Corinne Mühlemann


The book entitled “Complex Weaves: technique, text, and cultural history of striped silks” is the first comprehensive account of striped lampas woven silks produced in Central Asia and the Eastern Mediterranean around the year 1300 CE. It integrates formal, linguistic, and historical methodologies with in-depth technical analysis, demonstrating the potential for academic innovation in Islamic art history when specialized fields of knowledge are brought together in new ways. It is based on a dissertation of the name, “Gold-Seide-Stoffe mit Streifendekor aus Zentralasien und dem östlichen Mittelmeerraum um 1300: Webtechnik, Inschriften und Funktion im Kontext, which was financed through a grant from the Swiss National Research Foundation (SNF). The book is under contract with Dydimos-Verlag, an excellent publisher in the field of art history. The book will be published in the newly founded series Berner Forschungen zur Geschichte der Textilen Künste (expected in Spring 2022). However, additional research as well the translation of the German text into English was required in order to effectively bring the publication process to completion.

Outline of the book

“Complex Weaves” focuses on a particular group of lampas woven silks that were produced in the regions of the Ilkhanid and Mamluk Empires during the late thirteenth and early fourteenth century (fig. 1). Due to their weaving technique (lampas, a complex weave composed of two warp systems and two wefts at the minimum) and their gilded pattern weft (flat-woven leather strip) they have been broadly classified as so-called Gold-and-Silk textiles (arab. nasīj adh-dhahab al-ḥarīr, lat. panni tartarici) (fig. 2).[1] However, the textiles singled out in this research – twenty-three extant striped silks – significantly differ from the rest of the corpus: the patterning is distinguished in terms of prominent vertical stripes (warp direction) and Arabic inscriptions. From the latter we can learn more about the division of labor between craftsman and designer (fig. 1).

These twenty-three silks are today distributed among European church treasuries and European and US Museums of Applied Arts and Art Museums.[2] As luxurious objects they reached Europe during the fourteenth century by trade in the form of bales of cloth where they were tailored into liturgical vestments, grave furnishings, and burial cloth.[3] Instead of focusing on their European use and reception, my aim is to explore their function in the Ilkhanid and Mamluk Empires. On the basis of their weaving technology, inscriptions and signatures (!), as well as stylistic elements, I argue that the striped silks should be considered on its own terms. Doing so widens our understanding of the production, circulation and use of these precious silks within Central Asia and the Eastern Mediterranean.


Fig. 1: Example of a striped silk. Detail of a chasuble from the Danziger Paramentenschatz, lampas woven silk with one supplementary weft and liseré-effect, Lübeck, St. Annen Museum, Inv. No. M 32.


Fig. 2: Example of a Gold-and-Silk textile, lampas woven silk with gold threads, the Cleveland Museum of Art, Purchase from the J. H. Wade Fund 1990.2.  

A rare feature of this book is the inclusion of the weaving technique alongside arguments about stylistic elements of the patterns and their distribution. Furthermore, the inclusion of the textile medium presents a new approach in Islamic art when thinking about signatures and the division of labor that, so far, has been limited to architecture, metalwork and ceramics. Through the close examination of technique, text, and stylistic elements it can be shown that these extant silks would have been tailored into robes of honor (tašrīf, ḫilʿa) in Central Asia as well as in the Eastern Mediterranean.[4]

The first chapter of the book focuses on weaving technologies and the making of such complex woven silks. It is extremely valuable for readers who are not familiar with the textile medium. Although I wrote my thesis in German (my mother tongue) I realized that there exists a significant gap between the literature that focuses on the weaving techniques (mostly written in German) and the literature that focuses on the textile medium within the field of Islamic art history (written in English).[5] Thanks to my previous training I am one of the few people within the field of Islamic art history who has specialized textile knowledge and is able to describe the different steps in the making of lampas woven silks in an understandable way. This is why the publication in English is important.

In this first part of the book I am able to show that the pattern is a result of the technical innovations of lampas weaving. I demonstrate that striped silks had been produced already in the pre-Mongol world in the regions of the Seljuq Empire. Moving into the Ilkhanid period, I analyze the technical modifications in the weaving technique and what impact these shifts have on the pattern. In addition, the role of pattern models, notation systems as well as the proximity of the striped silks to metalwork is considered in detail. Although there have been previous and important attempts to discuss the transfer of patterns and knowledge through the medium of textiles, my combined training in textile analysis, Arabic and Persian languages, and art history allows me to tackle larger questions about textile production and pattern transfer in the premodern Islamic world.

