In Part I of this blog, Museum Textile Services Director Camille Myers Breeze discussed the conservation treatment of twenty-three Coptic textiles from the Marsden Hartley collection at the Bates College Museum of Art. This blog will examine the history surrounding these archaeological textiles.
Marsden Hartley (1877-1943) was an American modernist painter born in Lewiston, Maine. In 1951, heirs to the artist's estate donated the remaining contents of his Corea, Maine, home studio to Bates College, in compliance with his wishes. The gift included 99 sketches, three oil sketches, and over 250 personal objects now belong to the Marsden Hartley Memorial Collection and Archive. Hartley clearly drew inspiration from this collection, including his Coptic textiles.
Everything we know about Coptic textiles comes from the thousands of textiles and textile fragments excavated in the late 19th and early 20th centuries from cemeteries, monasteries, and other looted sites in Northern Egypt. Their survival can be credited to the arid climate, as well as to changes in ancient burial traditions. The ancient practice of mummification was simplified--the desiccated body was dressed in their finest clothes, enshrouding in linen, and buried more in keeping with Christian practices. Preservation levels seen in Egypt are matched in very few places around the globe, notably the desert coastline of Peru and Northern Chile, and parts of China such as the Gobi desert.
Thanks to the foresight of Marsden Hartley, these twenty-three textiles are cherished by the Bates College Museum of Art, who is proud to continue exhibiting them in their newly conserved state.