This exquisite exhibition presents a room full of treasures. From the geometrically striking Syon Cope (1310-20), to the surcoat and shield of the Black Prince, to a pair of episcopal stockings, it is, first and foremost a feast of the most extraordinary craftsmanship. Between the twelfth and the fifteenth centuries, English embroidery was prized throughout Europe – by diplomats and courtiers, popes and kings. Its status was such that it tends to be readily identifiable in the written records as ‘opus anglicanum’.
Figure 1 The Syon Cope, 1310-1320, Victoria and Albert Museum, London
Figure 2 Opus Anglicanum, Victoria and Albert Museum, London
Of course, we are not seeing these objects in their original context. A cope would have been worn during a liturgical procession, and most viewers would have seen the embroidery only at a distance, dazzled by its jewels and golden threads, rather than by its detailed iconography; its visual impact would have been shaped by the colours, lights, sounds and smells of the liturgy. The Black Prince’s surcoat would have been worn over armour at great ceremonial occasions, the blue and red velvet embellished with golden fleurs-de-lys and lions impressing amongst the fabulous spectacle of court life. But to provide an authentic medieval ‘experience’ is not the function of an exhibition like this. Rather, we are able to look more closely than medieval viewers, and to be moved by the extraordinary and elaborate attention to detail that so few would have been able to see. Like the intricate sculptures and mouldings high up on cathedral roofs, these pieces of art testify to a form of devotion (whether in a spiritual or a secular context) which stretched far beyond the merely functional or didactic.
The exhibition places great emphasis on the sheer skill required to produce these pieces, providing detailed explanations and even videos of the key technique of underside couching, an elaborate way to attach thread of precious metal to the supporting fabric. Over the course of the period, new techniques developed, with the exhibition placing special emphasis on a post-Black-Death shift to less time-consuming methods, a greater influence of Netherlandish techniques (particularly of ‘or nué’ or gradated gold effects), and a tendency to use patterns to produce small cut-out embroideries which could then be appliqued to the overall garment or covering.
Figure 3 Steeple Aston cope, c. 1310-1340, detail of angel on horseback with lute, Victoria and Albert Museum, London
But it is all too easy to dismiss embroidery as merely a series of elaborate and intricate techniques. The real strength of this exhibition is to convince viewers that opus anglicanum was an art form of great beauty and aesthetic nuance. Many of the images are intensely and movingly expressive. An image on the Steeple Aston cope of 1310-40 shows an angel on horseback playing a lute: mounted angels playing instruments are, in themselves, highly unusual and striking iconographically, and it is claimed that this is the earliest depiction of a medieval lute. More than this, though, the contrast between the otherworldly and dreamy expression on the angel’s face contrasts with the wry amusement of the horse on which he’s sitting, to create a little drama within the image. The use of colour in the images, though now often faded, is also very striking, producing amazing gradated visual effects as you step closer to the image: an initial colourful blast on the senses gives way to wonder, intrigue, and often amusement as one steps closer. Many of the embroideries also play with three-dimensional effects, as techniques for embossing the embroideries grew more sophisticated: in a delightful image of the Virgin Mary as a child on orphrey panels from the late fourteenth century, the noses of the figures have been carefully stuffed with tiny pieces of parchment to achieve a sculptural effect. The figures are almost ready to step out towards you. Sadly, many of the gemstones and pearls which would have added further texture to the embroideries have been lost. Their addition was not always just about the conspicuous display of wealth, but to achieve more nuanced visual effect. Strikingly, a papal inventory of 1293 describes an embroidered and gemstone-laden dossal: ‘in the middle are twenty stones which look like sapphires, but Master Richard says they are glass or crystal’!
Interspersed with the embroideries are psalters, tiles, jewels, seals and pieces of stained glass. The intention is to show how various art-forms were iconographically and stylistically related. In some cases, the relationship is strikingly intertwined. A leaf from the Lisle psalter () is shown, probably executed by the same Westminster artist who also designed the embroidered cope commissioned by John of Thanet , treasurer for Canterbury Cathedral who died in 1319.
