The curtains of the Sistine chapel in Rome

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Murals in the 4th century AD Romulus temple, Rome, representing long line of wall curtains. 13th century AD.

Murals in the 4th century AD Romulus temple, Rome, representing long line of wall curtains. 13th century AD.

Never thought I would ever get particularly interested in something as mundane as curtains, but right now, spending a week in Rome with Gillian, I am afraid I am starting to see curtains everywhere, or to be more precise, what I see all the time are paintings of curtains. Perhaps the moment has come to go back to Leiden. Anyhow, it all started some days ago when I saw some wall paintings, or at least fragments thereof, in the circular temple of Romulus (nota bene: not the Romulus of Remus fame, but an early 4th century AD son of a Roman emperor) at the Forum Romanum. The temple, as so many other ancient buildings in Rome, was later converted into (part of) a church, namely the basilica of Santi Cosma e Damiano. The frescoes I am alluding to once ran all along the lower part of the inside of the wall of the building, and represent a continuous line of curtains. The frescoes allegedly date to the thirteenth century, to the time of Pope Urbanus IV (1261-1264). The curtains, as can be seen from the photograph, are depicted as being tied at regular intervals around a (painted) beam above (hence the draped fold lines). The top of the depicted curtain has a thick band that is bejewelled. From this band hangs the wide curtain itself. The ground material of the curtain is in white, with three wide horizontal bands alternating with quatrefoils of various sizes.

Sistine chapel, Rome, showing paintings of curtains along the walls. Late 15th century.

Sistine chapel, Rome, showing paintings of curtains along the walls. Late 15th century.

With these curtains in mind, we visited the next morning the Sistine Chapel (together with tens of thousands of others, all at the same time, but at least we did not get a selfie-stick poked into our eyes). But instead of being awestruck again by the magnificent frescoes along the upper part of the walls and Michelangelo's masterpiece on the ceiling, I was suddenly made aware of ...... a line of curtains painted along the lower tier of the chapel's walls. I had never noticed them before. Did you? Some of them were shown as being draped, others were not. These paintings, I was told, date to the late fifteenth century and the time of Pope Sixtus IV. Most of them are damask-like with silver or gold thread decoration, others, without the emphasised fold lines, are shown flat with very little drape, imitating velvet.

And yesterday, in the Santa Maria Maggiore, I again saw the same feature, namely, a painted curtain, but this time on a wooden screen in one of the side chapels.

I am quite sure that art historians have written complete libraries on the subject of these paintings of curtains, hence my apologies, but I had never noticed them, although such painted curtains or draperies can probably be found in many other places. But what sort of nutter looks at paintings of curtains when there is so much else to admire? But in any case, what a treasure trove for further research into medieval textiles and their different types of decoration.

Willem Vogelsang, 26 December 2015

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