A collective of bibliophiles talking about books. Book Fox (vulpes libris): small bibliovorous mammal of overactive imagination and uncommonly large bookshop expenses. Habitat: anywhere the rustle of pages can be heard.
If you are in range of London between now and next February, I encourage, indeed urge you to visit the V&A and see the current exhibition Opus Anglicanum: Masterpieces of English Medieval Embroidery. It is breathtakingly beautiful and revelatory. The articles on display are miraculous survivals from the Middle Ages – the most astonishing ones are from the 13th and 14th centuries. By reason of their fragility, they are rarely on show – exhibitions of this work seem to be running at 50 year intervals.
It was news to me that London in the Middle Ages was the hub of fine needlecraft, with English work (the meaning of ‘opus anglicanum’) sought after across Europe, and by the richest and most powerful secular and ecclesiastical patrons. Embroidered textiles for secular purposes are exceedingly rare, because they were well-used and worn, and often cut down and recycled for other purposes until completely worn out. Ecclesiastical textiles survived better, as they were made for specific liturgical purposes, were regarded as church treasures and often had special chests to preserve them from light and pests (cope chests survive in cathedrals, and one from York Minster is on display in the exhibition). Even so, in England very few magnificent pieces survived the Reformation, when the commissioners in the reigns of Henry VIII and (especially) Edward VI hunted down all precious objects and confiscated them for the crown. Textiles were not valued for their artistry, but more for their precious content – the gold and silver thread, and the seed pearls that adorned them – and they were mostly destroyed to retrieve them.
The exhibition and the gorgeous book that goes with it seek to reveal the context in which England and specifically London became the centre of this craft, and how it changed over time until it disappeared in the 16th century into a wider European trade. Examples on show were made in England for Iceland, Spain, Italy and particularly for the papal court. The textiles on display are stunning in their artistic merit and the skill with which they were created. They are also very moving, as, made of natural materials and dyes, they seem to be fading away into a delicate monochrome. In some cases a fold in the stored material can show us a little more of the brilliance there must have been in the colours. But in all cases the bones of the design show through.
The most spectacular pieces date to the late 13th and early 14th centuries, intricate designs fully stitched with silk threads on plain silk and linen to form the vestments worn by priests offering the mass, and the copes worn for processions. The design schemes include biblical sequences, scenes from the life of Christ or the life of the Virgin, with saints and their attributes and the obligatory choirs of angels and seraphs, all framed by architectural or naturalistic cartouches and borders. Some have delightful vignettes of animals and birds; some even have green men, peering through the decorative foliage. Other exhibits demonstrate how closely the designs share aesthetics and iconography with stained glass, illuminated manuscripts and wall paintings of the time. The two main techniques that the London broderers mastered were split stitch, a delicate, sinuous stitch that could be used with gradations of colour to give fine texture and shading to human faces, drapery, luxuriant hair and angels’ wings; and underside couching, that enabled them to add detail with firm lines, and outlining in gold and silver thread.
As time went on, and more luxurious background textiles became available that demanded to be on show, the overall design gradually developed into embroidered motifs spread across a ground of red silk velvet, or opulent silk damask. However, the spectacularly intricate stitch work portraying the lives of Christ, the Virgin and saints, and biblical scenes persisted in the embroidered bands called orphreys, applied to the edges of copes and the back of chasubles. These were easily attached and detached, and in many cases have survived when the original vestment is lost.
In the subdued illumination that these fragile textiles require, they gleam with a delicate light. All repay time spent in front of them, looking for the tiniest details to come into focus. I think my favourite piece is the Steeple Aston cope, from a tiny Oxfordshire parish, like other such pieces no longer in its original form, but cut up for altar furnishings. To start with, I marvel at its survival, and would love to know how it was achieved. I know from my own church that Edward VI’s commissioners came looking for anything of value, and that the four bells (‘and one of theym is broken’) only survived in place because the King died after the inventory was made and before the commissioners came back for them. Eamon Duffy in The Voices of Morebath describes items of plate and precious vestments spirited away into hay barns and cellars when the commissioners came. I assume something like that happened at Steeple Aston and the altar furnishings were made later when the atmosphere was more liberal. The shadowy designs include a scattering of really distinctive tiny green men, peering out from grapevines, several of them seriously cross-eyed. There are also two angels, one playing a lute, the other a fiddle, on the most enchanting dapple-grey and palomino horses. Just here and there a part of the design flares out at the viewer because the dye used proved fortuitously to be more fast. I could sit and look at it for hours while these minute details emerge.
The few shreds and tatters of secular work include some seal bags, fragments of horse trappings, and the sorry decayed remains of the Black Prince’s surcoat, from his funerary trappings and part of the treasury of Canterbury Cathedral. It is astonishing just to be in the same room as a survival like that.
The accompanying book is gorgeous, if large and rather hard to read in bed. It is not cheap, even at the special exhibition price and with a Friends’ discount. But I couldn’t resist it, and I’m glad it didn’t. In eight chapters it describes the craft of Opus Anglicanum, its market and customers, and its economic organisation. Men and women were involved, both in doing the work and conducting the business, though more women in the former and more men in the latter, particularly towards the end of its supremacy. If the book has a weakness, it is that the technological aspects of the craft are not fully considered. Where for instance were the needles made, and how durable were they? What tools of the trade would a broderer require, and how were they obtained? Something for the next exhibition in 50 years’ time, perhaps.
The conditions leading to the loss or survival of the work are considered. It began to be rediscovered and valued in the 19th century, and there is a fascinating anecdote from Augustus Pugin, who happened to be in a silversmith’s shop when an impoverished man came in with some orphreys of intricate workmanship. He needed to sell them and asked the silversmith to value them for their bullion content, at which Pugin stepped in, offered him more than their value, and saved them from destruction. But, like medieval manuscripts, it is impossible to overstate just how much of this work, of exquisite artistry, has been lost. I am just so grateful for what has been preserved, and for the rare privilege of being able to see some of it.
English Medieval Embroidery. Opus Anglicanum. Edited by Clare Browne, Glyn Davies and M A Michael. New Haven and London: Yale University Press, in association with the Victoria and Albert Museum, 2016. 310pp.