Unclothing the Clothed

by Deanna Ferrara
[student, Rome Sketchbook course, July 2012]
Saint Peter in San Giovanni Laterano

The purpose of my sketch book is to focus on the clothing illustrated on the Arch of Constantine, in the Villa Celimontana, the Museo Montemartini, Santa Maria Maggiore and Santa Maria in Domnica. Through clothing, we are told a story of when each image was made. The amount and type of clothing worn depends on physical, social and geographic considerations.

Santa Maria in Cosmedin

For example, in church mosaics or wall paintings, most of the figures are displayed with clothing of biblical times. In the hebrew of the Old Testament, the terms most used for clothes were 'cadhin', 'simlah', 'salmah', and in New Testament greek they were 'himation' (Matthew 21:7; 24:18; 26:65; Luke 8:27) and 'enduma' (Matthew 22:11; compare Matthew 7:15). The oldest and most widely distributed article of human apparel was probably the "loin-cloth".

Santa Maria in Domnica

Biblical references for clothes are nearly all to the costume of the males, owing doubtless to the fact that the garments ordinarily used indoors were worn alike by men and women. The clothing was very modest except for the wealthy. On the Arch of Constantine (312ad), the clothing is the basic garment of the late Empire. The style typically came down to the knees, with a high round collar and tight sleeves at the wrist. At times the fringes and cuffs would be decorated with embroidery as seen in the soldier's uniforms.

Mother and child statue in the Pantheon

Looking at the sculptures seen in the Museo Montemartini and in the Villa Celimontana, I was able to get a closer view of the details. I realized that belts were normally worn, possibly together with belt hooks to support the skirt. They may have been cloth more often than leather, and some tasselled sashes are seen, like on Artemis' clothing in the Museo Montemartini. I discovered that a common style of clothing is known as 'wet drapery'. The wet drapery technique was developed by ancient Greek artists so as to allow the clothing to have a more fluid and flowing look. This 'flow' helped to show the movement and shape beneath the clothes. This technique can be seen at all three of these locations. Moving forward in time, I saw a difference in style in the clothing on important figures in history.

Santa Maria Maggiore, apse mosaics

In the 10th and 11th centuries a dress with flared sleeves, eventually very full indeed at the wrist, becomes increasingly popular. In Santa Maria Maggiore, in the triumphal arch mosaics, the Virgin is illustrated as an Empress. The Emperor's wife, or mother, was the most powerful woman in the whole of Christendom. As the Empress of an Empire ruled by one God, she was allied to the most powerful woman in heaven, Mary, the mother of God himself. I believe that reason that the patron wanted to depict Mary as having similar characteristics to an Empress is connected to the many similarities between her and the role of a powerful woman in the eyes of the citizens. More clearly, in the image of Mary on the triumphal arch, she is enthroned and dressed in a similar manner to a Byzantine empress. Another typical way of representing the Virgin Mary is a gown as seen in the apse of Santa Maria in Domnica. Here she is shown with her distinctive blue dress holding the Christ child on her lap. This became the more common way of depicting Mary in later Christian imagery.

Santa Maria Maggiore, triumphal arch mosaics

At the Arch of Constantine, Villa Celimontana, The Museo Capodimonte, Santa Maria Maggiore, and Santa Maria in Domnica, I became aware of the importance of the clothing of powerful and religious figures. Patrons commissioned works of art to be made a certain way and nothing was coincidental. Understanding the language of clothing, we can discover a specific time and a particular message.