The viewer is faced with a strange figure: the head, neck and armless body appear to be surrounded by a decorative band, the silhouette of the torso repeatedly depicts a scene that is difficult to interpret. It is reminiscent of Max Ernst’s painting “The Virgin Disciplines the Child Jesus”.

From a distance the figure on a red background looks like a carpet or woven picture, but it is painted. “Head and Shoulders” (2019) is the title of the New York artist Gail Rothschild’s large-format painting, which is on display in the Bode Museum.

“Think big! Gail Rothschild portrays textile finds from Egypt in late antiquity” is the title of the exhibition. The inspiration for her paintings came from the rich collection of the Museum of Byzantine Art, the largest collection of late antique textiles from Egypt in Germany.

It goes back to a gift from Wilhelm von Bode, who acquired the collection of 80 textiles from the former German consul in Cairo, Carl Reinhardt, and donated it to the Kaiser Friedrich Museum in order to set up a department for late antique Byzantine art and everyday objects.

Further donations and takeovers from the Egyptian Museum and the Museum of Decorative Arts allowed the collection to grow to around 2000 objects.

For Gail Rothschild she was a source of inspiration. For her, antique textiles combine painting and physical structure. The New Yorker initially asked cautiously by email if she could see the collection – “and then they laid out all the treasures in front of me,” she says happily about her visits to Berlin in 2019 and 2020 and is pleased that the originals are in showcases at the same time exhibited are.

In the middle of the hall are the showcases with small textile treasures from the 4th to 9th centuries. Many are being exhibited for the first time in almost 120 years. The bold colors have stood the test of time surprisingly well. “This is due to the dry and hot climate in Egypt,” explains the restorer and curator Kathrin Mälck.

“Many textiles lay in the sand, in graves or in heaps of rubble and were thus well preserved.” Rothschild’s large-format paintings such as “Shepherd’s Pie” hang all around the walls and invite comparison with the corresponding model in the showcase.

Rothschild’s enlarged depiction shows structures and layers of fabric, often her exhibit lies on another painted layer of fabric. The artist emphasizes that she does not copy, but enters into a dialogue with the historical pieces, so that her work deviates from the original.

In this way, she draws attention back to the ancient artefacts. They are everyday objects: a piece of a tunic, a decorative strip, a fragment of a dress. Motifs include a fruit basket, equestrian scenes and a biblical scene.

The artist uses a photo as a template, along with some detailed shots. Then she begins to paint, contemplating how the fabric and once-spun fibers disintegrate over time. “My pictures are in the tradition of vanitas pictures, they speak of time,” she says.

The Think Big! exhibition puts the Museum of Byzantine Art in a different light. The dialogue between an antique object and a modern interpretation makes you curious to find out more and encourages you to rediscover the collection.