Image: Cleveland Museum of Art, CC0, via Wikimedia Commons
This beautiful linen portrait of a woman, which is currently housed at the Cleveland Museum of Art, is thought to be from Egypt and goes as far back as c.138. It’s a funeral portrait, also known as a mummy portrait. Such portraits were drawn and hung up on walls while the subjects were still alive. When someone passed away, their portrait was taken down, cut out of the frame, and trimmed to fit the deceased’s mummy. This particular one was drawn on linen using the encaustic painting method and gives us a glimpse of what ordinary folk art may have been like all those centuries ago. We find it truly beautiful. But, what impresses us about this is the durability of the material; how, long after the people, their faces, names, bodily remains, and even memories have vanished from the face of the Earth, this incredible material continues to live on. This is the magic of linen.
Linen is one of the oldest, if not the oldest, fabric made by human hands. From the five-thousand-year-old linen Tarkhan dress—the world’s oldest known piece of women’s clothing, eight-thousand-year-old yarn fragments found in Swiss lake dwellings, to the thirty-six thousand-year-old dyed flax fibers discovered in a Southeastern European prehistoric cave, the ubiquitousness of linen throughout human history becomes obvious.
A passage in the Book of Revelation describes angels clothed in pure and white linen. Plutarch, in his work ‘Moralia’ written in the first century AD, says that priests began to wear linen robes because of ‘the colour which the flax displays when in bloom, and which is like to the heavenly azure which enfolds the universe.’ Egyptians valued linen so much that they used it as currency. Greeks layered it to make war armoury. In South Asia, linen is mentioned throughout historic texts like the Vedas, Puranas, and Upanishads as a textile associated with beauty and holiness, referred to as kasauma or dukula. We’ve relied on the strength of linen for so long, that it is woven into the journey of human evolution itself. It is a beautiful example of how textiles played such a major role in shaping our civilisations and the way we live.
Linen has a special place in our collection for all its unique beauty and practicality. If you want to see Rithihi’s linen favourites over a video call, write back and let us know.