The Prince and the Plunder

A book on how Britain took one boy and piles of treasures from Ethiopia

Sacred church hanging, described as the largest tablet-woven textile in the world

Published / by Andrew Heavens / Leave a Comment

What: A woven silk hanging, described as the largest of its kind in the world, used to conceal the entrance to the Holy of Holies of an Ethiopian church, taken by the British Museum’s expert on the expedition, Richard Rivington Holmes

Where: The British Museum, Great Russell St, Bloomsbury, London WC1B 3DG

Provenance: Maqdala mentioned at length in acquisition notes

The hanging shows “woven depictions of Ethiopian crowned figures, religious attendants and armed guards on a carefully arranged background filled with geometric patterning,” according to Martha H. Henze’s 2007 paper “Studies of Imported Textiles in Ethiopia” in the Journal of Ethiopian Studies.

“This single panel measures 504 cm in length and varies in width between 54 and 62 cm,” she adds.

The British Museum catalogue entry reads: 

“This cloth was designed as the central section of a triptych which would have screened the inner sanctum, maqdas, from the main body of an Ethiopian Orthodox Christian church … This is the largest tablet-woven textile in the world …  It is woven entirely of imported Chinese silk, and the figures that appear on it are depicted in such detail that the soldiers can be seen to be carrying firearms of Indian manufacture. The event commemorated is probably the lying-in-state of King Bakaffa (reigned 1722-30). Bakaffa, Mentaub, his wife, and their young son Iyasu are all depicted wearing the plaited band of blue silk, matab, which was a symbol of their Christian faith.”

C. Spring and J. Hudson, Silk in Africa (London, The British Museum Press, 2002)
C.J. Spring and J. Hudson, North African textiles (London, The British Museum Press, 1995) See file in Eth Doc 439 in AOA Archives on transfer of these objects from former Medieval & Later Dept.
Bibliography: Spring & Hudson 2002 p.2 bibliographic details

1995-96, London, Museum of Mankind (Room 4), ‘Secular and Sacred’
2008-2009 29 Sep-05 Apr, New York, Metropolitan Museum, The Essential Art of African Textiles: Design Without End
2012 April-July, Manarat Al Saadayat,Abu Dhabi, Treasures of the world’s cultures

Museum number: Af1868,1001.22
Field Collection by: Sir Richard Rivington Holmes
Acquisition date: 1868

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