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Second Workshop of the Materialized Identities Group, Bern and Zurich, 16th–17th March 2017

At the 16th and 17th March 2017, the research group Materialized Identities ran its second of a number of workshops on the topic of how objects were capable to generate group identities, subjectivity, and emotional atmospheres in the early modern period. The workshop took place in Bern and Zurich. Its intention was to conflate hands-on sessions in museums and discussions of theoretical texts alike. The two days of enlightening discussions started with a visit of the Bernisches Historisches Museum which currently runs the exhibition Mercenary, Iconoclast, Dancer of Death: Niklaus Manuel and the Reformation Period. By focusing on Niklaus Manuel (1484–1530), the workshop started with an insightful introduction to the Reformation universe. Manuel is a prominent figure in Swiss history whose activities connect such diverse topics as mercenarism, art production, printing and politics. “The exhibition follows the life of Niklaus Manuel from mercenary to statesman, from artist to iconoclast.”[1] Dr Susan Marti, museum curator in Bern, explained in detail the conception and preparation of this highly recommendable exhibition which assembles a wide range of diverse objects in a unique constellation: “Superlative paintings, unknown drawings, woodcuts and texts by Manuel plus books, weapons, clothes, tapestries, paintings on glass and sculptures from the collections of the Bernisches Historisches Museum and more than thirty lenders in Switzerland and Europe bring Manuel and the world he lived in to life.”[2]

Above all, the exhibition created an awareness of the significance that visual and material displays such as portraits or non-European objects had for the citizens of Bern in the late fifteenth and early sixteenth century. Art production was embedded in the urban structures of that time such as guilds and the patronage systems of religious, civic, and political institutions. As a consequence, an artist’s societal status and personal mobility was highly related to his ability to craft artefacts that interacted with and shaped the social and emotional universe that he himself as well as the commissioners, purchasers and observers of artistic products inhabited. The innovative display of the death dancers’ costumes from 1638, for instance, showed that the early modern staging of textiles was not only related to an innovative approach to literary motifs but also to bodily movements, visual acts, rites of sorrow and emotional performances (fig. 1). These observations resonate with current studies on the ‘Dance of Death’ on the one hand. On the other, the costumes hint to an early modern social environment in which protagonists shared, experienced and managed emotional atmospheres in relations to objects.[3]

Fig. 1: Dressing up for the danse macabre (Bern, 1638). © Bernisches Historisches Museum, Bern. Foto Christine Moor.

During the afternoon we moved to Riggisberg to visit the collections of the Abegg-Stiftung. This foundation is one of the most important centres in the field of historical textiles in Switzerland and in the world. Founded in the 1960s, the institute is committed to preserve, enhance (and increase) the original collection gathered by the founder Werner Abegg (descendant of an important family of industrialist specialized in production of textiles) and his wife, the art historian Margaret. Today, it houses a museum, a scientific library, a conservation and restoration studio and is also a centre of study and training for young conservators.

Dr Anna Jolly, one of the foundation’s curators specialized in textiles from the sixteenth to the eighteenth century, welcomed and guided us through the permanent exhibition which consists of a unique set of textiles dating from Antiquity to the Baroque period, woven not only in Europe and the Mediterranean area but also the Far and Near East. Fabrics from Medieval and Early Modern Europe – together with cloths produced in Islamic and Chinese territories – particularly caught our eyes for their exquisite and ingenious patterns and for the use of gold to enrich and embellish those materials (silk, wool, etc.), made possible by diverse and sophisticated techniques. Dr Michael Peter, curator for textiles from the fifth to the thirteenth century and specialist in velvets, metalwork, and early ceramics, introduced us to the very interesting and exciting techniques of silver and gold threads. The oldest fabrics with gold threads known today dates back to the Hellenistic period and there are passages mentioning the production of gold threads in Pliny the Elder’s Naturalis Historia as well as in the Old Testament. There were and are different methods to produce silver and gold threads. The most popular one is to cut thin strips of gold sheets and wind them around a core of threads, which can consist of different materials such as silk and cellulose. This type of gold thread is especially common in weavings or in tapestries. In late Antiquity they used refined gold for the sheets to cut. Later, gilded silver was used as well. A key benefit of wrapping the metal around bundles of threads is the enhanced durability of the material. On the other hand, this method is only applicable for velvets as supporting material because of the enormous weight of the gold threads. To solve this problem, gold leaf was attached to an organic material such as leather, animal gut or – as done in China – parchment, cut into little strips and then wound around a core of threads. It was astonishing to see, especially on a Mongolian “Cloth-of-Gold-Garment” in the exhibition, how fragile the threads are and how difficult their production must have been.[4]

Fig. 2: Detail of the “Cloth-of-Gold-Garment” with gold-leather threads. © Abegg-Stiftung, CH-3132 Riggisberg, 2011; (Foto: Christoph von Viràg).

