Researchers reconstruct the veneration of saints from 4th-century tunics

Sep 03, 2014

Archaeologists from the University of Bonn, working with restorers, are preserving and studying 4th-century tunics ascribed to St. Ambrose. In the course of examining these valuable silk garments, they have made surprising scholarly discoveries regarding the development of early relic worship. In a few days they will return to Milan with a mobile lab to continue the project at the Basilica of Sant'Ambrogio.

Saint Ambrose is the patron saint of grocers, beekeepers, and gingerbread bakers. He is also the patron saint of study, which explains why his attributes include the book and the flagellum, in addition to the beehive. What is more, Ambrose (339-397) is also the patron saint of Milan, where his bones rest in the Basilica that bears his name, Sant'Ambrogio. Born in Trier, Germany, he began his career as a politician, becoming elected, in 374, the influential Bishop of the emperor's residenceof Milan. He enacted relic worship, and would become frequently quoted in the catechism. The Ambrosian chants are associated with him, and he is honored as a Doctor of the Church. Surprisingly though, the tunics at Sant'Ambrogio, which are associated with the saint and worshipped as relics, are little known.

"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 keptrather simple. There is yet no conclusive proof that these tunics date to the late 4th century, though they certainly cannot be dated very much later. Hence they are very significant testimony for the Late Antique and Early Christian periods.

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," saysCologne 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.

Rescue Project: The Mobile Lab

Professor Schrenk and the team of restorers have taken their to Milan several times in the last two years, with support from the Gielen-Leyendecker Foundation, to learn more about the origin and history of these textilesbeyond the restoration works. "These pieces were revered as the tunics of St. Ambrose probably by the 11th century," says Professor Schrenk. Aribert, the Archbishop of Milan, arranged for the placement of a textile band on the site where the tunics were kept. "It's a kind of woven museum label indicating the significance of the relics," says the Bonn scholar. Presumably, however, a red cross had already been sewn onto one of the vestments much earlier, as an indicator of their significance for the Church.

These tunics have been kept and exhibited in various ways over the centuries. For a while they were stored packed in a chest, sandwich-like, between two other layers of fabric. Until the Second World War, the relics were kept in a frame mounted to an altar in the Basilica of Sant'Ambrogio; they then got new glass frames in the Basilica's museum, where they remained until a few years ago. To protect them from the light they were then placed in storage drawers. "The pressure of heavy glass plates only aggravated the effect of many centuries of deterioration," says Professor Schrenk. So the decision to have these valuable silks restored was made.

While the project's researchers and restorers have already made tremendous progress, they will still have their hands full in the coming years. "Based on the textiles, the Ambrose project reveals the evolution of early relic worship in a surprising way," says Professor Schrenk. The project will also shed new light on the economic history of Late Antiquity. It is well known that silk was not yet produced in 4th-century Europe and Asia Minor; the expensive thread was imported from China. However, Professor Schrenk is skeptical about the scholarly consensus that all silks of the time were woven in the eastern Mediterranean, primarily in Syria. "Milan at the time, being the emperor's residence, had access to ample patronage, and used silk in grand fashion. I would be very surprised if there had not been silk workshops there at the time," says the archaeologist.

Explore further: How spiders fix their webs

add to favorites email to friend print save as pdf

Related Stories

Team develops new technique for dating silk

Sep 13, 2011

Strand for strand no fabric can compare to the luxurious feel, luminosity and sheen of pure silk. Since millennia, the Chinese have been unraveling the cocoons of the silk worm (Bombyx mori) and weaving the fibers into s ...

GM silkworms bred to spin fluorescent

Jun 21, 2013

(Phys.org) —Scientists in Japan have genetically engineered silkworms to create red, green or orange silks that glow under fluorescent lights.

How spiders fix their webs

Aug 14, 2014

Spider silk is light and delicate, while incredibly resilient and tear-resistant. Understanding the structure and way of construction of these threads is a challenge taken up by a research team of Kiel University. ...

Physics discovers the secrets of Saint Francis

Sep 07, 2007

The tunic believed to have been worn by Saint Francis of Assisi preserved in the Church of Saint Francis in Cortona (Province of Arezzo) dates back to the period in which the saint lived, whereas the tunic preserved in the ...

Spiders know the meaning of web music

Jun 03, 2014

Spider silk transmits vibrations across a wide range of frequencies so that, when plucked like a guitar string, its sound carries information about prey, mates, and even the structural integrity of a web.

Recommended for you

Secrets of dinosaur ecology found in fragile amber

6 hours ago

Ryan McKellar's research sounds like it was plucked from Jurassic Park: he studies pieces of amber found buried with dinosaur skeletons. But rather than re-creating dinosaurs, McKellar uses the tiny pieces ...

New progress of the Neogene Suidae research

Oct 17, 2014

Dr. Hou Sukuan and Prof. Deng Tao from the Institute of Vertebrate Paleontology and Paleoanthropology(IVPP), Chinese Academy of Sciences reported a new species of Chleuastochoerus from the Linxia Basin, Gansu ...

User comments : 0