The fabric of history

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Mediaeval treasures: the emperor’s gowns from Bamberg.

A holy city built on seven hills – but this time it is not Ancient Rome that is meant, nor indeed Constantinople. We are talking about Bamberg, a city of just under 80,000 inhabitants in the German state of Bavaria: when Henry II, Duke of Bavaria, made Bamberg a diocese and a royal seat in the year 1007, the city was known as the “Franconian Rome”. The most famous of the seven hills, as well as the historic centre, is called Domberg (i.e. Cathedral Hill). Architecturally, Bamberg has not only mediaeval but also renaissance and baroque influences. The historic centre, which has been largely preserved in its original form, features more than 1,000 listed buildings and has been a UNESCO World Heritage site since 1993.

Bamberg’s mediaeval heritage encompasses not only monumental buildings such as the cathedral and the burial sites of Emperor Henry II (who died in 1024) and his wife, Empress Cunigunde. It also includes extremely fragile items like the garments worn during the regency of the emperor and his wife. “The six imperial robes are the oldest preserved textiles in the context of European rulers. Together with the regalia of Pope Clemens II and the so-called Gunthertuch (i.e. Gunther’s shroud), they comprise a unique ensemble”, explains Tanja Kohwagner‐Nikolai, an art historian at the Bavarian Academy of Sciences and Humanities.

Precious robes from Byzantium

Together with colleagues from the University of Bamberg and the Bamberg Diocesan Museum (only in German), the mediaeval expert has spent four years examining the garments, which are around 1,000 years old, with respect to their art history and textile technology. “The garments can all be dated back with absolute certainty to the time of Henry II”, says Kohwagner-Nikolai. Precious silks, the fabrics themselves were supplied from Byzantium and, by order of the emperor and his wife, were adorned, presumably in the court workshop, with elaborate and highly-detailed gold embroidery. The objective of the research project was to show how the garments evolved during the course of the centuries.

Until recently, historians believed that the robes look today as they did in the early eleventh century. One example of how they underwent a transformation in form, function and interpretation is a tunic of which only the embroidery itself is actually original. Initially, it was regarded in public as a robe of Henry II. At some point – the exact circumstances are not known – it was turned into a “Cunigunde skirt”. In this form it was worn for centuries by pregnant women, who hoped it would enable them to give birth without complications. In the nineteenth century, historians attempted an interpretation of the garment, which was no longer in use by that time, and came to the conclusion that it was a gown for a man. It was this interpretation that restorers stumbled across in the 1950s – which is why they once again changed the form of the garment. “Depending on its historical reconstruction, the tunic was believed to have belonged either to the emperor or the empress”, sums up Kohwagner-Nikolai. 

Other robes, which had originally been used within the framework of the church liturgy as part of the bishop’s regalia, became relics after the emperor and his wife were canonised. “In the late Middle Ages they were shown to people upon payment of an indulgence fee”, reports Kohwagner-Nikolai. Thousands made pilgrimages to the Domberg to view these public presentations of the relics.

An imperial hall in 3D

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Researchers carefully take a sample from a 1,000-year-old imperial robe.

For the art historian, however, the most important result was the discovery of preparatory drawings on several garments. “This gives us a very good insight into the work process. We know now that there was a concept for the embroidery, and that nothing was left to chance.” This finding allowed the scientists to disprove earlier theories that the embroiderers must have made mistakes during their work if an embroidery motif proved impossible to understand.

The collaboration between art historians and restoration specialists at the University of Bamberg is also benefiting other art monuments in Bamberg. For example, a complete 3D model of the 350 square metre imperial hall in the palace “Neue Residenz” (only in German) has been created. It is to help researchers answer questions about how the baroque ceiling fresco was painted.

Anyone wishing to admire the palace with its magnificent baroque halls will need to climb the Domberg, one of the city’s seven hills. At the top, in the Diocesan Museum, the mediaeval robes worn by the emperor and his wife are also on show. Furthermore, a special exhibition at the museum, which runs until 10 January 2021, documents the findings and methods of the art history research project. There is plenty to discover on Bamberg’s seven hills – for scholars and tourists alike.