[Sca-cooks] tablecloth, shroud or food cover?

Volker Bach carlton_bach at yahoo.de
Tue Oct 30 13:07:36 PDT 2007

>Can't find the message but someone said yesterday
>there is a 6th C painting of the Last Supper with a
>tablecloth. Now I find this confusing. Is this a
>symbolic reference to the Shroud of Turin? 

I am rather dubious that it is. My images from late
antiquity show dining tables 'bare', but altars (both
Old Testament and church contexts) are always and the
lecterns of evangelists frequently covered with cloth.
This may be a way of indicating the sacred nature of
the events taking place. 

Edit - I may have found it: San Apollinare Nuovo,
Ravenna, 6th century mosaic showing the Last Supper
(two fish and seven loaves) on a table covered in a
white, fringed cloth with twin digamma and square
applique. The diners recline on a sigma couch around
it. Interestingly, the other dining scene in the
Ravenna mosaics - the angels visiting Abraham - shows
no tablecloth while the sacrifice of Melchisedek shows
a very similar cloth draped over the altar.  

>I do find some Jewish references to a leather
>tablecloth and to clothes covering food to keep the
>flies away but not to linen table coverings. 
>Does anyone have more data on the history of the

There are some Roman references to linen tableclothes.
The problem is that the word 'mantelion' csan refer to
both a napokin or a tablecloth, so we can only be sure
of the meaning in a few cases. SHA 37.2 may refer to
tableclothes at the imperial table (white linen with
red fringes, but no gold embroidery, though an earlier
ruler had iused those). Gold embroidery sounds
pointlessly unpleasant in a napkin. Martial, Epigrams
14.139 clearly speaks of a tablecloth. It is only put
on to protect the table while eating - at other times,
the expensive cirtus burr wood is left visible.
Ammianus Marcellinus (16.8.8) refers to a fringed
tablecloth to match couch covers. We also have a few
pictures of Roman tables draped with clothes, but
there aren't many. 

Generally, later references to tableclothes are more
frequent than earlier, but they don't seem to become
universal until well into the Middle Ages. Of course
it is hard to say what with so much representational
art following classical patterns. I know the Utrecht
Psalter shows tableclothes. 


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