The historical aspect of decorative needlework from medieval times is both diverse and full of richness, as humankind gained a new interest in the visible world. An exhibition in London at the V & A Museum 2016-2017 showcased Opus Anglicanum: masterpieces of English medieval embroidery, helping to document costume divine.
One of the treasures of English work in the V & A is the Jesse Cope ca 1310-25. Its imagery refers to Jesus the Christ’s claim in the gospels for that of being the ‘true vine’ a symbol of the church where God, the Keeper, nurtures the faithful … ‘I am the true vine’ he is recorded as saying.
An apprehension of the divine is at the essence of our understanding that period in world history after the advent of Christianity via Emperor Constantine and after the fall of Rome a period in history when western origins became blurred and knowledge of antiquity lost.
Although little real evidence of early embroidery survived changes in fashion or use, many early texts remain that describe their magnificence.
They were copied, preserved and kept hidden by monks in monasteries all over Europe, for a future they hoped would be better.
Fragments of textiles in museums today reveal just how during the so-called Middle Ages (476AD-1500), the majority of the population gained an understanding of their world through imagery.
In the main illiterate, the population developed their powers of observation to a high point. Religious institutions took advantage, telling tales with textiles, stained glass windows and architectural detail in a church ruled by fear, not love.
The symbolism woven into or embroidered on textiles was of major significance, because they conveyed a message, moral or otherwise, about the glory and welcome abundance of creation.
During the Middle Ages various councils and synods attempted to regulate clergy dress, both outdoors and indoors, and it became an obligation for those in holy orders to conform.
By this time styles, types and use of ecclesiastical vestments were more or less established and embroidered work free to take on broader terms of reference.
From about the thirteenth century onward great suites of vestments were produced from the same fabric i.e. Dalmatic, Tunicle, Chasuble and Cope. The Tunicle a simpler garment worn by the bishop under the Dalmatic and Chasuble was an over garment with sleeves and although originally completely plain, it followed the Chasuble and Dalmatic and became richer and more elaborate when embroidered.
Although they had no intrinsic liturgical significance, the Cope a type of cape worn by a priest in religious ceremonies, lent splendour and magnificence to great feasts and ceremonies and became an important addition worn by the principal officer at the Mass in procession.
Mainly men, working in professional workshops that abounded in London, were responsible for carrying out Opus Anglicanum or English work; the art of sacred embroidery.
As the church in Europe grew and prospered the changes that occurred in vestment attire became more or less set and English work reached a highpoint of style maturity.
It was during the twelfth century liturgical colours were first set down as special to a season. Church vestments became ornaments of the clergy, more a glorification of the individual man rather than anything to do with worshipping Jesus the Christ.
By way of contrast, he had been a humble working man, used to wearing plain homespun garments.
By the second half of the fourteenth century both weaving and needlework were highly important commodities.
Like ours today, they had become necessary to both England and Europe’s societies and economies, and intrinsic to the traditions of every court.
There is a glorious example of a purple velvet Cope dating from about 1500 still surviving at the V & A Museum, which is decorated in the middle with the Assumption of the Virgin Mary, while; on the scrolls held by the three surrounding angels is the legend, Gloria in excelsis Deo.
Among the objects found decorating various vestments in a 1368 inventory in Norfolk include a great variety of flowers, especially roses for the Virgin Mary and coats of arms of the donor and his or her family were often added.
The Chasuble, the vestment worn by the priests during the mass, continued as a great vehicle for display with added bands of woven or embroidered textiles, and in some instances, gems and pearls, enamels and semi precious stones were used as well as embroidery.
The difference between tapestry and embroidery is in the technique of manufacture, not always understood.
Tapestry is thick textile fabrics in which weft threads are woven (originally by hand) into warp threads fixed lengthwise onto a loom and pictures or designs are created virtually row-by-row as the weaver progresses. When completed the image is integral to the fabric
Embroidery is the enrichment of a flat foundation such as linen, cotton, silk or wool using needle, coloured silks or coloured cottons as well as gold and silver thread and other extraneous materials. When completed it stands proud of the fabric.
In one famous surviving piece of early embroidery King David (1040 BCE – 970 BCE), a warrior, poet and musician whose evocative poems appear in the Book of Psalms in The Bible, is depicted as a harpist, an instrument associate with divine music; songs and music that honour God.
Embroidering on textiles has been and is still a powerful transmitter of wealth and status as well as a measure of the development of individuals and society as they master a skill and take it to a highly sophisticated level.
An ancestress of the present British Royal House, St Margaret of Scotland was around ten years old when she arrived in England from exile in Hungary, where the Benedictine monks trained young people to live an ordered life of prayer and work.
She was married in 1070 to the King of Scotland who thanked God…’ who had by his power given him such a consort’. We know she read her scriptures in Latin, had learned French and was also trained in the needlework of that time, much of it rendered in solid gold for church work.
From the first decade of the fifteenth century old texts gradually became available through such scholars as Italy’s Poggio Braccioloni (1380-1459) and study of what became known as the ‘humanities': grammar, rhetoric, history, poetry and philosophical ideas, meant new attitudes and philosophies began to irrevocably change society forever.
After the dissolution of the monasteries in England Archbishop William Laud (1573 – 1645) coined the phrase ‘the beauty of holiness’ – to mean order and ceremony in the Church.
He was the priest who set himself the task to raise the Church of England to its rightful position as a branch of the Church Catholic, to root out Calvinism in England and Presbyterianism in Scotland.
He also brought Copes back into use as he tried valiantly to restore lost traditions.
However, eventually voted guilty of endeavouring to overthrow the Protestant religion as an enemy of Parliament he was beheaded on Tower Hill.
The very best pieces of opus anglicanum are gloriously detailed and splendid works were exported to the Low Countries, France and Italy.
Interestingly, the Vatican at Rome has more English needlework than any other museum with such textiles.
Opus Anglicanum used couched metal threads as a background to coloured silk surface stitches. Its durability against wear and tear was a direct result of the couching thread being on the reverse side where it was protected. If a thread was accidentally broken it did not give way along an entire line.
Also it had flexibility, an invaluable quality for a garment destined to hang in folds. The couching was done in such a way it often formed geometric patterns on its own, such as lozenges, fleur de lis or brick patterns and sometimes jewels and beads were also worked into the pattern.
For centuries embroidery took place by hand in Europe and England until the nineteenth century, when engineering and science developed machinery to take over the task.
It had a revival when ‘arts and crafts’ guru William Morris went up to Oxford. He was intending to become an Anglo Catholic clergyman and became interested in all forms of church furnishings.
While Morris did not design vestments, he did design altar frontals and took an avid interest in opus Anglicanum, taking part in the work himself alongside his daughter May.
She took over his embroidery workshops when she was 23 in 1885.
The introduction of mass produced vestments meant the art of embroidery was not always upheld, and the shapes were perhaps not as graceful as those made especially for an individual.
Chinese embroideries which were economical were purchased , bringing vestments within reach of individual parishes.
While the dress of ecclesiastics of all denominations may have lost none of its importance during the first decades of the twenty first century, its emphasis has definitely changed.
Carolyn McDowall, The Culture Concept Circle, 2016