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Published: 07 August 2021

By Andy Ross

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Discovering Textiles - paintings and textiles

Any research into antique textiles faces a common problem: a lack of physical evidence. 

Textiles are disposable and, until the arrival of artificial fibres, unless they were carefully stored or ended up in conditions that preserved them, the fibres disintegrate and disappear. Researchers though have access to secondary sources, among them, art. 

In this academic paper entitled Weaving and Tailoring the Andean Church, Maya Stanfield-Mazzi from the University of Florida traces the history of textiles in the early churches of the Andes. The story of local artists and their influence on the art of the Church has been explored by historians but textiles have been much more neglected, in spite of the fact that they took up the majority of a church's budget each year. To find out more about how and where textiles were used in the Church art has come to the rescue. 

In the 17th through to the 19th Century, Andean church vestments and ornamentation were imported from Spain, the colonial power. These cloths were valued over local production but it was local knowledge that made the fabrics into clothing and decoration, and in that transformation influenced the final look of the pieces. In fact, the author points out, these artisans became "important mediators" between the Catholic Church and the ancestral traditions of the Andes, bringing a unique sensibility to the workmanship and display of the articles. It is this aspect that art helps to uncover. 

In a painting, most probably created in 18th Century Cusco, the evidence for extensive textile use in church settings is clear. The painting, Miracle of the Child of Eten, (image below courtesy of Daniel Gianonni) is in the Monastery of Los Descalzos in Lima, and it shows not only the vestments and richly brocaded altar cloth  but also a reed or rush mat, probably of the type called a petate, on the floor beneath the feet of the congregation. in addition, there is a patterned cloth on the sanctuary floor that could have been imported, because it resembles the Islamic influenced Hispanic rugs of the period, but equally could have been made locally because those rugs influenced local manufacture. The congregation are depicted with locally produced clothing, either from cloth made in Cusco or with fabrics made at home on backstrap looms. 

There is much more to ancient textiles than the physical remains. By studying artworks like this it is becoming evident that the local artisan hands that contributed to the Church have been npage5image54336000eglected just as much as the textiles themselves. A fascinating study.