Even though this procedure was less expensive, as just a thin layer of gold was used, and resulted in extremely light material, in the end the material was not as durable and the threads often became oxidized so that their shimmering quality is forever lost today. In the late fifteenth century another technique was developed in the Ottoman Empire: By pulling a gilded wire to a drawing plate it was possible to achieve a long, thin thread. In contrast to the leather and parchment method the gilded thread made with this method was completely covered in gold. We nowadays just get a reduced impression of how the effects of these gold threads must have appeared in textiles and how these threads and the shimmering quality interacted with movement, candlelight, or sunlight.[5]

The exhibition also shows some other art objects made of various materials and to serve different purposes but connected to the textiles main set. For example, Professor Dr Evelin Wetter, curator specialized in textiles from the thirteenth to the sixteenth century, illustrated the cleverness and craftsmanship behind the creation of the sixteenth century carved prayer nuts (i.e. wooden pendants for rosaries) displayed in the museum. Using those objects as a case of study, we could also talk with her about the importance of interdisciplinary and international collaboration between academia and museums.

Being deeply linked to the representation of textiles, a group of paintings is part of the collection too, chosen as examples of how artists could depict fabrics with great accuracy and so let us know more about cloths, dresses and fashion in an era. That is the case of the Tryptic with the Crucifixion of Christ by the workshop of Rogier van der Weyden, painted ca. 1450–1455. What is interesting is the extreme precision the painters paid to render the textiles, so that we can still recognize the velvets and silks that dress the protagonists (e.g. the fabrics used to cloth the men on the right). What is even more interesting is the fact that – as especially emphasized - when compared with actual pieces of cloth from the period and still conserved, those representations can be misdirecting. In some occasions painters could decide to depict the textiles as they truly were, but in many other cases they merged patterns, fabrics, and embellishments in order to increase the value and the beauty of the representation. The attention in the portrayal is thus not always synonym to realistic; even when those kinds of fabrics, patterns, and decorative elements could exist in other contexts. This happened because in many occasions they did not really look at true garments or fabrics but used sketches at disposal in the bottega, possibly from some decades before: What follows is that one must be very careful using those visual elements alone for the dating process, for both the paintings and the fabrics shown in them.

The second day of our workshop was dedicated to a visit to the Swiss National Museum. This museum, with its four locations, the National Museum Zürich, Château de Prangins, the Forum of Swiss History Schwyz and the Collection Centre in Affoltern am Albis, holds a unique collection of over 840,000 objects related to Swiss cultural history and handicraft from prehistory to the present day.

For our purposes, we concentrated on the Collection Centre in Affoltern am Albis which assembles various collections together with the conservator workshops and the laboratory for conservation research as well as storage management, lending, object registration and the photo workshop. Elke Mürau, head of conservation of organic objects, gave us an exciting insight into some costumes in the collection and their production, their conservation as well as their handling. The dress that aroused our interest most was a women's church dress from Zurich, probably from around 1600–1700, inherited from the bourgeois Edlibach family.

Fig. 3: Woman’s Dress from Zurich, for church visit, so-called “Gottenkleid”, 1600–1700. Provenance: Edlibach family, Zurich. Depositum: Stadtbibliothek Zürich. Inventarnummer DEP-1008.1-11.

© Schweizerisches Nationalmuseum.

The dress, probably used for church visits, consists of several separate parts: a bodice, two bonnets, a skirt, a chemisette, a lace dress, a shawl, a headdress, shoes, cuffs and accompanying gold jewellery. The materials used for the different elements of the dress show a wide range of structure, quality, density and delicacy. Especially fascinating was the haptic perception and handling of the material which we could experience despite the protective gloves. Handling the rather stiff bodice was a completely different experience than trying to imagine how the very delicate headdress, a very intricate linen cloth, was worn.

