Antique Coptic Textiles in McMullen Museum, Interview with Nancy Netzer

[MUSIC PLAYING] Well, thank you so much
for inviting me here today. I’m delighted to talk
about this most recent gift that the McMullen Museum of Art
received from the Tellalians. It consists now of
29 Coptic textiles. And for viewers who might not
know what Coptic textiles are, that’s pretty much a
generic name for textiles that were excavated in Egypt. They were found primarily in the
tombs of Egyptian Christians. And Coptic textiles date broadly
from the third century, when Egyptians began to
become Christian, and they last up through
the Islamic period. And probably the
latest date you would give to a so-called
Coptic textile would be in the 11th
or 12th century. Most of the pieces
that we have were excavated between about 1880
and 1910 at various sites, where Copts were buried in Egypt. And these textiles
have survived as well as they have largely because of
the arid conditions in Egypt. Most of the textiles
that we have come from tunics in which
these Copts were buried. And some of the
textiles are larger hanging furnishing pieces. They could be drapes
or tablecloths, and clothed bodies could
have been wrapped in them. Now what happened when these
textiles were excavated was that they were often
in very poor condition. And certainly, in the
early years of excavation, they were cut up. The parts of the textiles that
were damaged were discarded. And the highly decorated pieces
that were in good condition were kept. And they were sold to a number
of museums around the world. And sometimes the
larger pieces were cut so that museums like the
Metropolitan Museum in New York and the V&A in London and
the Berlin Bode Museum would all have fragments of
the same original textile. We don’t have very
good records, but there are a lot of these that came
out of these Coptic tombs. And we at Boston
College are enormously lucky to have such
a well-preserved, well-researched, and
intelligently collected group of works come
to us all as one gift. In 2008, I met Barbara
and Don Tellalian. They made an appointment to come
to see me in the old McMullen Museum in Devlin Hall after they
had seen our wonderful Georges Rouault exhibition. They also collect
prints by Rouault. And they came to see me with a
self-assembled catalog and all the research that they had done
on their textile collection. They had started
collecting textiles in the late ’70s, early ’80s. And it happened because
Don Tellalian, who is a well-known
architect in Boston, had been working
with a firm that did an addition for the Walters
Art Gallery in Baltimore. And part of what was
installed in his addition was the medieval collection. And he made a number of dealers
at the opening, one of whom was Cilician, who
enticed him to start collecting Coptic textiles. And Barb and Don would
say that they were really bitten by the bug. This tapped into a
deep interest that they had in the Middle East, as they
are both of Armenian descent. And it tapped into their
scholarly tendencies. So not only did they
carefully collect every textile in
their collection, they also had every textile in
their collection intelligently and beautifully
restored and conserved. And they did research
on their collection. And they collected a full
library of all publications related to their collection. And one of the things
that makes this gift so splendid for Boston College
is that it comes certainly with their research and
their beautiful objects, but also their full library. So our students and scholars
at BC, of whom there are many, interested in this field
can pursue research in this area in our own
library immediately. The Tellalian’s collection
has been well-known. They have lent
their works to a lot of larger exhibitions
at major museums like the Metropolitan
and the MFA. But in 2015, the McMullen
Museum at Boston College did the largest exhibition
of their collection ever. And this came about because
at the McMullen Museum, one of our professors of
classics, Gail Hoffman, was working on an exhibition
with the Yale Art Gallery. And she and a curator from the
Yale Art Gallery, Lisa Brody, were organizing an exhibition
called Roman in the Provinces, trying to look at Roman art
from late antiquity that wasn’t from Rome. And the goal of
that exhibition was to explore all of this
provincial art which had been for many years
neglected in the hope of trying to understand what
kinds of messages were being conveyed within
the provinces that were different from the
imperial messages that were being conveyed in art
in Rome from the same period. And most of the objects
for this exhibition were coming from the
Yale Art Gallery. But when I realized that we
knew of a local collection that had some of the most splendid
examples from Egypt in it, I suggested to Gail and
Lisa that we include as many of the Tellalian
textiles that we could. And we approached
Don and Barbara. And they were not only
pleased to hear from us, but they offered to be so
helpful in this enterprise. And Gail and I then– because
they were so helpful and really would set such a good example
as collectors for our students, Gail and I decided that
we would teach a course– twice actually– on the
lead up to this exhibition and have our students work
on Tellalian textiles. And each student
in the class had one of the textiles
assigned to him or her. We had 14 students in the class. We photographed the entire
Tellalian collection. And Barb and Don
invited the students to their house to introduce
them to the collection and then allowed
students to visit them as they worked on the collection
and on their research. And they came up with
stunning results, all of which were incorporated in our
2015 exhibition, Roman in the Provinces. So I think that we were just
so happy to learn from Barbara and Don that they were
interested in giving their collection
to the McMullen. And we know that our students
who worked on the show will be very pleased to see
these when they come back to their reunions because
our student body knows them so well. In the future, we’re hoping
to display these works both together and in various
other exhibitions, where themes displayed in the
textiles are related to other aspects of exhibitions
that we’re putting together. Coptic textiles in
general have a mixture of secular, Christian, and
Egyptian and Greek iconography. The deciphering of the
