So, while I’m taking a short break from heavy SCA sewing and research, I want everybody to help me keep my brain ticking.
Every week, or however often I get questions, I’m going to have a question/answer column here on my blog. Feel free to ask me anything about Roman and Byzantine history, textiles, clothing, etc, and I’ll give you a complete answer, or as complete as I can, with citations to send you on your way. General ancient and medieval history questions can also be fielded if you’re looking for something more broad.
If this gets busy, I don’t know how many questions I’ll be able to answer, but I’ll do my best to make sure that everybody is covered.
So last spring after another botched attempt at iconography, I was prepared to give up the art form entirely. I’m not a painter, and the stuff I draw primarily is Japanese anime, which is, uh, so not period or even appropriate for icons at all.
This fall, I was asked to offer my skills as an artisan to the East Kingdom gift baskets to be given out at Pennsic. I accepted, but I wasn’t sure what to do. I decided, reluctantly, to pick up the brush again, but first I needed to practice.
I invested in new supplies: new pigment colors, new brushes, real gesso, and bole and olifa from an icon supply place on the internet. I also went and got some real gold leaf, despite still having way too much composite from my previous projects I should use up first. I have silver and copper composite leaves that I picked up cheap from an art supply store locally, so I wondered if they would be of any use on practice pieces before I potentially wasted the good stuff.
Most icons are done in gold, but there are a few in silver encasement. After I did some digging, I did find this 11th Century icon with embossed silver leaf, so I figured that was at least some evidence that silver was being used in period on icons. I used this as an excuse to blow through 4 sheets of composite silver on this piece.
I chose St. Lucia since she was from the same town as my persona. Local saints were prized in the Middle Ages, and that’s a good enough reason to assume that I would have strongly venerated her. She is also a patron of seamstresses, so a little saintly intervention in the sewing room can’t hurt. 😉 There’s plenty of modern icons patterns to choose from on the internet, so I picked the one I wanted, grabbed one of my remaining Gessobords (This one is 9″x12″), played with carbon paper, and followed the same steps as I did previously, only on the pretense of leafing all the things. The leafing took about 3 hours. Even with the larger sheets of fake stuff.
I soon learned that embossing composite leaf was not going to work. I did more damage than anything, so I repaired the leaf where I borked it up, and decided to leave it flat. There’s plenty of flat gold icons. I may not be able to find a flat silver one, but we’ll call this a creative anachronism. (I mean, composite after all.)
So the painting started, with the layers being applied over several days. Mostly snow days, thanks to the lovely winter we’re having in New England. (Lovely as in @@#!#$$!!!!)
I started to get nervous as I began to work toward the upper most highlight layers, this is where I had screwed up before. So, taking deep breaths, and using my new, thin brushes, I worked carefully, putting in no more than 2 hours a day over the course of about 7 days total. The finished results shocked me, they shocked my husband, they shocked my friends. I couldn’t believe I pulled off an icon that well, looked like an icon.
I did it! I really actually DID IT. The best part is that she’s for meeeeee! I get to keep her and admire her next to poor Archangel Michael and show her off in displays without feeling mortified at my attempt.
The only real thing I don’t think I will ever do again is leaf or gild an entire panel. It was a pain it the butt to paint over where it accidentally got on the drawing. In fact, her halo and inscription are actually in acrylic. I had to cheat in order to get anything on the leaf. I’m sure that the real gold won’t act like the fake stuff, but I’m not about to try it right now and find out. Let’s get better at what I’m doing before I start ruining sheets of 22k gold.
In the mean time, Lucia is aging over the next week or so before I seal the leaf and oil the painting with olifa. And I plan to bring her and some other goods with me up to Montreal for King and Queen’s Arts and Sciences next month.
I also re-did my Iconography page with a more complete gallery and link to my tagged archive. Do go check it out.
I didn’t fix it last year after I wore it to Smoking Rocks Baronial Investiture, and it’s been sitting in my closet since. Not that anything was terribly wrong with it, but I didn’t have a lacing up one side to create the ruching effect that Norman women found ever-so-sexy. So I simply made the dress tighter, and hoped for the best. It worked, but not that well.
Since the local 12th Night event that I attend in the Barony of Smoking Rocks is usually 11th Century Norman and/or Saxon, I figured that’s where I would get the most bang for my buck with this floor dragger. I didn’t wear it last year since we did a murder mystery in which Anna as a Byzantine needed to be present, so this year, I FINALLY get to wear it again. Time to get the lacings in.