Fig. 4: Our research team at the Collection Center in Affoltern am Albis, on the right-hand side Elke Mürau from the Swiss National Museum, © Sonia Calvi.

Fig. 5 and 6: Handling the gown and using the digital microscope, © Sonia Calvi.

Furthermore, the dress drew our attention to another important aspect of handling and exhibiting costumes from the early modern period. Figure 2 shows the dress as it was exhibited in the permanent collection of the Landesmuseum Zürich for several years before it came back to the Collection Centre. All parts except for the headdress are originals. The headdress, however, was reconstructed from the abovementioned linen cloth. As hardly any evidence survives of how these headdresses were actually worn, the museum curators had to rely on pictorial sources such as David Herrliberger’s costume books to get an idea of how such delicate pieces of cloth were formed, starched and mounted on a head.[6] No wonder that there were so-called Tüchlerinnen (from the German Tuch for cloth, scarf) in Zurich, women who went from house to house on Sundays to skilfully put these headdresses on the female churchgoer's heads.[7]

Fig. 7 and 8: Reconstructed headdress and original linen cloth, © Sonia Calvi.

This workshop gave us again very helpful incentives for studying early modern objects, materials and artefacts. Facing e.g. the materiality of the fabrics at the Abegg-Stiftung or the Swiss National Museum helped us gaining a better comprehension of the used techniques. The enormous time needed to produce them made us aware about how valuable these objects must have been. Once more, we had the opportunity to compare material objects, in this case mainly fabrics, with coeval representations, which not only rose new questions in working with materials, but also gave new starting points for dealing with the “objects” of our research.

[1] An online description of the exhibition was published ( alongside a detailed catalogue: Susan Marti (ed.), Söldner, Bilderstürmer, Totentänzer: Mit Niklaus Manuel durch die Zeit der Reformation, Zürich 2016.


[3] Johannes Tripps, “Den Würmern wirst du Wildbret sein”: Der Berner Totentanz des Niklaus Manuel Deutsch in den Aquarellkopien von Albrecht Kauw (1649), Bern 2005; Christoph Mörgeli, Uli Wunderlich (eds.), 7 Berner Totentänze: Makabres aus Bern vom Mittelalter bis in die Gegenwart, Bern 2006; Ulinka Rublack (ed.), Hans Holbein: The Dance of Death, London 2016.

[4] For further information on the “Cloth-of-Gold-Garment” see Caroline Vogt, “Mongol Splendour: A Cloth-Of-Gold Garment in the Abegg-Stiftung Collection”, in: Juliane von Fircks and Regula Schorta (eds.), Oriental Silks in Medieval Europe (Riggisberger Berichte 21), Riggisberg: 2016, 136–152.

[5] For further information on gold and silver threads see: Peter Michael, “Gewebtes Gold”, in: Antike Welt: Zeitschrift für Archäologie und Kulturgeschichte 38, no. 1 (2007): 79–84; Márta Járó, “Spätmittelalterliche Handwerkstechnologie: Der Metallfaden im Wiener Gold-Seide-Stoff für Abū Sa’īd”, in: Markus Ritter and Lorenz Korn (eds.), Beiträge zur Islamischen Kunst und Archäologie, Wiesbaden 2010, vol 2, 136–142; Brigitte Dreyspring, “Textile Funde bei Bestattungen, unter besonderer Berücksichtigung der Metallfäden, im Kreuzgangbereich des Stifts St. Arnual”, in: Hans-Walter Herrmann and Jan Selmer (eds.), Leben und Sterben in einem mittelalterlichen Kollegiatstift: Archäologische und baugeschichtliche Untersuchungen im ehemaligen Stift St. Arnual in Saarbrücken, (Veröffentlichungen des Instituts für Landeskunde im Saarland 43), Saarbrücken 2007, 419–428.

[6] David Herrliberger, Eigentliche Beschreibung der außwendigen Gotts-dienstlichen Kirchen-Gebraüchen und Gewöhnheiten Der Christen, Welche unter dem Namen der Protestanten, Reformierten und Augspurgischen Confession, vorkommen, Zürich 1738.

[7] Julie Heierli, Das «Tächli-Tüchli», die Kirchenhaube der Zürcherinnen im 17. und 18. Jahrhundert, in: Anzeiger für schweizerische Altertumskunde 13 (3), 1911, S. 192.

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