A Trinacria made from silver thread and centred with the head of Medusa

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A Trinacria made from silver thread and centred with the head of Medusa

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A Trinacria from Sicily embroidered onto a cushion in silver metallic threads, incorporating the head of Medusa surrounded by snakes and wings on either side of her head. Sicilian. Circa 1700

Condition: Good. Now mounted on an early 18th century linen panel.

Provenance: Private collection in the UK.

Measurements: Diameter: 14.5 in (37 cm).

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The symbol of Trinacria, a talisman of good luck, features in the flag of Sicily as well as that of the Isle of Man. Its history is complex and in some ways still shrouded in mystery since it relates to mythology.

The original name of the island was Trinacria (or Triquetra). The symbol arrived in Sicily with Agathocles, the tyrant of Syracuse (361 B.C.- 289) who used it on his coins and probably for his personal seals.

The armorial emblem of Sicily, the Trinacria or Triskelion, is composed of three human legs, joined at the thigh, bent sharply at the knee, with the foot and toes turned out. Pliny attributes the origin of the Triskelion to the triangular form of the island, ancient Trinacria, which consisted of three large promontories equidistant from each other, pointing in their respective directions, the names of which were Pelorus, Pachynus and Lilybneum. The arrangement of the three capes is made explicit in the Greek word triskeles and is linked to the geographic meaning: treis (three) and akra (capes): from which, also in Latin, triquetra (three peaks).

The arrangement of the three legs, suggesting a rotation, led the experts to go back to Eastern religious symbols, in particular, that of Baal, god of Time (in whose monument at Vaga (Beja, Tunisia), over the bull, there is a Trinacria) – or that of the Moon, where the three legs representing the rays of the sun, are replaced by scythes. It illustrated the God of the Sun in its triple form: winter, Spring and summer.

At the centre of the Sicilian symbol is the head of Medusa, with a mass of snakes (that symbolize wisdom) instead of hair. She represents the goddess Athena of ancient Greek mythology, the Patron Goddess of the island. Another version of the Gorgon is of a woman with wings on either side of her head which stand for the eternal passage of time. Added to the image by the Romans, are three wheat ears surrounding the head of Medusa. They celebrate the fertility of the island of Sicily that at the time used to be the granary of the Empire of Rome.

The Normans who arrived in Sicily in 1060, took the Trinacria to the Isle of Man who chose it as a symbol to replace the previous one - a vessel - of Scandinavian origin.

As a familiar symbol of Sicily, the image of the Trinacria has been reproduced and made by islanders for centuries. The object in question is either related to needlecraft, or is a purely decorative item. Precious metals have been used for the decoration of textiles since ancient times to create luxury objects for the secular and religious elite. Metal threads have been interwoven into fabrics, used decoratively in tapestry, embroidery and lace making. The Romans are said to have used them from the 1st century A.D.

It is worth noting that in the case of this Trinacria several different weaving techniques have been used to portray the face, wings and the details which are finely modelled. This skilled technique is known in Italian as “a fili stesi.” It is exceptional to find a textile which is also a striking and unusual sculptural object.