Fortunately for myself, I had some sort of plan when I sewed the thing, and left the side seams unfinished so I could pop one for the lacings. This made me more happy that it probably should have. So I split the right side of the dress from the upper arm to the hip, hemmed it, and got to play with my machine’s buttonhole function 41 times. In theory and practice, yes, I should be doing eyelets by hand, but I assure you all that my machine does a way better job than I can do, and in a quarter of the time. Cheating? Yeah, probably. Utilitarian? Very yes.
So here’s the first look, before I put on the girdle. You can see how the lacing (spiraled, I should mention that) draws up the length of the dress to create the desired wrinkles. The “I’m so important I can afford extra fabric to just wrinkle around mah belly” look.
And here’s with the girdle, which after doing the requisite dancing around the house, is necessary. The design is not only decorative, but it holds the ruching in place in the front. Otherwise, you’re going to walk on your dress and faceplant. I wonder how many Norman women fell down the stairs before they figured this one out.
My husband didn’t even pull it as tight as it could go. I wonder if we really yanked it around my chest if it would draw up the fabric more. The torso is approximately a foot longer than my own to allow for this extra gathering. My underdress is tailored normally. Each have 4 gores instead of just on the sides to allow for very full skirting. It is HEAVY, and when I spin around I feel like a princess, and then try not to fall.
I do think that the bliaut itself would be far more beneficial in wool than linen. I can’t afford that much dress-weight wool right now, but the stretching and conforming to a shape with body heat versus the less pliability of linen would make a HUGE difference. So those reading this post to get ideas, I would recommend that if you can swing it. If not, linen is a perfectly fine choice.
I’m hoping to finally get REAL pictures of me in this dress next to my Lord in his Norman. So we’re finally in the same time period at the same time. Once I eventually make him real Byzantine on par with my own instead of the one tunic he occasionally wears when I order him to, we can have a set of good photos for things such as holiday cards, and gifts for our families who think us terribly weird. 😀
My lord had to go do Navy things for a few months, so when I should have been studying for school, I sewed things.
I also found out that Santa Claus can read heraldry! You see, we stayed home for the holidays this year when both of us usually travel, sometimes in opposite directions to keep both families happy, so we had no decorations. None. Zip. So I was shopping for the necessary trimmings, and found that they’re all way too expensive and I didn’t like them all anyway. So I went to Joann’s, dropped $60 in supplies, and went to work.
Here’s our heraldically (is word?) influenced tree skirt, hand appliqued, lined in horrible plaid with fringy fringe that was more of a pain in the butt than it probably should have been:
And our heraldically correct stockings, you know, instead of writing our names in puffy paint:
But modern Christmas is not terribly period ,but it sure is pretty. So, I decided to try Saturnalia from the 17th-23rd of December for the first time this year, and we definitely had fun! We set up a household altar with Roman goodies: an amphora, a cup of wine and a cup of olive oil, lamps, and I had a tea light for each night of the festival (how, uh, syncretic of me.) Each day the lord and I would make an “offering” to Saturn in the ways of whatever we had around. This varied from my actual Roman artifact rings, to a cheap rhinestone ring, amber necklace, chunk of shortbread, coffee, and Geoffrey’s Dungeons and Dragons Elementals. I am not even kidding.
It was all in the spirit of the season, and trying to feel as the Romans would have felt. Every holiday in December has one thing in common: The solstice and the return of light at the darkest part of the year. So I’m a big fan of setting things on fire or putting a mere 1500 lights on my balcony and 400 lights on my tree.
Most of all, we had FUN. I hope everyone else had fun with the holidays this week, also!
Felicem Dies Natalis Sol Invicti!
Or as my friends say, “Happy Lights!”
I hope everyone has a Happy New Year, and I’ll catch you all on the flip side with some neat info on Byzantine outerwear, and the upcoming garb challenge at Birka!
Readers of my blog will probably recall a post I made not long ago, well, six weeks ago to be exact, on my beginning of a course on FutureLearn. I reblogged a post “Who built the wall?” when the course started, and now I feel urged to share a poem by Rudyard Kipling, “The Roman Centurion’s Song”. It’s that feeling you get when you finish a good book, that emptiness that comes with completion. I guess I didn’t expect to feel this way, but that’s a good thing! That means that FutureLearn and Newcastle University have done their jobs. For a free online course, it was OUTSTANDING.
