La Velata by Rafael Sanzio
Cloth itself was a strangely attractive subject in the old days. Each of the known materials—cotton, velvet, silk, linen, wool—gave its own characteristic folds; and stone and painted versions of these were pleasing to see, both as reproductions of the materials and as charming abstract compositions. Cloth until the Industrial Revolution was a luxury item—a kind of gold. It was chief on the list of a man’s possessions. Many of the old wooden sailing-ships crossing the oceans carried cloth to trade. Fine cloth was out of the reach of the poor. Only a rich man could afford fine clothes; just by themselves they distinguished him as a nobleman. Many of the great portraits of the Renaissance show these nobles proudly dressed in priceless, beautiful, clothes. So the material itself was respected; and seeing it imitated in stone or in paint—recognizing the kind of material it was—gave pleasure.
If on top of that the sculptor gave it some life, it sometimes stole the show from his statue.