Feminae: Medieval Women and Gender Index

  • Title: Hestia Polyolbos tapestry
  • Creator:
  • Description:

    On this tapestry at Dumbarton Oaks, the phrase Hestia Polyolbos--Hestia Rich in Blessings--appears at the top center of the fabric. Made of wool, this tapestry dates to the first half of the sixth century CE and originates from Egypt. Its central and largest figure is Hestia, Greek goddess of the hearth, enthroned on a decorated seat. Although an ancient goddess, this tapestry represents Hestia in Byzantine-style garments rather than a simple peplos, a floor-length garment from Classical Greece. She wears ornate gold earrings and a dress with a lavishly decorated collar and sleeves, as well as a tiara or crown with a floral motif. The colors and pattern of Hestia’s headpiece echo the ground on which the goddess and her accompanying figures are woven: pinky-orange flowers on their green-leafed stems stand out against a dark background, winding between and around the tapestry’s eight figures.

    A golden halo, common in Byzantine depictions of Christian saints, encircles Hestia’s head, indicating her holiness and a possible Christian influence on the artist’s conception of a pagan goddess. In a 1939 article, Tyler connected the Hestia tapestry to an explicitly Christian hanging depicting Saint Theodore. Unlike this tapestry, the Saint Theodore hanging is fragmented into nine pieces, and parts are lost. Because both tapestries were found at Ahkmim and because of their stylistic similarity, Tyler concluded that these two hangings originated from the same workshop, despite one representing the pagan tradition and the other Christian beliefs. Christianity had been declared the official state religion of the Roman Empire prior to the creation of this tapestry, in 380 CE, despite the efforts of old aristocratic families to preserve pagan traditions. Although these traditionalists were not ultimately successful, both the figures on this tapestry and its floral motifs act as magical “charms” to bring prosperity to its owner’s household. In Late Antiquity, magic existed alongside religions, including Christianity, despite complaints by Paul against sorcery in his letter to the Galatians (5:19-21).

    Besides this tapestry’s floral motif, which, by representing the bounty of nature, aims to bring abundance into the home, each of Hestia’s eight companions seeks to bring his own particular blessing. The tapestry is very symmetrical: three personifications of different blessings flank Hestia on each side, mirroring each other both in the position of their limbs and in their place on the tapestry. A larger attendant, haloed as well, stands at each end of the piece, beyond the flanking blessings. While these personifications each hold a medallion inscribed with one of Hestia’s blessings--“wealth,” “joy,” “praise,” “abundance,” “virtue,” and “progress”--the attendant to the right holds a tablet inscribed, “light.” Because this tapestry was woven for domestic decoration, the medallions would shed their stated blessings on the home; and, according to Ball, it probably was meant to be hung in an archway. The decorated niche was thus equipped to “reflect the positive wishes [of blessings] back into the space, perhaps to a table of guests.”

    In the Byzantine era, women controlled the domestic sphere; and it is likely that a woman or women created the Hestia Polyolbos tapestry. During this period, women produced cloth for their households; and, in some cases, women with no other means of economic support would weave or sew for others to provide for their families. Textiles such as the Hestia Polyolbos tapestry, then, according to Walker, “attest to the domestic and professional labor of women.” Because of women’s domestic domain, the home and the objects that populate it provide a “physical record” of women’s’ concerns, their “predilections and preoccupations.” The Hestia Polyolbos tapestry numbers among these physical, domestic objects, and can reveal some “predilections” of its female creator/s and owner/s. Walker sees the Hestia Polyolbos tapestry as evidence of women’s duty to maintain a bountiful household, saying, “Creating an environment that promoted good luck and domestic bounty ranked among the responsibilities of the household mistress.” She would accomplish this in part by furnishing the home with figures that would encourage bounty--figures such as Hestia Polyolbos.

  • Source: Wikimedia Commons
  • Rights: Public domain
  • Subject (See Also): Classical Influences Goddesses Magic Paganism Tapestries Wealth
  • Geographic Area: Northern Africa
  • Century: 6
  • Date:
  • Related Work: Saint Theodore tapestry, Arthur M. Sackler Museum, Harvard Art Museums;
    Virgin and Child tapestry, Cleveland Museum of Art;
    Amazon hanging, Katoen Natie Textile Collection
  • Current Location: Washington, D.C., Dumbarton Oaks Collection, BZ.1929.1
  • Original Location: Egypt
  • Artistic Type (Category): Digital Images; Textiles;
  • Artistic Type (Material/Technique): Linen; Wool; Tapestries
  • Donor:
  • Height/Width/Length(cm): 113/137.7/
  • Inscription:
  • Related Resources: Ball, Jennifer L. “Charms: Protective and Auspicious Motifs.” In Designing Identity: The Power of Textiles in Late Antiquity, ed. Thelma K. Thomas. Princeton University Press, 2016. Pages 54-65;
    Friedlander, Paul. Documents of Dying Paganism: Textiles of Late Antiquity in Washington, University of California Press, 1945. Pages 1-26;
    Maguire, Henry. “The Good Life.” In Interpreting Antiquity: Essays on the Postclassical World, Harvard University Press, 2001. Pages 238-256;
    Tyler, W. R. “Fragments of an Early Christian Tapestry,” Bulletin of the Fogg Art Museum 9, 1 (1939): 2-13;
    Walker, Alicia. “A Space ‘Rich in Blessing.” In Byzantine Women and Their World, ed. Ioli Kalavrezou. Harvard University Press, 2003. Pages 163-164.