A selection of the most luxurious of English embroideries, much desired by the rich and powerful of medieval Europe, have been brought together for a new exhibition at the V&A. Lucia Marchini takes a look.
The Latin term opus anglicanum has been used in English to describe grand embroideries since the 13th century, and it gives much more of a sense of their grandeur than its straightforward vernacular translation: ‘English work’. This English work, predominantly originating in workshops near St Paul’s in London, became something of a signifier of the country’s artistic prowess on the international stage and one of its finest exports in the 12th to 15th centuries. Some 50 years after the V&A last staged an exhibition on the embroideries, the museum has returned to this glittering subject in Opus Anglicanum: Masterpieces of English Medieval Embroidery.
What is immediately apparent on entering the exhibition is how valuable these embroideries were. They have been crafted using costly materials, such as Italian imported velvet, coloured silk and gilded silver threads, and are often adorned with pearls and precious stones. Visitors are first greeted by the 14th-century Bologna Cope, a long ecclesiastical cloak once in use in the church of San Domenico, Bologna. It was probably a papal gift to the church, showing just how illustrious the clients commissioning these works were. As a vast wedge-shaped oak cope chest in the corner proves with its ornate ironwork and high-quality joinery, these were not garments to leave on the back of a chair.
The Bologna Cope, and indeed many of the other copes on loan from institutions across Europe, reflects the widespread popularity of English needlework, especially in the 14th century. It also shows how a particularly English flair might be injected into these international commissions. The Bologna Cope is decorated with scenes relating to the life of Christ, but with one exception: one of England’s best-known saints, Thomas Becket, also makes an appearance. Similarly, the 14th-century Toledo Cope has been executed not only with saints venerated in England, but with what was at the time another very English characteristic – detailed naturalistic depictions of identifiable species of birds.
The extraordinary level of detail on these monumental copes was achieved through split stitch, a technique using coloured silks particularly associated with opus anglicanum. Excavations in what was once London’s embroidery workshop district have revealed a selection of needlework tools from the 13th and 14th centuries: cases, thimbles, shears, and the needles themselves, very small so as to allow the embroiderers to carry out this meticulous work. Above the cases containing these small finds, the names of those who used them are displayed in cinema-style lettering, fittingly celebrating the highly skilled and often financially well-rewarded men and women who produced the A-list artworks of their day.
The range of supporting materials adds an extra layer of detail to the exhibition, highlighting the interactions between opus anglicanum and other arts. Designs from floor tiles, stained glass, manuscripts, and panel paintings all have textile parallels. Certain artists, such as the painter of the Virgin and Child from the De Lisle Psalter, are also the likely designers of some of the exhibition’s embroideries. Much of the artistic influence stemmed from the Royal Court at Westminster. The star-and-cross pattern of the late 13th-century Vatican Cope has its roots in the Islamic world, but its first use in England was on the Westminster Retable. Likewise, a ceiling panel from Henry III’s state bedchamber and reception room at Westminster Palace portrays a winged seraph wearing a neckerchief, a feature that then appears in later embroideries.
Dressed to impress
While the vast majority of embroideries on display are religious vestments, the exhibition does explore a few survivals made for secular use, now very rare as they were worn out or thrown out as fashions changed. Fragmentary and faded, some of these pieces may be somewhat less spectacular in their appearance today than their sacred counterparts, but the level of detail is no less impressive. The City of London workshops attracted royal patronage. In kingly red and gold, two lions are what remain of the English royal arms from a 14th-century velvet horse trapper. This heraldic cover is thought to have been made for Edward III’s diplomatic meeting with Holy Roman Emperor Louis IV at Koblenz, Germany, in 1338.
Early survivals of opus anglicanum were preserved when they were buried along with the bishops who wore them. By contrast, the linen surcoat of another royal Edward, the Black Prince, was hung at his tomb in Canterbury Cathedral after his death in 1376, so its red and blue velvet arms of England and France have long since faded. It is the only piece of secular clothing from the 14th century known to survive, even though tomb brasses – rubbings from which are in the exhibition – show how surcoats were routinely worn over a knight’s armour to display his arms.
The English Reformation of the 1530s had a damaging impact on embroidery, with lavish vestments being destroyed, hidden, taken abroad, or reused for cushions or other items. But not long before this, the exhibition’s final piece, another one with a funereal link, was made. The Fishmongers’ Pall, embroidered for the Worshipful Company of Fishmongers in 1512-c.1538 (they still own it), proves that elaborate embroideries were still being commissioned in the early 16th century. Presented here surrounded by mirrors, the mermen and mermaids and image of St Peter that adorn this funeral pall dazzle from every angle – a spectacular final flourish to the exhibition and to an art that was about to undergo a drastic change.
Opus Anglicanum: Masterpieces of English Medieval Embroidery runs until 5 February 2017 at the V&A. Admission £12 (concessions available). For more details, visit www.vam.ac.uk/opus
This review was published in CA 321.