Qantara Qantara

Horse and lion tapestry

  • Title/name : Horse and lion tapestry
  • Production place : Egypt (?)
  • Discovery place : Antinoë, Egypt
  • Date / period : First half of the sixth century  
  • Materials and techniques : Wool and linen tapestry
  • Dimensions : 188.6 x 100.97 x 6.99 cm
  • Conservation town : Washington
  • Conservation place : Dumbarton Oaks Collection
  • Inventory number : BZ.1939.13

This tapestry was acquired by the Dumbarton Oaks Collection in Washington in 1939. The weaving technique and decoration suggest that it is Egyptian in origin (Antinoë). It was woven of wool and linen. The original width is unknown, but the remaining tapestry is exceptional. It looks like part of a curtain. The textile was badly restored, which altered the original decoration.

The fragment of tapestry comprises a central section and a border on the right. In the central section, the profile busts of two lions or two addorsed horses, emerging from a chalice, alternate in superimposed registers. Each animal faces the animal of the neighbouring chalice. This repetition – although it was disrupted because of the poor restoration of the textile – gives the decoration a geometric aspect. The chalices are richly decorated with plant adornments, their bases consisting of acanthus leaves. On each chalice, back-to-back birds are depicted on either side of a basket of fruits. The motif of animal busts facing each other and emerging from a sort of pedestal was used on the central sections and borders of about ten silk or wool textiles. This motif is also found on other techniques, such as sculpture, or on small objects in the round. The motif is probably Sasanian in origin.

The borders are decorated with medallions in which hunters on horseback and wielding lances are depicted; these medallions alternate with lions and panthers – animals associated with the hunt.

This tapestry, like other woollen textiles, undoubtedly takes up decorative motifs from silk textiles that served as a model. The silks of Antinoë, an important administrative centre in Byzantine Egypt, were used at the imperial court, as well as to decorate Persian dress.

The Dumbarton Oaks tapestry seems to attain a peak of perfection for this type of textile, produced between the third and six centuries. It is an example of ancient tapestry unique in the richness of its decoration, the exuberance of its colours, and the combination of its ornamental, geometric and figurative motifs. The birds decorating the cups from which the lions and horses emerge, the unusual shape of the palmettes at the base of these cups and the repetition of a single motif on a line are reminiscent of sixth-century mosaics. The same artistic period produced the sculptures of Saint Polyeuktos in Constantinople and the mosaic decorating a niche of the Saint George Rotunda in Thessaloniki, in which are found motifs common to the Byzantine and Sasanian worlds. All this evidence suggests that the tapestry dates from the first half of the sixth century.


Fragmentary Curtain or Hanging: The Horse and Lion Tapestry, (accessed on 7 July 2008).

Kitzinger, E., “The Horse and Lion Tapestry at Dumbarton Oaks: A Study in Coptic and Sassanian Textile Design”, Dumbarton Oaks Papers 3 (1946): 1–72; reprinted in Studies in Late Antique, Byzantine and Medieval Western Art, Vol. 1, London, 2002.

Spieser J.-M., Thessalonique et ses monuments du IVe au VIe siècle, Athens, 1984, French school of Athenes.

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