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Posted on 17 Jan 2023 in Non-Fiction |

SARAH E BRADDOCK CLARKE and RYOKO YAMANAKA KONDO (Eds) Byzantine Silk on the Silk Roads. Reviewed by Ann Skea

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This sumptuous book is richly illustrated and almost as carefully crafted as the Byzantine silk of its title.

Editor Sarah Braddock Clarke describes Byzantine Silk on the Silk Roads as an ‘academic book’, yet there is much to interest and delight a general reader like myself. It brings together essays by experts who have long researched the history, the craft and the art of silk production and, especially, the highly skilled art of weaving into the fabric intricate patterns, sometimes enhanced with gold. The most valuable of these figured silk weavings is known as samite.

Braddock Clarke leads the silk-novice reader gently into the book by describing the journey of Byzantine silk from the origins of silk weaving in ancient China, through centuries of trade, conquest, plunder, tribute-giving and acquisitiveness, across lands and cultures, to the modern catwalks of fashion houses like Dior, Versace, Lagerfeld, McQueen and Thierry Mugler and into the prêt-a-porter collections of Etro. As Senior Lecturer in Fashion and Design at Falmouth University in Cornwall, and a freelance researcher and writer, she moves confidently from the historical background of Byzantium to its influence on fashion and the constantly evolving shape of clothing.

Byzantine fashion, she tells us,

Began in the fourth century when the Imperial Court and aristocracy led regal lifestyles, setting the style for sartorial choices. Robes of decorated silks were worn by elite dignitaries, secular rulers – emperors, empresses, the court and nobles. In addition, ecclesiastical leaders donned silk brocade vestments that proclaimed their elevated status.

For nearly a thousand years, the Byzantine Empire influenced ‘style trends’ in luxurious and colourful woven silks, trading them ‘from East to West’ along the so-called ‘Silk Roads’, together with other luxury items like pearls, gold, silver and spices. By the fifth century, silk was so coveted in Rome that the Roman Senate issued an edict about this ‘obsession’, banning men from ‘disgracing themselves with the effeminate delicacy of silk apparel’. As a status symbol, too, it has always signified wealth and power, and laws have governed the wearing, style, colours and patterns of silk clothing.

Tyrian purple, a dye once made from the shellfish bolinus (murex) brindaris, was a symbol of rulers. When the secret of its preparation was lost, the red blood of cochineal or kermes insects created scarlet dyes that replaced it in importance. So, in 1467, as editor Ryoko Yamanaka Kondo, Emeritus Professor of Tohoku University of Art and Design, writes in her essay on pattern and colour, Pope Paul II ‘stipulated that a cardinal’s vestments were to be dyed red with cochineal’. Appropriately, scarlet already ‘symbolized blood, divine love, compassion and fire’.

All 14 essays in this book are richly illustrated with colour photographs of the silks, the patterns, the styles of weaving, the images woven into the fabrics, and historical images of art and architecture, which show styles and colours of silk clothes throughout the ages. Braddock Clarke’s essay has full-page photographs of models wearing the clothes she discusses. Most are exotic and beautiful. But Thierry Mugler’s ‘Chimera Dress’, part of his ‘Winter 1997/8 haute couture collection’, is a terrifying creation:

… on which different sets of DNA genetic information showed a body in mutation – transcending biology. Descending from Greek mythology, the fire-breathing Chimera monster, usually female, is composed of several animal parts – a lion’s head, goat’s body and serpent’s tail combination of simulated animal parts from creatures of Greek mythology.

There is a great deal to learn about the history of silk, the earliest evidence of sericulture being fragments of silkworm cocoon shell, stone spindle whorls and bone needles found in a Neolithic grave in Xiyincun in China. From there, its spread across the world can be traced through ancient fragments of figured silk, some of which were used as currency when silk became more valuable than gold.

Warfare and conquests spread the complex skills of spinning and weaving. In the thirteenth century, for example, the Mongols valued silk so highly, decorating their court with ‘orikin gold-weaving and highly lustrous silks’, that when they invaded Iranian silk-weaving areas:

… they did not massacre the craftsmen they found there; rather they removed the brocade craftsmen to Hangzhou in Northern China … to establish a weaving bureau and undertook the production of figured fabric in the silk workshops there. [Later] when the Mongolian Timurid Empire rebuilt Samarkand as its capital in the fourteenth century, it forcibly moved silk craftsmen from Damascus and other conquered territories to reignite the production of silk woven fabric. The Timurid Empire traded widely from Persia to Ming, and even Spain, France and England, opening routes for exchange of culture.

Other conquerors cherished silk workers and moved them to their own territories. When the Umayyad Caliphate seized Sidon, Damascus and Tyre in Syria and used captured dyers and weavers in its own brocade weaving, escaped craftsmen took their skills to Constantinople and Thebes. And, ‘When the Fourth Crusade established the Latin Empire in 1240, all Byzantine art objects were confiscated and taken to various parts of Europe.’