The second chapter moves to a discussion of the Arabic inscriptions on the striped silks. Signatures on complex woven silks are very rarely discussed in Islamic art history. This lacuna is highlighted by Leo A. Mayer’s series Islamic Glassmakers and their works, Islamic Architects and their works, Islamic Astrolabists and their works, Islamic Woodcarvers and their works and Islamic metalworkers and their works, published in the 1950s, in which the signatures of craftsmen, clients and recipients are addressed in many, but not in the textile medium.[6] More recent studies such as the work of Yūsuf Rāġib, Sheila S. Blair, Ruba Kana’an and Rachel Ward consider signatures on ceramics and metalwork but do not include discussions of signatures in textiles.[7] Textile signatures, however, are a productive site for unravelling the historical relationships between master and pupil as well as between craftsman, client, recipient and dealer, as I show in this part of the book.

I am able to designate three types of inscriptions: anonymous , semi-anonymous (a title like sulṭān or a term like šaraf that is used when a sulṭān, a high-ranking individual or a religious object (muṣḥaf) is addressed) and personal supplications (with the name of a person). These types of inscriptions permit assertions about the conditions of production (produced for an open market, produced for a certain class, etc.). I introduce, for the very first time, previously unpublished signatures that I found on four of the striped silks. They refine the discussion about production from the previous chapter and allow for further thoughts about the division of labor. Reflections about models and notation systems of patterns for complex woven silks like the lampas are discussed here again. Through understanding how a lampas is conceptualized, I can prove that the signatures could not have originated with the weaver but from the person who drew or notated the pattern.

The third chapter of the book examines the iconography of the silks’ patterning on the basis of three case studies. Each case study proves in its own way that the striped silks were used for clothing and not for furnishing practices (e.g. curtains). The first focuses on what can be interpreted as cosmological depictions within the pattern of the silks that were tailored into the so-called Heinrichsgewänder, preserved today in the Diocesan Museum in Regensburg, Germany. I discuss these cosmological depictions as apotropaic elements and their relationship to human bodies. The Braunschweig chasuble silk is at the heart of the second case study. Under the embroidered chasuble cross (made in the fifteenth century and added at later point in time) I was able to detect a small element in the pattern of the silk which turned out to be a Mamluk badge of rank. I was therefore able to assign it to the cupbearer (arab. sāqī) who as an amīr belonged to the ḫāṣṣakiyah (personal guards) of the Mamluk sulṭān. Through an examination of the ṣubḥ al-aʿšā written by al-Qalqašandī, I identified the term ṭardwaḥš with a striped silk that was used as a robe of honor by the Mamluk amīrs (tašrīf, ḫilʿa).[8] In the third and final case study, I reconstruct the silk of the last Ilkhan Abū Saʿīd as well as the silk from the tomb of Alfonso de la Cerda from Burgos (Spain). Following a close reading of both inscriptions, this study serves as an example of how textiles in the form of robes of honor were used as a medium of propaganda and of legitimization.

Along with these three core chapters, the book publication includes a catalogue with weaving analyses and high-quality images of the twenty-three silks. It contextualizes the weaving technology and the inscriptions as well as the function of these silks. The catalogue serves the readers who are more interested in the details of the weaving in order to compare them with other lampas woven silks.

This book will enable new discussion of art and craft in the field of art history, Islamic art history, Arabic philological Studies, political and cultural history, the history of science and textile history. Furthermore, the book will show the importance of the applied arts for the field of art history by highlighting these twenty-three striped silks. Therefore, it is inevitable that the book will be published in English.


[1] The detailed article on Panni Tartarici by Anne Wardwell is still an important standard reference for the classification of the Gold-and-Silk textiles, see: Anne E. Wardwell, Panni Tartarici: Eastern Islamic Silks Woven with Gold and Silver (13th and 14th Centuries), in: Islamic Art: An Annual Dedicated to the Art and Culture of the Muslim World 3 (1988/89), pp. 95–173. Wardwell takes up the technical and material-specific approach that Von Falke had already followed with the analysis of the gold threads, see Otto von Falke, Kunstgeschichte der Seidenweberei, 2 Vols., Berlin: Ernst Wasmuth, 1913. Wardwell divides the preserved fabrics into eight categories based on three criteria (design of the selvedge, combination of materials and composition of the metal threads).

[2] The silks are preserved in: Basel (Switzerland): Historisches Museum; Braunschweig (Germany): Herzog Anton Ulrich-Museum; Burgos (Spain): Monasterio de Sta. María la Real de las Huelgas; Cairo (Egypt): Museum for Islamic Art; Cleveland (USA): Cleveland Museum of Art; Copenhagen (Denmark): Nationalmuseet; Gdańsk (Poland): Muzeum Narodowe; Hall in Tirol (Austria): Herz-Jesu-Kloster, Damenstift; Lübeck (Germany): St. Annen-Museum; Mariastein (Switzerland): Benediktinerkloster; Madrid (Spain): Patrimonio Nacional; New York (USA): Metropolitan Museum of Art; Regensburg (Germany): Church treasury (Alte Kapelle); Verona (Italy): Civici Musei; Vienna (Austria): Dom Museum and Kunsthistorisches Museum (KHM).

