Romanian Ornamental Wall Cloths With Zoomorphic And Avimorphic Motifs

from the collection of the Folk Art Museum in Tulcea

see Gallery

1. General considerations
 In the context of the Romanian traditional fabrics ‘stergarele’ (cloths) represent a category with multiple functions: pieces for decorating or adorning the house , pieces used in the ceremonies related to family customs (birth(s), marriage(s), burial(s)), pieces for everyday use. Mention must be made of the fact that in this paper we will deal only with the function of decorative pieces to be found in the traditional house interior of Dobruja, especially in the North of the region. ‘In the architecture of the traditional house interiors in Dobruja the cloths had a special role, given their ornaments and colours and given the fact that they stood out in contrast with the white walls on which they were displayed either in a butterfly-like form or with their ends hanging sideways and a ribbon that represented the center of weight. Their decorative function places the Romanian cloths of Dobruja among the type of wall cloths that have striking resemblance to the cloths in the South of the country.’ (Marinescu 1975, 58)The wall cloths represent the most common and varied category of fabrics within the Romanian household, in all its aspects: form, decorative style, colours and systems of display. The range of ornamentations demonstrates that in their creation human beings have transposed elements from the nature surrounding them. The day-to-day life has easily found its place in the art that the peasant woman created in order to embellish the interior of her house, thus granting the place a holiday-like note.The clean room was decorated with the most beautiful and richest ornamental cloths, while the kitchen and the entrance room had fewer cloths on display. The display of the cloth in certain places within the house, namely on certain props (walls, beam), shows the skill and the sensitivity of the lady who has arranged her household. It is also to be noticed that each piece was created to embellish a certain prop-element within the structure of the interior and the decorative composition it has is not random (Idem 160).The balanced combination of colours of the Romanian cloths creates a ratio of equivalences between the white background and the red, blue, black, dark blue motifs of the old cloths (woven round 1900-1910); between the white background and the more vivid colors of the cloths woven after 1930 (orange, green, pink, yellow).The fabrics they were made of were of: vegetal origin (cotton) and animal origin (floss silk, wool). Until the 19th century, these threads were produced within household; as a result of textile industry, the cotton started to be processed by machines.To these basic raw materials others were added: cotton, silk, metallic threads. To the end of the 19th century another type of thread, the woolly thread started to be used in decorating the fabrics; this industrial product allowed for a wider range of colours to be used in the weaving of the fabrics. The threads used for the decorations were dyed with vegetal products, and at the beginning of the 20th century the threads started to be dyed with chemicals. […]The cotton was bought in bulk and was of several types whose names entered easily in the day-to-day vocabulary, given their long usage (felemen, castarlau, sacaz-pomac, arnici). If the colour one preferred was not available for sale, the cotton was dyed with ferrous sulfate, smoketree and alum, in order to obtain the yellow and even black colours. […] In order to make the colour last, a series of fixatives were used: cabbage juice, salted vinegar, borsch.As well as the wool, the silk or the floss silk was obtained within the household; it was the woman who dealt with its production. The activity of raising silk worms had been flourishing until 1955-1960; there was a rich market of fabrics made of silk (curtains, table cloths, napkins, bedclothes). However, the special conditions required by the silk production eventually made the producers give it up. […]The decoration is displayed on the field (the central part of the cloth) and at the ends (the extremities). From an ornamental and chromatic point of view, the field is the secondary part of the cloth. Most of the time, it is clear (without ornaments), sometimes stripped, sometimes checkered.The ornamentations varied according to the skillfulness of the weaver who asked for the advice of elder women; the models for the ornaments were represented by various objects in the surrounding environment; hardly ever were there any written models.The oldest and the most simple ornamentation system was weaving of stripes. The artistic value is given, first and foremost, by careful observation of the three basic principles: symmetry, alternation, and repetition.The principles of symmetry and repetition are represented in decorative compositions with frames that are equal in dimension. The principle of the alternation is represented in decorative compositions with frames that differ in dimension (central wide frame and narrower frames delimiting the central frame).A special visual image is given by the ornament based on the alternation principle. In this case, the ornamentation has a weight center around which all the other ornamental elements gravitate. From the perspective of such an ornamental composition we can also mention the representation of a compact decoration. In our view, this is based on concentric frames, symmetrically grouped around a central motif or around several basic motifs. The analysis of the decorative elements on the ornamental cloths, which makes the topic of our paper, allows us to approach motifs from the perspective of the importance they have in the compositional structure as well. From this point of view, we can mention motifs with major value – which become the weight center in a compact decoration, or motifs with minor value – those that are complementary