A little bit about the breakdown of the course:
Each week had about 20 short sections to complete. They ranged from short videos, to articles, and quizzes. The quizzes don’t count against your grade, they were just a learning tool. Every 2 weeks there was an actual test, culminating with the final test at the end of the 6th week (That one had some curveballs in it.) My favorite part were the little forensic challenges that happened every other week or so. You would be given an archaeological find of bones, and then try to determine cause of death, gender, etc from the clues given in an article. It was a great insight into the grim world of forensic archaeology.
The Vindolanda tablets were totally awesome. I had heard about them before, but never actively went seeking them. I really suggest taking a look at them here. Learning a bit more about the religious syncretism that occurred at the wall and methods of worship was also incredibly fascinating.
In addition, the discussions that were had were also great. Each section has a discussion area that functions like a social media platform, in which one could post an answer or topic of discussion and receive answers, sometimes even by the staff at the University, who was actively engaging with the MOOC the entire time.
I do believe you can still check out the course. Go to https://www.futurelearn.com/courses/hadrians-wall/ and see for yourself. I may have also totally taken the bait, but Newcastle University may be on the list of schools I look into for my PhD. But that’s a ways off yet, let me finish my MA first!
Thank you to the staff at Newcastle University and FutureLearn for offering this experience. I’ve already enrolled in an upcoming course, also through FutureLearn, on the archaeology of Portus which is being given by the University of Southampton, another UK school. I look forward to checking that out in January. 🙂
I started my MA degree this fall at the University of New Hampshire, and needless to say, it’s been keeping me a bit busy. I am doing what research I can, and hitting all sorts of amazing conferences, such as last weekend’s New England Renaissance Conference in which the topic was Credit and Debit in Medieval and Early Modern Europe. Totally a fascinating topic I never even thought to look into before.
In 2 weeks there is an event in the Barony of Carolingia, our neighbors to the south of Stonemarche, called Voyages of Discovery, and A&S Colloquium. It is a mundane clothes dress academic conference with Scadians in mind. I will be presenting my paper on Suetonius’ biography of Domitian, and my analysis using contemporary sources. It’s one of my undergraduate works, but it was my writing sample to get into graduate school, and apparently did the job.
I also plan to prepare my propoloma article from here on this blog for publishing in Ars Scientia Orientalis, the East Kingdom A&S Journal, much like my silk paper was. So yes, even though I haven’t been crafty, I’ve still been busy!
I do have some slow-coming work in progress on Byzantine outerwear. Look for that in the coming weeks.
The Propoloma: A headdress of the Zoste Patrikia and other high ranking women in the courts of Eastern Rome
Kyria Anna Dokeianina Syrakousina, OM, OBT
One of the more difficult aspects of studying Eastern Roman dress for the SCA is locating suitable headwear outside of the typical veil and circlet that seems common place, and easily mimicked from iconographic depictions of female saints, and especially the Virgin Mary. I have just started to scratch the surface of ceremonial Roman dress, but so far I have been able to uncover some rather unique pieces that may begin to open the door into more complex appearances for Eastern Roman personae to try.
The zoste patrikia was a title held by the chief attendant or lady in waiting to the Eastern Roman Empress. It literally translates to “girded-lady patrician” but is often translated into English as “Mistress of the Robes.” It appears to have been given only to extremely high ranking ladies in direct service to the empress. She was not only the head retainer for the empress, but also the head of the court of ladies, the wives of other high ranking patrician men in the court of Byzantium.
As was tradition with the Eastern Romans, ceremony heavily accompanied any augmentation in rank, and with ceremony, came elaborate new costume. Ioannis Spatharakis, in his monograph, The Portrait in Byzantine Illuminated Manuscripts, gives a detailed footnote of the ceremony, as described by Constantine Porphyrogénnētos in De Cerimoniis in Latin, while explaining the details of a manuscript depicting the installation of Anicia Juliana as patrician:
“In the church of the Theotocos of Pharos she received from the despotes a delmatikion [dalmatica], a thorakion [ecclesiastical pallium, similar to a chasuble], and a white maphorion [hooded veil]. In the Pantheon, wearing the thorakion and the delmatikion and carrying the loros [heavy gold wrap] and the propoloma [trapezoid hat], she received from the enthroned emperors the kodikellia [codex], which were later blessed by the patriarch. Because she was wearing the loros and the propoloma, she was not able to prostrate and kiss the feet of the despotai, as she did when she received her costume, but she bent slightly and kissed their knees.”  (The available text of De Cerimoniis is only in Latin or Greek. I did my best to translate the footnote and verify it with the original 1830 publication.)
