of silk and other textile production, and a museum to celebrate this industry was first proposed in 1797. A textile collection started to be amassed by the chamber of commerce over the next decades. This was supplemented with material collected by the first French trade mission to China (1843–46). Many of the Lyon manufacturers attended the London Exhibition in 1850, and calls were renewed for a museum on their return. The chamber voted in favor in 1856. The resulting Museum of Art and Industry was opened on March 6, 1864. It was replaced with the Historical Museum of Textiles on August 6, 1891.
The museum had an active acquisition policy. Émile Guimet (1836–1918), founder in 1879 of the museum of his name in his birthplace of Lyon (it was handed over to the state and transferred to Paris in 1885), persuaded the Lyon Chamber of Commerce to sponsor excavations in Antinoopolis in Egypt. The resulting finds went to the museum. But the museum curators also sought acquisitions from local churches. In 1904 under the directorship of Raymond Jean-Marie Cox (1856–1921), the museum acquired the remains of the hunter silk from Mozac. But, by this time, the remaining piece showed only two hunters: the rest of the silk had presumably been dispersed to others. How the price for this piece was arrived at is not recorded, although a story has been handed down that it was agreed that the museum should pay the price of coins—the French louis—that could fit onto the silk. The acquisition register of the museum clearly records the purchase of this piece for eight thousand francs. This was an enormous amount; the other entries on the page are for tens or, at most, a couple of hundred francs. The franc was linked to the gold standard, and this equated to 2,320 grams of gold, about US$100,000 today.
The hunter silk was classed as a historical artefact on January 20, 1909. It traveled to Paris for exhibitions in 1958 and 1992. It seemed that its future was assured. But as history shows, there is no place of safekeeping. Like many museums worldwide, the Lyon Museum has been under threat from lack of funds. It continued to be supported by the Chamber of Commerce of Lyons, but in 2015 they announced that they could no longer support it and that the museum would close in 2016. By the time of this blog post, closure appeared to have been averted—although not without casualities. Sadly, Maximilien Durand, the Director, resigned his post in June 2017. The news serves as a reminder that a later generation might have another chapter to write in the story of this wonderful textile.