meanings of the iconography is not always straightforward. Most of them have
multivalent meanings. And that was one of the
things that we were looking at in Roman in the Provinces. These things gave
off mixed messages. They said one thing
to Christians. They said other
things to Egyptians. They said other
things to pagans. And they were helpful to people
who were hedging their bets, as well. So what we’re very excited about
is having our faculty at Boston College in departments like
Classics, Art History, History, Theology, and at the School
of Ministry and Theology, also, come to look
at these objects– and in fact, a group of
them are coming tomorrow– to think about themes
and ways that these works can be displayed
and can serve as triggers for further research
into the very early years of Christianity in
the Middle East. So we’re hoping to put all of
these objects up on our website over the summer since
so much research has been done on them already,
and we photographed them. We only have a few
more to photograph. And since all the
books will be here, we’re hoping that
some of our faculty will want to jump in and work
on some of the themes that are portrayed in these objects. And we’re hoping to do
an ebook publication so that all of the
research known so far can be printed
out by someone who would like to have
something tangible to hold onto with our collection in it. But I think our web presence
will be very, very strong. And then, of course, we
will hope at some point when we’ve gathered
enough new research to do an exhibition displaying
what our faculty have done with these objects and
how much further they’ve taken the scholarly
inquiry into them. I can say for myself
that the week after we got these textiles,
I already had my class in early
medieval art in Ireland in Britain looking
at the textiles. And they were wowed. And for those who don’t know
much about early medieval art in Ireland, there’s always been
a suspicion that it was greatly influenced by Coptic art. And we don’t know exactly how
those images were conveyed and brought to Ireland. But we see evidence
of the iconography. And one of the most likely
ways was the importing of textiles from the
area around Egypt and other places
in the Middle East. Coptic textiles influenced not
only developments in Ireland, but probably all across Europe
in the early Middle Ages. And we have some Coptic textiles
preserved in many church treasuries in Western Europe. There are lots of
motifs that were spread by textiles in general. We can’t be sure that they
came only from Coptic textiles. And one of the things that
we always have to remember is that we have a lot
of Coptic textiles because flax was grown
in Egypt, and there was a lot of linen produced there. But textiles were produced
throughout the Middle East. Many have not survived as well
largely because the conditions were not as favorable
as they were in Coptic tombs in arid Egypt. But one of the other things
that we’re hoping to look into is how much
scientific analysis we can do on these
Coptic textiles now that Boston College possesses
a critical mass of them. There are lots of
questions about the fibers that can be related to dating. There are a number
of questions that can be related to the dyes. And I’m so pleased
that we are now going to be launching the
Schiller Center at Boston College, where we will be
integrating the humanities with scientific discovery. And I’m hoping that
our textile collection can be one of the subjects of
greater scientific analysis. One of the other things
I wanted to mention– and I brought a
book with me today– this is called Coptic Art. And it was published in the ’60s
by a Jesuit called Pierre Du Bourguet. And Pierre Du Bourguet
was born around the turn of the 20th century. He dies at the end
of the 20th century. He’s a Parisian Jesuit. He studies in Paris– I’m not sure exactly where. But he also becomes the chief
curator of Coptic material at the Louvre. And he spends a lot
of time in Cairo. And he does some of the most
significant publications of Coptic textiles. He also, interestingly,
established a scientific
research in the hopes of trying to date some of
these Coptic textiles that he collected himself
when he was in Egypt. And the results of his research
for the carbon-14 dating have now been questioned
really because the machinery in the ’60s and ’70s really
wasn’t what it needed to be to give us proper dates. And he thought a
lot of the textiles that he owned might be as
late as the 12th century. We now know that that’s
probably not true. And I’m hopeful that
at Boston College, we can take up this
Jesuit question, which was launched by
Pierre Du Bourguet, and continue his research
with this wonderful gift. We’re extremely lucky at Boston
College that we have just built a new museum with
state-of-the-art climate and lighting. And so we are able to
house these textiles, which have been so beautifully
cared for by the Tellalians in optimum conditions. And we’re hopeful that
they will stay like that for the foreseeable future. But we also have a
great deal of confidence in the scientists at Boston
College and the other research that’s going on around
the world in museums that there will be
new technologies to keep these textiles in the
condition in which we received them. And speaking about
other collections, I think we’re very lucky that
so many of the largest Coptic textile collections are in the
major museums around the world, all of which have research
laboratories connected to them. One of the largest
collections is, of course, in the Cairo Museum. But after the Cairo
Museum, the Louvre, largely as a result of
Father Du Bourguet’s work, probably has the largest
collection of them and the most spectacular
collection of them. There are fabulous collections
in Berlin in the Bode Museum; wonderful collections
at the Metropolitan; a very fine collection at the
Museum of Fine Arts in Boston; some excellent
examples, but I’m not sure how large a
collection, at Cleveland; and the other places– I think there are a number of
great collections in Russia in Moscow and also
in St. Petersburg. The Textile Museum in Washington
has some very good examples, as does Dumbarton Oaks. But I think among
university museums, we would be in the top tier
now having just inherited such a wonderful
selection of great works. [MUSIC PLAYING]

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