The Art of English Needlework – Opus Anglicanum

John, Bishop of Marseilles in his will of 1345 made a special bequest of his alb ‘that was wrought with English orfrais’.  What is an orphrey? It is a piece of woven or embroidered fabric mainly applied to the special costumes, or vestments that priests wear for the Mass. In the Middle Ages they included gold thread and are assumed to have taken their name from auriphrygia or Phrygian gold. Phrygia was an ancient country between the Mediterranean and Black sea in what is now central Turkey. The Phrygian kings contributed many oriental ideas to the early Greeks, especially in music, the most famous of these we would know is King Midas, who is mentioned in Assyrian records, and reputedly had the power to turn to gold anything he touched. This panel is one of the most impressive examples of opus anglicanum to survive. Known as the John of Thanet panel the orphrey above is woven silk twill, embroidered with silver-gilt, silver and silk threads and pearls. It would originally have been at the centre top back of a cope, a cape-like ecclesiastical vestment worn for Christian church ceremonies.

From the 11th century onwards, higher Catholic clergy were entitled to wear their sacred garment known as a cope for processional occasions on feast days. The cope developed from a Roman cloak-like garment and was semi-circular, opening down the front. Orphrey bands ran the full length of the front opening. On the back, the cope retained a vestigial hood which was triangular or shield-shaped. The Cope above dates from 1475 – 1500 is made of silk cut velvet, with impressive embroidered orphrey bands. Some of the saints depicted connect this cope to a Cologne church, or at least a church nearby. St Ursula and St Severinus were Cologne saints and St Hubert belonged to a military order established by the Archbishops-Elector of Cologne. Their embroidered names identify them. The term opus Anglicanum, or English work is met in inventories in France, Italy and Spain. It is considered to denote, not only the country of origin, but also the value of the high quality English needlework noted in documents between about 1250 and 1350. The very best pieces are gloriously detailed and splendid works were exported to the Low Countries, France and Italy. The Vatican in Rome has more English needlework than any other museum with such textiles. 

Leave a Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.