[3] For the European use and reception of the Gold-and-Silk textiles, see Juliane von Fircks und Regula Schorta, Oriental Silks in Medieval Europe, (Riggisberger Berichte; 21), Riggisberg: Abegg-Stiftung, 2016 and Juliane von Fircks, Luxusgewebe des Orients im spätmittelalterlichen Europa. Transfer - Adapation - Rezeption, DFG-Forschungsprojekt (Habilitation), 2016 (in print).

[4] Important studies on the function and use of robes of honor have been published mainly in the field of Islamic studies. The material I found allow me to discuss for the very first time the material sources of robes of honor, their appearance. For the recent publications on robes of honor, see for example Monika Springberg-Hinsen, Die Ḫil‛a: Studien zur Geschichte des geschenkten Gewandes im islamischen Kulturkreis, Würzburg: Ergon-Verlag, 2000; Thomas T. Allsen, Robing in the Mongolian Empire, in: Robes and Honor: The Medieval World of Investiture, ed. Stewart Gordon, New York: Palgrave, 2001, pp. 305–313; Gavin R. G. Hambly, From Baghdad to Bukhara, from Ghazna to Delhi: The khil‛a Ceremony in the Transmission of Kingly Pomp and Circumstances, in: Robes and Honor: The Medieval World of Investiture, ed. Stewart Gordon, New York: Palgrave, 2001, pp. 193–224; Werner Diem, Ehrendes Kleid und ehrendes Wort: Studien zu tašrīf in mamlukischer und vormamlukischer Zeit, Würzburg: Ergon-Verlag, 2002.

[5] This lacuna, for example, can be seen in the question of where the development of the lampas weave took place. Textile Historians like Leonie von Wilckens as well as Regula Schorta were able to show on a technical basis that the development of the technique, the related loom developments as well as its patterning mechanisms took place in Baghdad during the eleventh century. Elena Phipps and others argue for a development in Spain without referring to the scholarship of Von Wilckens and Schorta. See, Regula Schorta, Monochrome Seidengewebe des hohen Mittelalters: Untersuchungen zu Webtechnik und Musterung, Berlin: Deutscher Verlag für Kunstwissenschaft, 2001, pp. 51–52; Leonie von Wilckens, Leonie von Wilckens, Die textilen Künste: von der Spätantike bis um 1500, München: Beck, 1991, pp. 66–68; Elena Phipps, Looking at Textiles: A Guide to Technical Terms, Los Angeles, CA: J. Paul Getty Museum, 2011, p. 47.

[6] Leo A. Mayer, Islamic Glassmakers and their works, in: Israel Exploration Journal 4 (1954), pp. 262–565; Leo A. Mayer, Islamic Architects and their works, Genève: Kundig, 1956; Leo A. Mayer, Islamic Astrolabists and their works, Genève: Kundig, 1956; Leo A. Mayer, Islamic Woodcarvers and their works, Genève: Kundig, 1958; Leo A. Mayer, Islamic Metalworkers and their works, Genève: Kundig, 1959.

[7] Yūsuf Rāġib, Esclaves et affranchis trahis par leur nom dans les arts de l’Islam médieval, in: Les Non-Dits du Nom. Onomastique et Documents en Terres d’Islam, ed. by Christian Müller and Muriel Roiland-Rouabah, Beyrouth: Presses de l’Ifpo, 2013, pp. 247–301; Sheila S. Blair und Jonathan M. Bloom, Signatures on Works of Islamic Art and Architecture, in: Damaszener Mitteilungen 11 (1999), pp. 49–66; Ruba Kana’an, Patron and Craftsmen of the Freer Mosul ewer of 1232: A historical and legal interpretation of the roles of Tilmīdh and Ghulām in Islamic metalwork, in: Ars Orientalis 42 (2012), pp. 67–78; Rachel Ward, The Inscription on the Astrolabe by ʿAbd al-Karim in the British Museum, in: Muqarnas 21 (2004), pp. 345–357.

[8] Aḥmad ibn ʿAlī al-Qalqašandī, Kitāb ṣubḥ al-aʿšā fī ṣīnʿat al-ʾinšā, 14 vols., al-Qāhira: al-Maṭbaʿa al-Amīryya, 1913–1919.