Collection Medieval Central Asia and China created silks of incomparable splendour

The Middle Ages saw technically and artistically sophisticated methods of metalworking, glass manufacture and silk-weaving spread from the Persia of Late Antiquity throughout Central Asia and northern China. The textiles, in particular, were remarkable for their dazzling array of colours and intricate patterns. Medallions containing animal motifs seem to have been especially popular. The silks were used to make regalia, standards and even saddlecloths.

Lion silk

This silk is patterned with majestic lions standing inside large medallions, their heads turned to face the viewer. The semicircles framing each medallion were probably intended to show hunting scenes with beasts of prey and hoofed beasts alternately giving chase and fleeing. A cursory inscription in Old Tibetan written onto the silk in ink allows us to surmise that it was used in connection with a burial.
Central Asia, mid-8th–mid-9th century, silk (samite), diameter of the medallions c. 79 cm, inv. no. 4864

Lobed Bowl

The courtly culture that developed under the Sasanids, the dynasty that ruled Persia in Late Antiquity (224–642), produced some outstanding silks, fine metalwork and glassware. This shallow, lobed bowl shows the Sasanid art of goldsmithing at its zenith. Adorned with fine ribbing and black niello ornaments on the outside, the well is decorated with a running boar.
Iran, 5th–6th century, silver gilt, embossed, niello, l. 24.6 cm, inv. no. 8.123.65

Saddle cover

This heavy silk saddle cover was woven out of eight different colours of thread. Originally brightly coloured with a red ground, it has now paled to beige owing to the instability of the dyestuffs. The saddle itself was made of wood and the pommel and cantle would have had metal trimmings.
Central Asia, late 8th–mid-9th century, silk (samite), l. 64 cm, inv. no. 4866/4870/4906/4922

Woollen fabric with putti

These two fragments of the front of a robe were found in the cemetery of Yingpan (Xinjiang, China). The Hellenistic influence of Late Antiquity is apparent in the style and choice of motif, although the pattern features a number of Central Asian elements as well. The symbolism of the Erotes chasing butterflies and the duel between the eagle and the serpent has to do with the afterlife and overcoming death.
Eastern Central Asia, 5th–6th century, wool (taqueté), h. 114.5 cm, w. 44 and 54 cm, inv. no. 5073/5175

Deer silk

Circular medallions, classically framed by beads, count as the most important and most distinctive design element of Persian silks. Variations of such medallions influenced silk weaving from China to Byzantium for several centuries. This particular silk shows pairs of heavily stylised deer inside flower-bud medallions. The brightly coloured, almost naïve design is exceptionally well preserved.
Central Asia, 7th–8th century, silk (samite), h. 52 cm, w. 35.5 cm, inv. no. 4901


This headdress with side pieces like wings originally retained its shape with the aid of inner stiffening and ribbon ties only. It is embroidered with phoenixes chasing after a flaming pearl. The phoenix has been identified with the red bird, the Bird of the South which stood for the empress, although it was not reserved for her alone at the time of the Liao Dynasty. The crown was undoubtedly worn by a woman and was adorned with still more red and blue silk ribbons that have likewise been preserved.
Northern China, Liao Dynasty, 1st half of the 11th century, silk gauze, embroidered with strips of gilt paper and silk, h. 72 cm, inv. no. 5250

Robe with lions and dragonfish

This robe is known to have been the outer garment worn on top of several other layers. Perhaps this helps explain its size, which seems far too wide for a woman. The robe was probably tied at the waist with a belt. Such belts were often made of precious metal and like jewellery counted as status symbols. The medallions are formed by four lions chasing a flaming pearl, while four dragonfish facing a diamond-shaped ornament occupy the spaces in between.
Northern China, Liao Dynasty, 1st half of the 11th century, silk (samite, weft-faced on both sides), padded and lined, h. 148 cm, inv. no. 5239

Cloth of gold with pairs of falcons

For the Mongols who starting in 1206 forced first China, then Central Asia and Persia under their yoke, gold was not just an extremely valuable material but also the colour of their ruler, which meant that it had deep cosmological significance. Intricate outlines of the pattern are all that remains of the red ground, indicating that the silk was almost entirely golden in appearance originally.
Eastern Iran or Central Asia, late 12th – 1st half of the 13th century, gold-patterned silk (lampas), h. 127 cm, w. 84 cm, inv. no. 4905