Treasured threads : ecclesiastical textiles as living heritage of the Catholic Church in Australia

  • Margaret Ferguson

    Student thesis: Doctoral Thesis


    A rich and varied legacy of Catholic textile heritage is cared for in widely distributed collections across Australia. While the scale,scope and nature of these treasured threads is not well understood within the diverse Catholic communities that ‘own’ this heritage,the significance and stories hidden in these textiles remains largely unknown to the broader public. Textiles with connections to the iconoclasm of the Reformation,the atrocities of the French Revolution and the struggles of the Kulturkampf of Bismarck’s Germany sit quietly in Catholic religious communities in rural New South Wales. Tasmania holds an unsung trove of Neo-Gothic Revival ecclesiastical textiles that witnessed the growth of a new colony,while a fragile seventeenth-century devotional banner from the royal workshops of Spain shares space in the Western Australian wheat-belt with a late-eighteenth-century bishop’s cope from Northern Italy and the simple black habits of Benedictine monks. These treasured threads and their remarkable stories are a tiny sample from the textile collections which form an important part of the living heritage of the Catholic Church in Australia. Combining historical research and extensive use of digitised archival sources,with qualitative methods adapted from ethnography and material culture studies,including textile collection surveys and snowballing interviews with custodians and members of religious communities,this research explores how,why,and by whom cultural significance and value is attributed to ecclesiastical textiles that are cared for in collections and archives. The research reveals that Catholic institutions across Australia care for rich and diverse textile collections that,despite their age,rarity,historical associations and community significance,are little known outside their owner communities. Current thinking in heritage studies contends that people and objects are entangled in webs of cultural meaning,practice and performance. People create objects,and through their enduring materiality objects have agency and vibrancy which in turn has influence and power in social worlds. Research into the community and social values of Christian heritage in general,and Catholic heritage in particular,has only recently appeared in the field of heritage studies,where enquiries around intangible and social heritage values have tended to focus on ii the ‘West’s’ ‘others’,indigenous and non-western cultural groups. This textile heritage embodies deep spiritual,community and personal significance,and is a manifestation of a richly symbolic system of cultural knowledge,practice and living heritage that spans two millennia. Ecclesiastical textiles play important roles not only in the liturgical and pastoral life of the Church,but also in the community life of its parishes and religious orders. Of particular interest is how cultural practices,community memory and identity are maintained through caring for these textiles. The role of women’s devotional labour in creating and curating this legacy is especially significant in a cultural context that has traditionally excluded them from active participation in liturgical rites,policy-making and the hierarchy of power. However,the few ecclesiastical textiles that are found in secular collections in Australia are valued chiefly within an art historical frame,on the basis of their design,aesthetics,manufacturing techniques,skills expertise,and occasionally their monetary value. A better understanding of the diversity of values that are attributed to these treasured threads has the potential to impact on future conservation and management policies as more churches and religious communities amalgamate or close and their fragile and vulnerable textile heritage moves into new and different contexts. This research therefore contributes to our knowledge of the distinctive entanglements between people and textiles that will help shape future discourses of heritage value and management policy in the Australian context.
    Date of Award2019
    Original languageEnglish
    SupervisorTracy Ireland (Supervisor), Alison Wain (Supervisor) & Elizabeth Bonshek (Supervisor)

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