Who Wore it Better? Theodora or Arnegundis?

It's Fashion Week in London, and the Fall-Winter 13/14 collections are in the shops. For readers with a spare £10,000 to drop, I would recommend the new season Dolce & Gabbana dresses based on the Byzantine mosaics at Ravenna and the Empress Theodora.

I confess that I might have a weakness for the odd Dolce dress - I'm wearing one in the 'legs' photo on my blog (I added it to counter-balance the ubiquitous 'head shot' we all put on our blogs) - and they are amongst my favourite designers. But ... I suspect that this Byzantine collection is best left on the rail. Who wants to wear a 'look' worn better by a woman that's been dead almost a millennium and a half?

The model looks lovely, but the Empress Theodora carries it off better, as in this mosaic at San Vitale in Ravenna.

The Byzantine Collection was premiered on the red carpet at the Met Ball in May by pop star Katy Perry:

And made this month's cover of Australian Vogue:

I prefer this dress, as it pulls details from the mosaics without going over the top. For those interested in the rest of the collection catwalk images are available at Style.com here.

Before the Boys complain that they are being left out because they can't dress up as Justinian, Dolce & Gabbana have produce a Classical collection for them for Spring 14 (Style.com here):

For the gentleman who can't wait that long, here's a handy video:

I do feel that it might be necessary to add a quick disclaimer. If any fashionista is so enamoured with Dolce & Gabbana's collection that they decide to visit Ravenna ... please note that this mosaic in Sant'Apollinare Nuovo is not a depiction of a Byzantine dressing room:

The mosaics of the two churches were created under the Arian Ostrogoth ruler Theodoric the Great. Theodoric built himself a palace in the city, and this was once depicted in the mosaics. After Belisarius re-conquered Ravenna on behalf of the Orthodox Christian Justinian, many of the mosaics were changed to represent Justinian, Theodora and members of their Byzantine court. In this mosaic Theordoric and his court once stood between the columns, but were removed and replaced by curtains. As a vanquished enemy, he was subject to damnatio memoriae.

The only known images of Theodoric that remain are on his coins, and thus pretty useless for working out what he looked like and re-constructing the lost mosaics. Theodoric was more Roman than "barbarian" and most coins are approximations of contemporary Byzantine issues, although this one suggests that he had a 'Germanic' moustache:

His wife Audofleda, sister of Merovingian King Clovis, would probably have been depicted in the same generically beautiful way as so many other queens, including Theodora.

Although no burials of Greek or Roman rulers have survived, we begin to be more fortunate with the archaeological record when it comes to the Merovingian Dynasty, who after the conquest of the Kingdom of Soissons, that last bastion of Romanitas, were buried in the Abbey at St Denis outside Paris. The Merovingian structure was demolished to make way for the Gothic structure, and the tombs of the later kings of France were pillaged during the French Revolution, but some sarcophagi from the Merovingian and Carolingian necropolis survived intact.

One of these was the burial of Queen Arnegundis or Arégonde, one of the seven wives of Clothaire, the son of Clovis. The Merovingians, like many earlier ruling Dynasties, continued to be polygamous, even after they converted to Christianity. Arégonde died after her husband, and during the reign of her son Chilpéric, and was buried as a Queen Mother rather than as one of several minor wives. This is important as it means that the clothes and jewels in her tomb allow us to reconstruct the dress of a Queen, a generation on from Audofleda and Theodora, and living outside the 'Roman' world, but still the closest archaeological evidence we have to them.

The burial is securely identified by this ring, whose inscription reads: REGINE ARNEGUNDIS. It was one of several rings the queen wore, although a minor piece compared to her elaborate jeweled buckle, with gold balls designed to resemble faux pearls.

 The importance of pearls as part of the regalia of an empress is clear in this detail of Theodora at Ravenna. Pearls would have come from the Gulf and been exceptionally rare, just as they had been in Cleopatra's day.

Theodora and Justinian are also clad predominantly in clothes made of dark purple cloth. Remains in the tomb of Arnegundis of cloth show not only that her cuffs was edged with gold foil, but that her long silk cloak was purple.

The publication by Patrick

Sophie Desrosiers and Antoinette Rast-Eicher: Luxurious Merovingian Textiles Excavated from Burials in the Saint Denis Basilica, France in the 6 th - 7 th Century (PDF here).