What is the nature of this enigmatic piece of textile with a bizarre set of figures and letters? Can anyone decipher its meaning? This was the question posed to the participants by the head of the family who owns it. Obviously it must be a very precious piece of textile. Its condition is so good that the golden thread is almost shining at the light. There are five rows, three of which are made of what appear to be alphabets and other two are made of what appear to be figures. Some letters appear to be in mirror image and some figures look like fish, but also appear to be Chinese headwear.
The top row starts with the letter M and followed by a mirror-image B. The third letter looks like Greek lambda or A without the horizontal bar. The fourth letter appears to be an ampersand made of a lower-case e and t, current letter &. If the third letter is A, the letters A and M combined could mean Auspice Maria, a familiar combination in the Catholic Church for the Virgin Mary. The mirror-image B may be another ampersand with upper-case E and T. Then the first line could be deciphered as M ET A et M ET A et M ET, perhaps meaning 'as well as Virgin Mary'.
The second line looks very strange, but the first letter which looks like a spring might be a deformed ω(omega) scribed by somebody unfamiliar with Greek script. Then the third letter which looks like a mirror-image C could be α(alpha), implying a reference to the Book of Revelation. The second letter is enigmatic but appears to be a letter I with a banner with two dots, maybe symbolic of the sun and the moon. The fourth letter looks a straight forward E. Then the middle line could be deciphered as ω (omega) Iα(alpha) Eω(omega) Iα(alpha) Eω(omega) Iα(alpha). IE are the first two letters of the Latin spelling IESUS for Jesus. Thus the whole line could mean the Holy Name of Jesus.
The upper figure row depicts the headwear of bride and bridegroom of a wedding couple and the lower figure row shows the headwear of the queen and the king of Ming dynasty, suggesting a rather abstract rendition of the Coronation of the Queen of Heaven. The details of the drawings show a certain familiarity with the real headwear design. This implies the textile was designed and woven in China by a weaver commissioned by Jesuit Missionaries who were known to have employed Chinese cultural symbolism. The last remaining question is the meaning of the diagonal background pattern. In my opinion, it clearly shows diagonal crosses or letters upper-case chi X, or the street pattern of New Jerusalem of the Book of Revelation. This interpretation sets a background for the Coronation of the Queen of Heaven.
There are some unanswered questions. The Holy Name of Jesus is usually expressed by IHS, IX, or XP. How common was it to use IE for this purpose in this period? What was the significance of using both lower-case and upper-case ampersands? The letter I with a banner seems to be quite strange, but this may be a result of the unfamiliarity of the weaver with the European alphabet. I have shown a picture of this textile to some experts who are scholars familiar with the documents of the Christian era, but none could identify it or relate it to other documented textile of the era. Its design has a certain 'pop art' quality. In fact, if you gaze it holding it at a distance of about ten inches, you can see a stereogram where the letters and figures appear to be floating above the background with the diagonal pattern.
Paul H. TANIMURA
Catholic Parish of Karuizawa