Shoe, 4th–7th century AD. Akhmim-Panopolis, Egypt. Leather, decorated with gilding. 9 1/4 in. (23.5 cm). The Metropolitan Museum of Art, Gift of George F. Baker, 1890, 90.5.34b.

From the Exhibition:
The Codex and Crafts of Late Antiquity

What does footwear have to do with Coptic book design? As it turns out, a lot more than you might think. When I first began working as Georgios Boudalis’s research assistant for the exhibition The Codex and Crafts in Late Antiquity, I did not expect to be combing through museum databases in search of hand-woven socks and finely stitched shoes, yet some of my biggest research breakthroughs came while analyzing the sewing structure and the gilding pattern seen on antique Coptic shoes.

Fig. 1. Pair of shoes, 4th–7th century AD. Akhmim-Panopolis, Egypt. Leather, decorated with gilding. Metropolitan Museum of Art, Gift of George F. Baker, 1890, 90.5.34b.

The backless shoe, or mule, seen above, one of a pair in the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s Islamic collection (fig. 1), originated in Panopolis, Egypt, in the 4th–7th century AD. The mule’s sumptuous leather may have been a deeper red color at the time it was made. In any case, it is this red tone that gave our modern-day mule shoes their name. Mulleus calceus, the shoes commonly worn by aristocratic Romans, were a color similar to that of red mullet fish (mullus); scholars believe that the term mulleus was shortened over time to produce the word we use today—mules. Many such shoes were preserved in the desert gravesites of Panapolis, near the modern Arab city of Akhmim (fig. 2).

Fig. 2. Plate X from Heinrich Frauberger, Die Antiken und Frühmittelalterlichen Fussbekleidungen aus Achmim-Panopolis (Book of Ancient and Early Medieval Footwear from Akhmim-Panopolis), (Düsseldorf, 1896). Courtesy of Göttingen State and University Library.

The shoes and the covers from bound Coptic manuscripts featured in the exhibition were fabricated out of similar leathers, but their connection runs deeper than the color of the leather. The gilded decoration adorning both the shoe and the manuscript covers and the process of its application also draw the pieces together. In both examples, gold foil was adhered to the leather to create a dazzling ornamental pattern.

Although decorative ornament may seem, at first glance, to serve the sole function of beautifying an object, decoration found on leatherwork also constitutes a form of language. Embedded in the interlacing diamonds, crosses, and squares are cultural meanings that are not readily accessible to the modern viewer. There are different possible explanations as to why these two disparate forms—shoes and books—possess similar designs. They might draw from a common pool of decorative patterns reflecting the fashion, taste, or even symbolic meanings of the era. Unfortunately, owing to scant written records explaining the reason for commonalities between forms, we will likely never be able to draw a definitive conclusion.

From a practical standpoint, we must first consider the artisans who created the works in question. The process of creating manuscripts was not as streamlined as one might assume, since the task was assigned not to a single monk in a monastery but to numerous scribes and manuscript illuminators who wrote and decorated the texts and created the illuminations. It is also clear from the execution that skilled leather workers fabricated the decorative covers. Because of technical similarities between the sewing and gilding of both the shoes and the manuscript covers, as well as their comparable design schemes, evidence seems to indicate that leather workers worked across both mediums, creating both sacred and quotidian objects.

The similarities between the shoes and manuscript covers also extend beyond their technical execution; clearly the style and possible function of the decoration knit the two forms together. Angular geometric designs, like those found on the shoes, also serve as a chief decorative feature of the Morgan Library manuscript M. 574 (fig. 3). Likewise, we find similar diamond patterns in floor mosaics situated at the entrances of Coptic and Byzantine churches of the era.

Fig. 3. Theodore C. Petersen. Pattern of lower board and cover, Morgan codex M.574, (9th–10th century AD), ca. 1940. The Morgan Library and Museum, PCC059.

It is difficult to explain the similarities between the patterns on the shoes and those on the manuscript covers, as we can never know exactly what the artisans who created them intended. Clearly some of the patterns found on manuscripts had symbolic meanings, but did these same meanings extend to shoes? Perhaps the artisans wanted to demonstrate their artistic virtuosity across a variety of mediums, or perhaps they simply wished to create a beautiful pair of shoes for a wealthy patron. These unresolvable questions underscore the difficulties that come with studying objects that date back over fifteen hundred years.

Darienne Turner received her MA from Bard Graduate Center in 2017.