or only emphasize another motif. The plastic representation of the motifs with major value and of the motifs with minor value and their variable display, from one cloth to another, allows the weaver to create variants on the same theme. The decoration of the ornamental cloths is completed by laces, tinsels or fringes, which all hang at the extremities. The laces are either hand-made or bought from traders.As for the ornaments of the laces, it frequently consists of compositions with geometrical, vegetal-floral and zoomorphic motifs. Geometric motifs result from the combination of elementary forms, straight lines, generated by the technique of the weaving. The geometrical motifs as such are: the straight line, the broken line, the curved line, the triangle, the square, the rectangle, the rhombus, the zigzag, the meander, the circle, the rosette. The geometry of the lines, the contour of the motifs and the chromatic associations, all collaborate to the production of these expressive forms that are the cloths.Vegetal motifs (phytomorphic and floral). Lately, the floral ornament has been used more and more often. The most frequent motif is that of the flower with four petals that appears under many and various plastic interpretations. Within the decoration, on ornamented surfaces, the flower alternates with geometric motifs; the surfaces may also be delimitated through geometric elements. The predominant vegetal motif is the tree of life that that appears in the ornamentation of the fabrics under various representations: under the form of a tree that rises directly from the ground, under the form of a flower in a vase, under the form of a tree in whose crown there are birds or under which there are two birds displayed face to face. The motif of the tree of life is a reflection of the myth of the miraculous tree, bearer of fruits that ensure life without death, watered by the spring of life; it is very frequently met. Equally frequent on the Romanian cloths are: the wreath, the rose, the rosebud, the flower bouquet, the branch, the apple, etc., all of them generally in groupings and, more rarely, isolated. In day-to day life, many of these flowers are considered to be symbols of purity, nobility and luck; as such, they become symbols in the ornamentation of the respective fabrics; they vary in terms of meaning and significance according to the feelings and ideas of each community, according to the age in which they were created. The figural anthropomorphic motif developed more in the south of the country. The anthropomorphic ornaments are of considerable importance, given their plastic expression as well as their links with the life and the history of the human being. On the cloths from Dobruja there are frequent images of riders, placed between flowers and birds; most of these riders are soldiers participating in the 1877 [Independence] war.Zoomorphic and avimorphic motifs. These types of motifs are quite frequent and they reveal various sources of inspiration: the surrounding reality, as well as the world of books. That is why there are both motifs from the homeland (the horse, fowl, etc.) as well as exotic animals (the monkey, the lion, etc.)Heraldic motifs. The double-headed eagle is the most frequently used. It appears as a central, stylized decorative motif. The double-headed eagle is a symbol of the supreme power. The two heads express the royal authority, imperial sovereignty. Mythical motifs. There are some evil characters in folk mythology that keep appearing on the cloths as well: the ogre, the old crone etc. On the cloths in our collection, the recurrent mythical motif is the dragon. In the archaic symbolism, the dragon represents a monstrous mythical being, an instance of terror, of dark forces that trouble the natural balance of the world’s evolution. 2. The analysis of the compositional structure of ornamental cloths with avimorphic and zoomorphic motifs Motif-symbol-significationThrough their decorative function, the cloths from Dobruja belong to the category of wall cloths. These types of cloths, locally called peschir, have a rectangular form, with the decoration placed at the margins, on half or two thirds of the surface. The beauty of the cloth is completed by hand-made laces embroidered with various motifs. Out of the approximately 2400 cloths in the collection of the Museum of Folk Art, in this paper we will deal with 100 cloths with zoomorphic motifs. The collection of the Museum of Folk Art and Ethnography in Tulcea comprises almost 300 such cloths. The selection of the 100 cloths was made according to the complexity of the ornamental structure, to the organization of the decorative motifs, to the frequency of one particular motif.The zoomorphic motifs on the cloths under scrutiny are: the horse, the donkey, the stag, the dog, the rabbit, the monkey and the lion. All these ornamental motifs are in fact representations of all those animals that had a well-defined role in man’s life.The horse appears frequently as a motif and its representation is close to reality, which suggests the powerful relationship between the horse and its master, the human being.