Religion, too, influenced the patterns woven into the silk. Islamic conquests meant that complex geometrical patterns replaced mythological and animal imagery in silk fabrics, thus helping to date some of the ancient silks.

All this can be traced in surviving articles and fragments of silk, many of which ended up in religious establishments as rich cloths wrapping sacred icons, bones and relics, and as shrouds for royalty and saints. A long section of this book details the surviving collections of silk in cathedrals, churches, and museums, including the Vatican. It records silk pockets for ancient manuscript seals; garments patched with silk; a cushion from ‘the reliquary casket containing the sandals of Christ’ (in the Musei Vaticani); a chasuble worn by Saint Thomas Becket (Musée de Sens); silk thought to be from the trousseau of the queen of Otto II and featuring a motif based on the legend of the great hunter Bahram V (Musée-Bibliotheque Fonds Anciens, Saint-Calais); and many other valuable pieces, all recorded and photographed, often with close-ups of the weaves and designs, many of which are stunningly intricate.

Kondo writes of patterns, symbols and designs: how the Saracen arabesque ‘expressing the movement of ivy and vines in stylized fashion … intermingles with people, birds and small animals’; rosettes represent the stained-glass windows in Gothic churches, some with eight petals, suggesting Greek influence; eagles of power, lions representing royalty, and peacocks, which have mythological and religious meanings; and, especially, the Simorgh, a bird from Persian myths, which is:

… said to have originated in the Saena which ruled the realms of the Earth and sky. In Zoroastrian myth the Saena bird lived in the tree of life, and the beating of its wings spread the tree’s seeds, bringing plants to the earth. In the Middle Ages, the simorgh was said to be strong enough to lift an elephant, and its feathers had the power to save people. In the Shahnameh (eleventh century) and Conference of the Birds (a twelfth century poem) the simorgh is described as the ‘king of the birds’.

Just reading about the different ways that gold can be attached to the fine strands of silk before they are woven is fascinating. The Iranian technique of aurum battutum, for example, involved long, finely beaten strips of gold being wrapped around silk threads.

Looms and the techniques of weaving are discussed, too, and the move from the warp-weave patterns of China (which used the longitudinal threads to create the pattern) to weft-weave,  which uses the horizontal threads and allows for more detailed patterns. A weft-weave fabric woven in Japan in 1990 was so wide that it required two workers to pass the shuttle from side to side between them – ‘a weaving technique that coordinates the breathing of the weavers’.

A final essay is by Kiyoshi Tatsumura, a descendant of Heizo Tatsumura, who was the first to closely examine silks from the Buddhist temple of Hotyu-ji, which was built 606-7 in the second oldest temple complex in Japan. Heizo realised that these silks were not flat, two-dimensional objects but complicated three-dimensional weaves. He painstakingly traced the exact pattern of threads making up the intricate repeated images of mounted lion-hunters, and established a group of scholars to research these textiles and preserve them for the future. In 1924, he was commissioned by the Imperial Museum in Tokyo to research and reproduce these textiles, one of which was described as a ‘Banner made of samite … a treasured flag used when quelling barbarians.’

I am not competent to assess the scholarly value of this book, but the essays are clear and provide a wealth of information together with ample supporting evidence, including diagrams, maps, charts, a bibliography and a glossary of terms that I found invaluable. Occasionally the text and the accompanying illustrations were not easy to match but overall Byzantine Silk on the Silk Roads is as interesting to read as it is to look at.

As for samite, the fifteenth-century British poet Thomas Malory certainly knew its value when he wrote about King Arthur and the Knights of the Round Table in Le Morte d’Arthur. There, Merlin leads King Arthur to a lake where ‘Arthur was ware of an arm clothed in white samite, that held a fair sword in that hand’.

Thus, the silk-clad Lady of the Lake presented King Arthur with the sword Excalibur.

Centuries later, Poet Laureate, Alfred, Lord Tennyson, rewrote Malory’s poem for a Victorian audience, and this version became known to generations of schoolchildren, most of whom, sadly, would have known nothing about the long history, value, importance and beauty of samite:

 In those old days, one summer noon, an arm

Rose from out the bosom of the lake,

Clothed in white samite, mystic, wonderful,

Holding the sword –

Sarah E Braddock Clarke and Ryoko Yamanaka Kondo (Eds) Byzantine Silk on the Silk Roads: Journeys between East and West, Past and Present Bloomsbury 2022 PB 400pp $66.99

Dr Ann Skea is a freelance reviewer, writer and an independent scholar of the work of Ted Hughes. She is author of Ted Hughes: The Poetic Quest (UNE 1994, and currently available for free download here). Her work is internationally published and her Ted Hughes webpages ( are archived by the British Library.

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