When Silk Was Gold

Central Asian and Chinese Textiles
in the Metropolitan and Cleveland Museums of Art

March 3 to May 17, 1998
Garuda Silk Embroidery (approx. 17 inches square)
Attributed to Mongol-ruled Yuan dynasty (1279 - 1368)
[because of iconographic associations with the Tibetan Lama Phags-pa]
Attached as top portion of 17th century Tibetan thangka (not shown here)
The Cleveland Museum of Art. Purchase from the J. H. Wade Fund (1989.11)
The 64 extraordinary textiles being exhibited at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City reveal to us something we have known all along. Marco Polo knew it and this became the cause for his journeys through Central Asia to the court of the Great Khan. Compared to silk, gold was mere dirt. And when this magic fiber was embroidered or woven in tapestry fashion, nothing could compare with its value. It was something which was a gift of the gods. And it was protected as such. Lives were lost in trying to smuggle its means of manufacture, i.e., the silk worm and cocoon, away from Asia.
      But more to be amazed at was what was done with the material. The craftsmen and weavers were also invaluable. The waves of warrior horsemen sweeping Asia could have easily killed them at the same time that they destroyed cities. But their leaders were more enlightened. A city could be torched and the inhabitants wiped out but not its weavers. The warriors were not that foolish. Silk was gold, the craftsmen were the creators of woven gold. Patterns and designs appeared from under their fingers and this was worth more than goats and sheep. Thus they were spared.
Gandharva       However, until recently it was not known how these methods and designs appeared in so far flung an area, from eastern to western Asia. The answer was in the dispersal of the surviving craftsmen. They did not stay in their destroyed cities, but were moved to centers of empires, carrying with them their techniques and inspired images. It was not always so abundantly clear as to how this great range came about. The Mongols were the answer. But our arriving at that answer was only recent. It became an open secret at the expense of Tibet. The Chinese invasion of Tibet in 1950 led to many deaths and great destruction although many images and treasures of the monasteries were destroyed, the silken tapestries and textiles were looted instead and sold abroad. Museums were able to acquire them, both as beautiful things and pieces in a textile mystery. These museums already had works from the Near East and China. These newer objects were, as if, the pieces of a giant jig-saw puzzle, which fell into place, clarifying everything. Tibet, which had been closed to the West, contained the answer, the connecting link. Once the Mongols temporarily conquered Tibet they brought in this textile technology, which they also took into many directions of Asia.
Right hand insert above:
Gandharva (Celestial Musician) Silk Embroidery Fragment
Central Asia, 14th century
The Cleveland Museum of Art, John L. Severance Fund (1987.145)
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