From the 12th to the 15th centuries England had an international reputation for the quality of its luxury embroideries, often referred to as ‘Opus Anglicanum’ (English work).
These luxury embroideries, featuring silk, velvet, gold and silver thread, were designed and woven by craftsmen and women in London, in a neighbourhood close to old St Paul’s cathedral – hanging from the roof in the second room is a sort of enormous rectangular lightshade which bears the names of the men and women embroiderers whose names have come down to us. Early on a display case shows the tools used in the craft and a video shows modern embroiderers at work to explain the process of creation.
Opus Anglicanum was bought by monarchs and churchmen across Europe and in the first room is a map of Europe showing locations where Opus Anglicanum have survived, scattered right across the continent. Hardly any of the secular embroideries – the ones commissioned and worn by kings, aristocrats, knights and so on – have survived, so almost all the examples in the exhibition are religious, vestments i.e. items of clerical clothing, worn by bishops and priests.
However the exhibition addresses this lack by including paintings, stained glass, illuminated manuscripts and a number of striking full-length brass rubbings of dead knights, to show what contemporary secular embroidery would have looked like, and also to highlight the overlap in design and motifs between the different media of the times.
The whole tradition came to an abrupt end with the comprehensive abolition of Catholic ritual, images, relics, statues, church furniture and apparel in Henry VIII’s Reformation in the 1530s. Many of the richest vestments were hidden or chopped up and used as more modest clothing and some of the items on display have been recreated from strips of embroidery which survived the centuries and, in our time, have been re-assembled. A fascinating video shows how this was done for a classic example, the Steeple Aston cope.
The V&A holds the largest collection of these works in the world and the show features works borrowed from across Europe (e.g. the Vatican, Toledo cathedral) – so this is a once in a lifetime opportunity to see such a rich collection of medieval embroidered work in one place. It is a sumptuous and rich exhibition, modest in scale, in just six rooms, but full of beautiful works you’d love to be able to touch and run your fingers over (and wear!)
The exhibition introduced me to terms for ecclesiastical garments I’d never heard of before:
- burse – a flat, square, fabric-covered case in which a folded corporal cloth is carried to and from an altar in church
- chasuble – an ornate sleeveless outer vestment worn by a Catholic or High Anglican priest when celebrating Mass
- cope – a large semi-circular garment to be worn in church services.
- dalmatic – a wide-sleeved long, loose vestment open at the sides, worn by deacons and bishops, and by monarchs at their coronation
- orphrey – decorative strip that ran along the straight edge of the cope)
- stole – a priest’s silk vestment worn over the shoulders and hanging down to the knee or below
- maniple – a vestment formerly worn by a priest celebrating the Eucharist, consisting of a strip hanging from the left arm
- vestment – a chasuble or other robe worn by the clergy or choristers during services.
All of them repay close investigation; the more you look, the more you marvel at the fineness of the needlework and detail. For no special reason I ended up loitering by the The Butler-Bowdon Chasuble (1398 – 1420). On reflection I think it’s because there are no people in it. In the central vertical band the coats of arms are supported by swans holding each shield with their beaks. In the blue sections to either side, there are diagonal bands filled with what look like peacocks (?) alternating with floral bands decorated with what look like little white roses and a purple thistle (?).
It would have been good to confirm my guesses about these details; the wall labels aren’t as full as they could be, although there are a few large-print booklets available which give a bit more information. Presumably there is more in the book, but what you want is really a detailed explanation of the imagery and iconography of each item. For example, up either side of The Chichester-Constable Chasuble (below) there seems to be pairs of intertwining trunks sprouting leaves – are they vines? And they are punctuated at top and bottom with faces – What of? Demons? Lions? And why?
All the human figures have that sweet medieval look. They are elongated. The top of the body is often swaying backwards with the neck and head bending forwards in a kind of counter-balance. The heads are simple/naive with strongly outlined eyes. Also, as in the example, above, the figures are often holding out their arms and hands in highly stylised positions, clearly pointing towards important incidents or making obviously significant gestures. Someone somewhere must have made a lexicon of these gestures which are clearly important but remain, to the uninstructed viewer, for the most part obscure.
This installation view of the exhibition shows a faded brown cope to the left, below it a reliquary containing a relic of St Thomas a Becket (looking a bit like a 1930s radio), at the back in the centre a scarlet cope with two stained glass figures above and to the right, with several brown orphreys hanging to the right of them, and in the foreground a case showing three medieval illuminated books demonstrating how similar patterns were used in medieval embroidery and illumination.
The cases showing how similar decorative motifs were used for secular clothes introduced me to a few new terms for items of clothing worn by knights and their horses:
- horse trapper – a cloth covering laid over a horse or other animal for protection and decoration also known as a caparison
- surcoat – a loose robe worn over armour
- tabard – a sleeveless jerkin consisting only of front and back pieces with a hole for the head
This is a rich and wonderful exhibition, full of detail and beauty and, above all, inspiring awe at the thousands of hours of humble patient hand work which went into creating each of these marvellous objects.
The beauty of the works is partly in the initial impact they make of sumptuousness and size (a cope is a big item of clothing). But mostly in the details and there are three problems here.
1. In something like the Syon Cope (top image in the blog post) I am not really clear what I’m looking for. I know how to read a painting. I don’t know how to read a medieval piece of embroidery. Some kind of guide to what to look for and enjoy in every piece would be extremely helpful.
In this respect the V&A has produced an excellent interactive page explaining details of The Butler-Bowdon Cope. I suppose it’s financially impractical, but in an ideal world every single one of the objects here would have just such a detailed guide to each of the figures, their histories, gestures, postures and meanings.
2. Understandably, the light is quite dim throughout to preserve these old fabrics. Also a lot of the detail is quite small. Not minute, just not very big. Ironically, I have enjoyed examining the detail of the dragons (above) and the angel on horseback playing a lute (three images above) more from these high-resolution photos on the V&A website, than when I was actually looking at them in real life.
My advice would be to read as much as you can about the exhibition on the V&A website and any reviews before you go, so that you’ve got a good idea what you’re going to see and which bits of it you are particularly interested in (the embroidery techniques and fabrics; the religious iconography; the floral and decorative designs; the histories of the noble families who often commissioned the works and whose coats of arms or heraldic symbols are woven into them, etc etc).
And consider taking a magnifying glass or pair of strong glasses so you can really enjoy the delightful details which the size and complexity (and the sheer number) of the designs sometimes obscure.
- Opus Anglicanum at the V&A continues until 5 February 2017
- Introducing Opus Anglicanum
- The Steeple Aston Cope
- The Butler-Bowdon Cope
- Press release with detail comments of specific examples
Other V&A blog posts
- Botticelli Reimagined @ the Victoria and Albert Museum
- Masterpieces of Chinese Painting 700-1900 @ V&A
- Shoes: Pleasure and Pain @ Victoria & Albert Museum
- Medieval and Renaissance Art at the Victoria and Albert Museum
- Every room in the V&A (part one)