The Glories of English Medieval Embroidery
Let me begin by disclosing a bias. Having spent the early years of my academic career trying to convince skeptical audiences that medieval embroideries are both important and interesting, the tremendous splash made by the Victoria and Albert Museum’s recent exhibition in London, “Opus Anglicanum: Masterpieces of English Medieval Embroidery,” felt like a personal vindication. In fact, textiles and embroideries seem to have come roaring back into prominence after a long period on the margins of medieval studies. The catalogue of the exhibition, English Medieval Embroidery: Opus Anglicanum, edited by Clare Browne, Glyn Davies, and M.A. Michael, is the most substantial work to appear on the subject of opus anglicanum since the monumental tome of 1938 by A. G. I. Christie, English Medieval Embroidery. Donald King, who worked with the textile collection at the V&A from 1949 to 1980, kept the lamps lit for medieval embroidery; the 1963 exhibition he organized was the last major public show of works in opus anglicanum. Now, thanks to the efforts of the curators, the public has been afforded a renewed glimpse of the sacred splendor that, according to the chronicler Matthew Paris, excited the envy of Pope Innocent IV (r. 1243-1258). So dazzled was the pope when he saw the vestments of the English bishops that he sent letters to every Cistercian abbot in England demanding such embroideries for himself—thus setting in motion a fashion that spanned Catholic Christendom for centuries.
The term opus anglicanum “English work,” is derived from the descriptions of English (or at least English-style) in the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries; the term was not, of course, used in England itself, where such embroideries were simply the norm. The exhibition shows the international prestige that the London embroiderers enjoyed, with a large number of works that were commissioned for churches and prelates in France, Italy, and Spain. The center of gravity of the exhibition is the embroidery produced in the century from about 1270 to 1370, although it introduces viewers to embroideries produced only decades after the Norman Conquest (when William of Poitiers singled out for praise the skills of English embroiderers), while the show’s later sections extend the story of opus anglicanum up to the eve of the Reformation.
The profusely illustrated catalogue accompanying the exhibition fleshes out the world of medieval English embroidery with eight introductory essays. These explain the materials and techniques of medieval embroidery (Lisa Monnas), the liturgical vestments and hangings that such embroidery ornamented (Nigel Morgan), and the social and economic world of the London embroidery workshops (Glyn Davies). Julian Gardner’s essay on patronage draws attention to the clientele of popes and cardinals who commissioned works in opus anglicanum, while the contribution by M. A. Michael re-centers the embroideries in the history of medieval English art. The final three essays carry the story of opus anglicanum into the later Middle Ages (Kate Heard), to artistic exchanges between England and Central Europe (Evelin Wetter), and finally into the reception of this medieval artistic heritage in the eighteenth, nineteenth, and twentieth centuries (Clare Browne). The book thus not only forms a permanent record of the exhibition but is also an indispensible and up-to-date resource both for specialists and for all those curious about the aesthetic beauty and liturgical function of textiles in the Middle Ages.
The material brought together at the V&A was stunning, and its selection brought a clarity and big-picture focus to the subject of English medieval embroidery that was more than the sum of its parts. But what parts they were! At the core of the exhibition was the series of great copes with all-over schemes of embroidered decoration. In these objects, one could virtually watch the artistic process at work as artists puzzled out a double problem of geometry and iconography: how to fit a multi-figured image program onto a semi-circular surface, the vertical axis of which would sweep through 180° from edge to edge when the cope was worn. In several thirteenth-century examples, such as the Ascoli Piceno Cope (represented in the exhibition by a painted photograph, as the cope’s deed of gift bears a malediction on anyone who would remove it from its cathedral), one sees parallel rows of roundels. The individual scenes contained in the roundels shift axis according to their position relative to the center. A more elegant solution was arrived at by the last decade of the thirteenth century, as in the Vatican Cope, which incorporates its figures of saints and angels within a geometric pattern of stars and crosses. The strapwork pattern is of an unmistakably Islamic derivation—perhaps inspired by woven textiles imported from Spain or the Eastern Mediterranean.
Other examples, from the beginning of the fourteenth century, such as the Madrid Cope and the Syon Cope, use linked quatrefoils, with motifs rotating incrementally from the center to the sides. The Jesse Cope of about 1310-1325 introduces another variation, using the curling branches inherent in the Jesse Tree iconography as the framing device for the series of figures from Christ’s ancestry. With the Bologna Cope, dated 1310-1320, the designers arrived at the solution of concentric bands of cusped pointed arches; the cope thus appears like of a rose window sliced in two, but rendered in the soft medium of embroidered silk and gold. Interestingly, the saints and scenes selected are seldom specific to one particular feast or season. The Bologna Cope, for instance, bears scenes from the Passion and Resurrection of Christ on the upper register, while the lower register shows scenes from the Nativity cycle, beginning with the Annunciation to the Virgin and concluding (with a certain sort of logic) with the Martyrdom of Thomas à Becket, commemorated on December 29.