This article will focus on the design of and wearing of the propoloma. This particular style of the hat is described as being in use as early as the 10th Century, but appeared to have had its heyday during the 11th and 12th Centuries, which allows it to fit perfectly into my persona. It appears to have taken the shape of a trapezoid, or upside down cone sewn shut on all but one side for the head. It may have been covered in silk, and then decorated in a variety of ways.
Dawson seems to have done most of the legwork on this hat, as there is not an English translation of De Ceremoniis available to do primary source research from Constantine’s perspective. He discusses that although the hats were usually white, it appears that in one manuscript, purple ones were seen. This may indicate that these women may have been members of the extended royal family. He also brings into account on his Levantia website that the padded headroll seen in earlier artwork, including the Ravenna mosaics, may have been the predecessor to the trapezoid propoloma. So for those who have an earlier period persona, we simply need to take a look at the bust of Anicia Juliana to get a glimpse at the earlier hat style.
(Photos taken by me at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in March of 2014.)
Anicia was born in 462, which puts her occupation of zoste patrikia during the reign of Anastasius I, two reigns prior to Justinian I. So it is arguable that her attire could be considered that of late Antiquity of the very late Roman Empire, rather than “Byzantine” in nature. However, a similar style was worn by Theodora’s court in the mosaics at Ravenna:
The first thing I noticed immediately on this particular bust was not the layered look at the top, but the gathering in the back at the base of the skull. This reminded me immediately of the Cap of St. Birgitta, a style that was popular in the 14th century:
Naturally, there is no reason why this cap could not be older in origin, and this marble bust may just show a similar cap being in use as early as the 5th century. At least for the over cap, the under cap is a bit more perplexing, especially with the pucker going on at the top of the head. It is highly unlikely that is a hair part, considering the detail given to the rest of the statue, in addition to the same look of the layered “turbans” on the mosaic, so my belief is that it was two separate pieces, but how they created that gather on the top is still a mystery to me. It is something I do plan on exploring later to help those with early period personae.
But how does a re-creator or reenactor transfer the wearing of this type of hat into their hobby? Well for one, this is a hat of station and rank. In the SCA, some kingdoms have sumptuary laws, the East Kingdom, where I reside, does not. However, I like to take into account the “what would my persona do?” clause when it comes to my clothing choices. My persona is well-developed, but not everybody else’s is, nor should they have to be. It is absolutely a personal choice on how much thought you want to put into your persona, and what you want them to wear. In the case of portraying a persona from a culture that has strong sumptuary laws, such as the Eastern Roman Empire, and especially if you reside in a kingdom that has laws about what one can wear on their head regarding their own rank, this is when the re-creator needs to take into account what he or she wants to wear, or should be wearing, for the holder of their awards.
In the case of the propoloma, I would recommend that nobody holding anything less than an Award of Arms wear this hat. A woman who would have received this hat would have already been of high patrician rank, and even though the title of lady may or may not convey this, it would be unfair to say that only peers or grant holders/court baronesses would be permitted to wear it as well as far as the game we play goes. I made my first one from looking at the Tom Tierney coloring books, which have proven to be rather inaccurate the more that my studies continue before understanding that it was a hat of rank. However, I feel that it would make an excellent choice for something akin to a cap of maintenance for a Pelican, or wreath for a Laurel, as the SCA simply does not hold a candle to the intense pomp of Eastern Roman ceremony. But by bringing pieces of these ceremonies into the SCA, bit by bit, we can help enrich our game even more, and introduce others to a new and exciting part of Roman culture they may have never otherwise known about.
 Alexander Kazhdan, The Oxford Dictionary of Byzantium, (New York: Oxford 1991), 2231.
 Lynda Garland, Byzantine Empresses:Women and Power in Byzantium, AD 527-1204, (Abington: Routledge 1999), 5, 245, 264.
 Ioannis Spatharakis, “The Portrait in Byzantine Illuminated Manuscripts”, Byzantina Neerlandica 6, (1976): 145.
 Timothy Dawson, “Women’s Dress in Byzantium” in Byzantine Women: Varieties of Experience 800-1200. Ed. Lynda Garland (London: Ashgate, 2006), 47. Dawson cites De Cerimoniis by Constantine Porphyrogénnētos, the 1837 Latin edition, which I am currently translating into English.