Mantle (Peruvian, Paracas, 0-A.D. 100)

Wool plain weave, embroidered with wool in stem-stitch. William Alfred Paine Fund (31.501). Photograph © Museum of Fine Arts, Boston.

This astounding Andean textile, an ancient Paracas mantle elaborately embroidered with “ecstatic shamans,” is on view for only one remaining week—along with its companion skirt and another important garment from Wari culture, in the immersive gallery installation by Chilean artist and poet Cecilia Vicuña.

I first shared this masterwork nearly a year ago after my launch of Textiles in Context in February 2018, when it traveled on loan to the Metropolitan Museum of Art. It is a privileged opportunity to stand in front of this garment of camelid fiber and imagine its wearer (living in a culture that had no written texts—and for which textiles and ceramics are all that remain) enveloped in such vivid color and animated movement against the backdrop of the stark desert sands of the Paracas Peninsula. Paracas textiles were excavated there from cavernous tombs after the turn of the 20th century and subsequently dispersed across continents to private collections and museums.

In an act that would have been incomprehensible and a sacrilege to the makers of these textiles, some dealers who came to possess them snipped out the embroidered figures and sold them individually as isolated fragments. The mantle on view as part of Cecilia Vicuña’s installation is miraculously intact and quite large (55 7/8 x 94 7/8 in.), indicating the high status of the person with whom the garments were buried. Here, we have the rare chance to experience the full scale of the woven field and take in the intensely laborious and detailed needlework, elaborate systems of color-repeat patterning and motion symmetries, and the truly extraordinary dynamism of its overall composition—all of which speak to the intentional embrace and communication of knowledge and meaning on many levels.

Detail view of shaman figures. Wool plain weave, embroidered with wool in stem-stitch. William Alfred Paine Fund (31.501). Photograph © Museum of Fine Arts, Boston.

Figural images worked in stem-stitch over the plain weave surface of Paracas garments, in an embroidery style classified as “color block,” are thought to communicate the wearer’s particular role in society (see A Hidden Order for more about the practical qualities of color block stem-stitch that allowed for the fluid rendering of pictorial imagery).  Thus, one can imagine that the wearer of this splendid mantle was a shaman, mediating between worlds of the living and the dead in ecstatic flight.

Cecilia Vicuña: Disappeared Quipu is on view through January 21, 2019. Don’t miss this special opportunity to view one of the finest textiles of Paracas culture from the MFA’s collection—in direct conversation with ancient quipu from Inkan culture, and a contemporary artist’s inspired expression of persistent hope in the wake of disappeared cultures and our real and present threat of total obsolescence.

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Objects in Brief is a randomized showcase of the MFA, Boston’s encyclopedic Textile and Fashion Arts collections. A featured object is indicative of the author’s curiosity and chosen so she may learn about its material and structural properties, function, history, and greater story. These “quick studies” have led to more in-depth explorations posted in A Closer Look.