The Devil's Cloth

The Devil's Cloth

What is it in me, I wonder, that so loves a stripe? They have a dodgy past, after all. In Medieval Europe, when fresco-covered walls lilted in muted notes of solid rose and gold and celadon, the introduction of stripes was vexing. The eye couldn't adjust to the disruptive layers of color and distinguish background from foreground, and so stripes were considered disruptive. Suspicious. Downright of-the-devil.

And they've carried that jaundiced reputation ever since. Stripes were employed to identify prisoners and prostitutes, lepers; costume jesters, tricksters, hangmen; tag traitors in paintings; brandish all forms of danger and mischief.

Years ago, I poured obsessively over Michel Pastourau's book, The Devil’s Cloth: A History of Stripes and Striped Fabric, with fascination (as I do each of his books on color), this French scholar of heraldry drawing out the sordid saga of stripes. Imagine my delight when, last week, on an inspiring trip through Italy, I visited the Duomo in Siena and entered a fortress of zebra-love—and from the 13th century!

Duomo in Siena

While tourists flocked to the Donatello and Michelangelo and marveled at the mosaic floors, I obsessed on the stripes—that bold layering of earthy charcoal and chalky light. Aggressive, yes. But so alive. So Dynamic. Rippling with energy and brio and intensity. Thin stripes. Wide Stripes. Arched stripes. Soaring to the sky stripes. What was this audacious devil's cloth doing dressing the entire cathedral? 

Much later, during the French and American revolutions, brash bars  came to mean—not disgrace—but liberation and freedom (think of the flags). While no longer taboo, stripes remained at the edge of things, always dressing the outsiders. The Freedom Fighters, the Rebels. 

I touch the cool columns vaulting through this grand cathedral. Each pillar is made stronger by the layers of stone, I learn. Stripes of different densities fit together into a finer whole.

Here in this ancient place, I feel, are all the reasons I love stripes. Their dubious history conjures the rebel in me, the one who wants to live at the edge of things, pushing limits, scrambling uniform thinking, hanging with the jester.  I crave diversity over monoculture—whether in color or in thinking—whether in my community or in myself. And I want to live a multi-layered life.   

I left Sienna freer for having this conversation with stripes. It reminds me still to love my many layered self, and yours; our many layered pillars of community. It is, I think, the only way to reach the sky.

All the best,