Friday, 04 November 2016

Opus Anglicanum: Masterpieces of English medieval embroidery

The medieval masterpieces made by English embroidery experts dazzle the senses and evoke the art of the Gothic

Written by Wesley Kerr


This uplifting exhibition offers a rare opportunity to view artefacts – mostly exquisite ceremonial clothing – so beautifully executed and illustrated, so delicate, that in many cases they have not been seen in this country since being exported as prized ‘English Work’ several centuries ago. wesley kerr

In late medieval Europe, English embroiders trained for seven years and achieved superlative skills. Home-grown techniques, such as underside couching when adding silver and gold thread, silks or precious jewels, have enabled the work’s miraculous preservation, in museums and ecclesiastical institutions as far afield as Spain’s Toledo Cathedral, the Vatican, Iceland and the US. Few secular objects of medieval embroidery have survived, but those that have are remarkable: a container for Edward the Confessor’s seal; a lion-encrusted bag made for Edward I; the Black Prince’s coat and shield; the gold and enamel Dunstable Swan Jewel.

In those times religion was as important as life itself. Clerics’ sensational outfits marked holy days in the religious calendar. The copes, mitres, embroidered scarves and decorative panels (orphreys) they wore were dazzling and designed to glorify God and imbue congregations with magic and wonder. Scenes and images of saints, buildings and plants on the sacred apparel are as expressive as paintings by Giotto or Piero della Francesca. Vivid colours have aged well – how dazzling they must have been. Faces are expressive, actions resonate – Christ slaying Satan or himself being crucified.

Strange that the word ‘Gothic’ was once a term of abuse – in this exhibition are some of the greatest artworks from any civilisation. Among the highlights are the jewel-encrusted becket casket and the glorious syon cope. Items you’ll see once in a lifetime include the Holár Vestments depicting Icelandic saints as well as the Bologna and Toledo Copes and the quirky 12th-century stockings (like gilded welly liners) and shoes of an Archbishop.

Most poignant are a pair of shears, a metal thimble and a brass needle case still containing a 700-year-old needle – a reminder that every item took so long to make. We lost so much with the reformation, but the Gothic never left our culture. It enjoyed a revival in the 19th century and this show highlights how much great art has been made in these islands for millennia.

Until 5 February 2017 at the Victoria And Albert Museum, London SW7: 020-7942 2211, www.vam.ac.uk 


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