The motif of a youth wrestling a rampant lion, presented in a wavy frame, is seen repeated in rows and columns. The model of direct confrontation between a human hero and a savage animal was found frequently in Greek and Roman art and symbolized not only the contest between civilization and wild nature but also between good and evil. This particular youthful hero cannot be identified, because he lacks a specific attribute and the scene lacks a narrative context. Among the candidates who established his reputation for bravery and moral superiority by wrestling a lion are Samson (Judges 14:5–6) and David (I Samuel 17:34–35) in the Old Testament; and the strongman hero, Herakles (Hercules), who slew the Nemean lion as the first of his famous Twelve Deeds in Greek mythology. Fragments of this or a similar textile exist in several European collections, indicating its original popularity. Because these related pieces have been found in church treasuries, it has been thought that the original textile had a Christian subject. Though uncertain, scholars tend to think that the figure is Samson.
Silk weaving did not occur in the Mediterranean region until the reign of Justinian (527–65), when, according to tradition, silkworm eggs were smuggled out of China into the Byzantine Empire. Silk production then spread from Syria into Egypt, into Constantinople and as far as Italy.
Because of its fine and durable strands, silk could be woven into extremely tight but delicate details, such as the figure’s curly hair and the straps on his sandals. Silk also has a natural sheen that creates a shimmering effect, seen in the contrasts of the white, tan, and dark green against the red background. This effect is enhanced by the dynamic repetition of the figures, the waving motif of the frame and no doubt the swaying of the silk itself in passing breezes.
J. H. v. Hefner-Alteneck, Trachten des christlichen Mittelalters. Nach gleichzeitigen Kunstdenkmalen (Mannheim, Frankfurt, Darmstadt, 1840-54) vol. 1, pl. 8.
C. d. Linas, Revue des sociétés savantes des départements 2 (1857): 63.
J. Burckhardt, "Domkirche von Chur," Mitteilungen der Antiquarischen Gesellschaft in Zürich 11 (1857): 161, pl. 14.
J. H. v. Hefner-Alteneck and C. Becker, Trachten, Kunstwerke und Geräthschaften vom frühen Mittelalter bis Ende des achtzehnten Jahrhunderts nach gleichzeitigen Originalen, 2nd ed. (Frankfurt am Main, 1879), vol. 1, pl. 5.
E. Molinier, Le trésor de la cathédrale de Coire (Paris, 1895), pl. 22.
G. Migeon, Gazette des Beaux Arts (1908): 486.
———, Les arts du tissu, Manuels d'histoire de l'art (Paris, 1909, repr. 1929), 30, pl. p. 29.
O. von Falke, Kunstgeschichte der Seidenweberei, Vol. 1 (Berlin, 1913): 54.
W. F. Volbach, Spätantike und frühmittelalterliche Stoffe, Kataloge des Römisch-Germanischen Zentralmuseums 10 (Mainz, 1932), 47, no. 61.
O. von Falke, "Der Simsonstoff der Sammlung Sangiorgi," Pantheon 2 (1932): 61.
F. Morris, Dumbarton Oaks Research Library and Collection, Catalogue of Textile Fabrics (unpublished manuscript), vol. 3 (Washington, D.C., 1940), 71-97.
W. F. Volbach, I tessuti del Museo sacro vaticano, Catalogo - Museo sacro della Biblioteca Apostolica Vaticana 3.1 m.s. (Città del Vaticano, 1942), 39, fig. 15.
F. Morris (?), "Notes on an Early Silk Weave," The Bulletin of the Needle and Bobbin Club 27 (1943): 40-47, no. 1, 2, fig. 40.
The Dumbarton Oaks Research Library and Collection of Harvard University, Handbook of the Collection (Washington, D.C., 1946), 120-121, no. 228, fig. p. 131.
A. C. Weibel, Two Thousand Years of Textiles: the Figured Textiles of Europe and the Near East (New York, 1952), no. 44.
The Dumbarton Oaks Collection, Harvard University (Washington, D.C., 1955), 156-157, no. 308, fig. p. 164.
K. Wessel, Koptische Kunst; die Spätantike in Ägypten (Recklinghausen, 1963), 219-220, fig. 129.
W. F. Volbach, Il tessuto nell'arte antica (Elite: Le arti e gli stili in ogni tempo e paese 18), (Milano, 1966), no. 48.
Handbook of the Byzantine Collection (Washington, D.C., 1967), 110, no. 371.
D. Thompson, Catalogue of the Textiles in the Dumbarton Oaks Collection (unpublished manuscript), (1976), cat. no. 163.
Byzance: l'art byzantin dans les collections publiques françaises, exhibition catalogue, Musée du Louvre, 3 November 1992-1 February 1993, (Paris, 1992), 199.
C. L. Connor, Women of Byzantium (New Haven, 2004), 143-44, colorpl. 8.
N. Metallinos, ed., Byzantium: The Guardian of Hellenism (Montreal, 2004), 118, fig. 7 (detail of hero and lion).
G. Bühl, ed., Dumbarton Oaks: The Collections (Washington, D.C., 2008), 130, pl. p. 131.
H. C. Evans and B. Ratliff, eds., Byzantium and Islam: Age of Transition, 7th-9th Century. Metropolitan Museum of Art ed. (New York and New Haven [Conn.], 2012), 122, 153-154, no. 102A.
J. Galliker, “Application of Computer Vision to Analysis of Historic Silk Textiles,” in Drawing the Threads Together: Textiles and Footwear of the 1st Millennium AD from Egypt, ed. A. De Moor, C. Fluck, and P. Linscheid (Tielt, 2013), figs. 5 and 11.
Paris, Musée des Arts Décoratifs, "Exposition Internationale d'Art Byzantin," May 28 - July 9, 1931.
Worcester, MA, Worcester Art Museum, "Art of the Dark Ages," Feb. 19 - Mar. 29, 1937.
Brooklyn, NY, Brooklyn Museum, Exhibition of the History of Costume, March 14 - May 19, 1940.
New York, The Metropolitan Museum of Art, Byzantium and Islam: Age of Transition, 7th–9th Century, March 14–July 8, 2012.
Acquired by Giorgio Sangiorgi from the Cathedral of Chur, Switzerland, between 1924 (according to November 12, 1949, letter from Giorgio Sangiorgi) and 1927 (according to November 25, 1949, letter of Christian Caminada, Bishop of Chur);
Collection of Giorgio Sangiorgi (1886–1960), Rome, to 1934;
Purchase from the Galleria Sangiorgi, Rome, September 1934, by Robert Woods and Mildred Barnes Bliss;
Gift of Robert Woods and Mildred Barnes Bliss to Harvard University, Dumbarton Oaks Library and Collection, 1940;
Dumbarton Oaks Research Library and Collection, Byzantine Collection, Washington, D.C.