What do clothes symbolize in the Bible

Dresses in Biblical Times

A special exhibition by the BIBLE + ORIENT Museum

March 1 - July 31, 2012, Miséricorde University, Friborg / Switzerland

The language of textiles was very precisely perceived and interpreted in antiquity - just as it is today, in the age of the headscarf debate. Based on research into depictions of clothes on cylinder seals and other objects from its rich collections from the ancient Orient, the BIBEL + ORIENT Museum has reconstructed clothes on so-called Egli figures. The exhibition shows what types of clothing existed in biblical times, what materials they were made of and what purpose they served. You can also see cylinder seals that show developments and constants in clothing over centuries, such as the disappearance of the villi dress, the emergence of shirt robes or the arrival of trousers via Persia. The exhibition is accompanied by numerous events: guided tours, lectures, a sewing studio and information for catechists and teachers. "And YHWH, God, made skirts of fur for Adam and his wife and put them around them." Genesis 3.21

Even in paradise, God himself equips the first people with fur clothes and thus makes them fit for a life outside of Eden. The Hebrew creation myth could not express the cultural meaning of clothes more clearly. Clothes are part of the person, and they are most visible. The language of textiles was perceived and interpreted very precisely in antiquity - just as it is today, in the age of the headscarf debate. The exhibition shows what types of clothing existed in biblical times, what materials they were made of and what purpose they served. Protection against heat or cold takes up an astonishingly small amount of space. Clothes symbolized honor, prestige, belonging to a group, wealth, joy or just shame, depravity, strangeness, poverty, grief. So it is about a central, sometimes even sensitive issue.

An exhibition with an experimental character
At the center of the exhibition are reconstructions of clothes on so-called Egli figures. These are moving figures that have been specially developed for the creation of biblical scenes. Thomas Staubli, Old Testament scholar at the Department of Biblical Studies and head of the BIBLE + ORIENT Museum, sat down with the tailor Edith Hungerbühler from the Egli figure working group to use figures like this to visualize the complex information on textiles in the ancient Orient. The result of the mutually stimulating, experimental collaboration aims to build a bridge between Science and Cité, and encourage others to create and practice their own, to engage creatively with the Bible text and textiles and beyond that with our lives.

A Canaanite couple (see Fig. 1)
An absolute premiere in this exhibition is the reconstruction of a Canaanite princely couple. The most important source of information for this is an ivory furniture inlay, which is one of the greatest treasures of the Israel Museum in Jerusalem. The BIBLE + ORIENT Museum is showing a master replica of the unique find from the Bronze Age Megiddo. Through the reconstruction, the structure of several layers of clothing becomes visible, but the symbolism of the wedding ceremony depicted can only be precisely grasped in the third dimension. In addition, it becomes clear that the Canaanite clothing traditions in the peasant costume of Palestine partially survived to our time.

Reconstruction of high priestly clothing thanks to archeology (see Fig. 2)
Another highlight of the exhibition is a reconstruction of the clothing of the high priest of Jerusalem. A detailed description of his robes in the Second Book of Moses has encouraged theologians to attempt reconstruction for centuries. The latest attempt by the BIBLE + ORIENT Museum combines information from the Bible text with information from archeology. For example, the dignitary's headgear is not staged as a Turkish turban, as in older drawings, but as a headband, as is the case with Judeans on Assyrian wall reliefs, and the «Efod» ceremonial robe is not based on Catholic priestly robes, but on documents from ancient Egypt. The fabrics made of purple and gold threads were modeled in hand weaving.

Sack and ashes (see Fig. 3)
Just as the highest honor, celebration and joy are reflected in the dress, so are shame, mourning and protest. Outwardly, the robe signals an inner state of mind. When people mourned or repented for an injustice they had done, they took off their everyday clothes or even tore it in emotion and tied a sack on themselves. Hebrew uses the same term that is still used in German today, for example in the expression "in sackcloth and ash". These and many other bridges between biblical and contemporary times are being built by the exhibition “Dresses in Biblical Time”, the topics of which are documented in German in a comprehensive brochure.

Window into the world of clothing in antiquity (see Fig. 4)
Textiles are very ephemeral and are therefore among the rarest finds during excavations in the Orient. It is therefore very helpful to have pictures of clothes racks on cylinder seals, such as the BIBLE + ORIENT Museum can show from its own rich holdings. Developments and constants can be observed over the centuries, such as the disappearance of the villi dress, the emergence of shirt robes or the arrival of trousers via Persia. The pre-industrial production of wool and linen is also documented, as well as the continued existence of ancient oriental types of clothing in the traditional clothing of the Palestinians or in the shop threads on the prayer shawl of the Jews.

[pdf] Flyer (pdf)
Website of the Bible and Orient Museum