Figure 4 The Lisle Psalter, detail, c. 1320, The British Library Board, Arundel 83.
Superficially, an exhibition of mostly liturgical vestments, might seem to offer a rather narrow perspective on medieval studies. But there is much that is thought-provoking from a whole range of perspectives. Historians of gender will be interested to trace the role of women in embroidery, a connection that images of well-behaved nineteenth-century ladies has tended to naturalise. In the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries, most documented embroiderers were women. This changed over the course of the fourteenth century, so that the names appearing in documents are mostly male: this was a function, perhaps, of the growing organisation of the trade so that its public representatives (mercers or broderers) were men, whilst women continued to be involved, ever more invisibly, in its production.
For economic historians, there are fascinating and ever-shifting trade networks to be discovered. The title of the exhibition, Opus Anglicanum, might sound parochial, but these embroideries were produced in a strikingly global context. Some of the silk backgrounds which were then embellished with exquisite embroideries originated in China; some in Mongol territories further west. The famous Clare Chasuble displayed is made of an Iranian silk and cotton cloth known as kanzi, then embroidered in England. It is also a story of change, so that by the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries, increasingly silks produced in Italy and Spain were used. In turn, the English embroideries were exported across Europe, and the diplomatic and trading networks revealed by such treasures as the Madrid and Toledo copes or the liturgical vestments from Hólar cathedral in Iceland, are far-reaching in their implications.
The survival of these embroideries is extraordinary, not least because of their extreme fragility. The stories of survival are fascinating. Most of the items on display are ecclesiastical rather than courtly, because they were more likely to have been carefully kept, and did not go out of fashion: courtly garments were, by their very nature, more ephemeral. Whilst the English Reformation did no favours to the survival rates of elaborate liturgical garments, it was the Europe-wide appetite for English embroidery which meant that pieces survive from across the continent. In England, more copes than chasubles survive, perhaps because chasubles were used for the Eucharist whose theology and liturgy changed so dramatically, whereas copes were used more widely in processions and testify to the continued role of Churches within their communities. My own college, St John’s, has a remarkable collection of medieval vestments known as ‘the Laudian vestments’, donated to the college by Archbishop Laud in the seventeenth century, and re-discovered in the 1980s in an old dressing-up box. The V and A exhibition catalogue quotes a hair-raising account by Pugin of saving some early fifteenth-century silver-worked embroidery from burning at the silver refiners. In some cases, the very worn-ness of the objects gives a bit of a thrill: the surcoat of the Black Prince, plain weave linen padded with wool and covered with silk velvet with elaborate applied motifs in silver-gilt and silks, is now corroded and discoloured. A little bit of imagination quickly restores the splendour of the garment, but its very shabbiness recalls the distinctly late medieval sense of the transience of power: ‘où sont les neiges d’antan?’
My favourite piece in the collection is the Steeple Aston cope. The iconography is detailed and expressive, but delightfully whimsical. A figure of Margaret of Antioch on the back of a dragon listens anxiously to a reassuring angel, whilst the dragon looks bored and detached, and a glum-looking wildman peeks out from the foliage above. The cope was, at some stage, cut up and reconfigured to make an altar-cloth. Here then, is an object not just overlaid with the patina of age, but literally chopped and changed. The discontinuities and dislocations of historical time are enacted on the cloth itself, whilst its very presence now attests to an extraordinary sense of continuity. It is an object of alterity, past-ness and change, but one which continues to resonate across the centuries.
Opus Anglicanum: Masterpieces of English Medieval Embroidery, 1stOctober 2016 – 5th February 2017 – Victoria and Albert Museum, London
Catalogue: English Medieval Embroidery: Opus Anglicanum, eds. C. Browne, G. Davies and M. A. Michael, with the assistance of M. Zöschg (Yale University Press, New Haven and London, 2016).
The Laudian vestments at St John’s College are displayed to the public every term on Saturday 7th week.