‘From the perspective of zoo-mythology, the horse has two antagonistic functions: a chthonian one and a uranian one. The chthonian horse is an archetype of terrestrial life in permanent movement. It is black, thus resembling the dark. Its color protects it from the indiscretions of the human beings, when it treads the earth at night. Its favourite environments are the wilderness, the desert, the precipices, the roads out of sight, the graveyards, the deserted households, the ruins of the fortresses’. (Vulcanescu 1987, 512).By way of contrast, according to archaic and traditional mentality, the uranian horse was created to play a positive role in the world. It is believed to protect humans from evil spirits.The donkey is realistically depicted on cloths; it carries a saddle quite frequently, which suggests the role this animal played in the day-to-day life of shepherds and farmers.The stag has an important role in Romanian mythology. It is a symbol of purity, justice, the guide of living heroes and of dead people’s souls. It is stylized or given a naturalist representation, as a central or secondary motif. The stag has been often compared to the tree of life because of its branch-like horns that regenerate periodically. It is an archaic image of cyclical rejuvenation. The dog appears on the cloths as a plastic image that has a unitary place among other motifs. ‘The first mythical function of the dog is that of a guide for the human being into the darkness of death, after having been a faithful fellow during lifetime’. (Chevalier, Gheerbrant 1994, 326)The rabbit has a stylized representation, both as a central and secondary motif, inspired from poems, transformed in self-contained topics, recreated in the creative imagination of the weaver. Wild or domestic rabbits are lunar beings that sleep during the day and play at night. They know how to appear and to disappear as silent and as discrete as the shadows and the moon. The lion appears as a central motif on the Romanian cloths and it is depicted in a naturalist manner. The lion has a top place in the ornamental fauna. Its power, its courage and nobility have ensured it the title of king of the animals.The monkey is rarely displayed on the Romanian cloths. It is stylized and it is accompanied by animals that usually populate the native land. Its presence on the cloths is difficult to decode. The monkey is well-known for its agility, for its ability to imitate, for its buffooneries. The avimorphic motifs we have taken into consideration are: the peacock, the rooster, the turkey, water fowl, the pigeon, the cuckoo, the duck, the goose, the swan, the ostrich, the parrot and the tit. There are two classifications to be made: a group of motifs that are strongly stylized (waterfowl, the duck, the goose) and a group of motifs whose representation is closer to reality, revealing the sources of inspiration (the rooster, the turkey, the cuckoo, the peacock, the pigeon, the parrot, the tit, the swan). More often than not, avimorphic motifs appear in line, one after the other; they are integrated in complex compositions in which other kinds of motifs are to be found as well, especially floral (the rose), phytomorphic (the branch, the tree of life) as well as (more rarely) geometric motifs. The rooster is universally seen as a solar symbol because its song heralds the sunrise. Thus, it is believed to protect the human being from the evil spirits of the night.The cuckoo is universally regarded as a symbol of jealousy because it hatches its eggs in the nest of other birds, but also as a symbol of laziness, because it does not make the effort to build its own nest.The turkey is a symbol of virile force and of maternal fecundity, and this image results from the way in which it swells its crop. The peacock is a solar symbol, just like the rooster, due to the fact that it has a round tail. ‘In the Christian tradition, the peacock symbolizes the solar disc, and thus it becomes a symbol of eternity; its tail evokes the starry sky’. (Chevalier and Gheerbrant 1994, 59) The dove is a symbol of purity, of innocence, a symbol of peace, of harmony, of hope, of retrieved happiness. The symbolism resides in the beauty and the grace of this bird. The dove is a very sociable bird, which intensifies the positive aspect of its symbolism. 3. Considerations on the ratio between the frequency of the motif and the source of inspiration  The analysis of the zoomorphic and avimorphic motifs in the ornamental composition of the wall cloths that make up the collection of the Museum of Folk Art allows us to draw some conclusions on the ratio between the frequency of the motif and the source of inspiration, beyond the mythological symbolism of the represented animals. Motifs which appear most frequently: the horse, water fowls, the rooster, the swan, the tit and the goose. This aspect is determined by the permanent presence of the represented animals in the day-to-day life of the human being. The surrounding reality was the essential source in the activity of artistic transfiguration, 70-80% of the universe of the peasant woman being limited to the universe of the household and of the village. Motifs which appear a little less frequently: the donkey, the rabbit, the peacock and the cuckoo. Although these animals are artistically transposed in ornamental compositions and had a special role in man’s traditional life, they are not very frequently used as motifs. This can happen for various reasons: either the way in which the behaviour of the animal is perceived (the frightened rabbit, the lonely cuckoo, the self-important peacock and the stupid donkey), or the fashion in the decoration generated the orientation to some representations rather than others. Motifs which are little used : the lion, the monkey, the stag and the dragon. The low frequency of these animals in the plastic representation on ornamental cloths is due to the fact that these animals were not part of the day-to-day life of the weavers. They probably entered the ornamental system either through books, albums, atlases that were available thorough the agency of the intellectuals living in villages or through the processing of folk ballads in the text of which animals such as the stag or the lion represented as many metaphors for the courageous hero who fights the evil spirits. In the case the weaver had to be inventive and receptive enough to novelty to be able to break the canons of tradition. Irrespective of their frequency in the ornamental compositions of wall cloths, the zoomorphic and avimorphic motifs show that folk art, just like any other art, artistically transposes a part of the world in specific forms that are both interesting and full of significations and which show aspects of both day-to-day life and the mythological universe. Translated by Fabiola Popa

by Elena Papa