By the mid-fourteenth century, this elaborate display of radiating tracery had become the norm for embroidered copes. One example of figural embroidery in such an architectonic framework is the Butler-Bowdon Cope, dated c. 1335-1345, which was joined in the exhibition by the similarly traceried Chichester-Constable Chasuble from the Metropolitan Museum in New York (and displayed together with the stole and maniple cut from the latter vestment in the modern era). The two pieces are so closely allied that they are presumed to come from the same workshop, perhaps even the same set of vestments. It was a very happy trans-Atlantic reunion of two vestments last seen side-by-side in 1963. The three scenes of the Annunciation, Adoration of the Magi, and Coronation of the Virgin appear on both the cope and the chasuble, marking the specifically Marian emphasis of many opus anglicanum vestments.
The exhibition also brought together the Whalley Abbey Vestments, dating to ca. 1420-35, one of only two such surviving high-mass sets from pre-Reformation England. Consisting of the subdeacon’s tunicle, deacon’s dalmatic, and celebrant’s chasuble, the set is decorated with applied bands (“orphreys” in the parlance of liturgical textiles) embroidered with scenes of the life of the Virgin Mary and infancy of Christ. The scene of the Virgin’s first steps has her walking in front of Anna and Joachim with the assistance of a three-wheeled walker—a delightfully realistic detail that recurs on another set of orphreys in the V&A’s own collection. The naïve charm of the slightly clunky embroidered figures is only heightened by their being set against a diagonally striped, polychrome velvet cloth of gold punctuated with red pomegranates.
One surprise was how frequently orphreys and the vestments on which they were mounted came from different workshops. At times, the juxtapositions of differing styles and scales of figure could be a bit jarring, but this seems not to have distressed medieval patrons, who ordered orphreys from workshops specializing in their manufacture. These workshops were nonetheless stylistically flexible, at times producing orpheys along Flemish or Italian lines as dictated by the stylistic preferences of their patrons. The ad libitum incorporation of continental styles by English embroidery workshops is an interesting counterpart to the demand for embroideries in the English style on the Continent.
The popularity of opus anglicanum across Europe led inevitably in a shift away from programs of embroidered iconography covering the entire surface of a vestment towards the employment of serial motifs that could be produced as piece work and applied ad libitum to copes, chasubles, funeral palls, etc. The Morton Cope from Arundel Castle is a case in point: its body of dark-red velvet is applied richly with repeating images of seraphs, fleurs-de-lys, thistles, and double-headed eagles, their disparate forms all linked in a network of gold-embroidered tendrils and spangles. These later pieces are still very attractive, inspiring imitations in Central Europe (some of them long misattributed to England) as well as exciting the aesthetic imagination of Gothic Revival designers such as George Frederick Bodley.
The curators did not neglect secular embroideries, which, though scarcer than church vestments, include some spectacular objects. One such object—or rather, the ghost of an object—is the quilted surcoat of the Black Prince (1330–1376) with his heraldic lions and fleurs-de-lys applied. Having been on continuous display among the prince’s heraldic achievements in Canterbury Cathedral, the originally vibrant red and blue of the quartered panels on the coat are now almost imperceptible. Far better preserved, albeit only in fragments, is the splendid horse trapper with heraldic lions. The beasts, with splayed-out claws and (originally) glass eyes, stretch themselves across a dense hedgerow of embroidered foliage in which tiny, courtly figures cavort. The relatively greater time pressures of the court as opposed to the church reveal themselves in technical shortcuts among the secular embroideries: a preference for piece-work and appliqué, and the use of surface couching of gold threads rather than the more exacting underside couching technique seen on the majority of the ecclesiastical vestments.
The exhibition—and the catalogue—closes with the funeral pall of the Worshipful Company of Fishmongers, made sometime between about 1512 and 1538. Its sides are decorated with images of the guild patron, St. Peter, and pairs of mermaids and mermen supporting the company’s arms. The embroideries are a tour-de-force of multiple techniques, including the clever juxtaposition of the mermaids’ silk-embroidered faces with their metallic-thread reflections shown in the mirrors they hold. Despite all this richness of detail, the embroideries are upstaged by the textile that forms the main field of the pall: a velvet cloth of gold with a sinuous vegetal design rendered in gold, silver, and red silk (the type of textile known as riccio sopra riccio in early-modern inventories studied by Lisa Monnas). From the late fourteenth century onward, such luxurious silks and velvets, imports from Italy and Spain, tended to take center stage while the embroideries were consigned, as here, to a supporting role. The embroidered figure of St. Peter in the triple-crowned papal tiara must be among the last such representations created in pre-Reformation England. Not only would Henry VIII’s break with Rome bring to an end the creation of elaborately embroidered vestments, but it would unleash subsequent waves of Protestant iconoclasm that would sweep away so much of England’s medieval heritage of ecclesiastical textiles. As is appropriate for a funeral object, the Fishmongers’ Pall hints at the trends that were to sound the death knell for medieval opus anglicanum. It is, in all respects, a stunning way to be ushered out.
Warren T. Woodfin is Kallinikeion Assistant Professor of Byzantine Studies at Queens College, The City University of New York. He is the author of The Embodied Icon: Liturgical Vestments and Sacramental Power in Byzantium (Oxford University Press, 2012) and co-edited the volume Clothing the Sacred: Medieval Textiles as Fabric, Form, and Metaphor (Edition Imorde, 2015).