BLOG 28 29/02/2016 Opus Anglicanum and Medieval Embroidery.

Posted in on 29 February, 2016 in News

Opus Anglicanum and Medieval Embroidery.

Dumbarton Oaks

Opus Anglicanum: Dumbarton Oaks

I have always held a fascination for embroidery ever since I took a GCE subject in embroidery at school years ago. It was that same young enthusiastic teacher who encouraged my career in the arts. When I entered Art College in the sixties, quite a few textile designers were specializing in ecclesiastic embroidery – with a modern take on an age old skill. I veered in another direction but I never lost that love for embroidery. Just lately I have been re-looking at ecclesiastical embroideries only this time they are the great medieval works of art known more commonly as opus anglicanum.

Little documentation relating to the making of early embroideries survives and it is rare that we come across a record of agreement or contract of a commission. Faced with great masterpieces which survive in museums or cathedrals, we are left to wonder just who created these works of art. Where did they learn their skills? How much did they cost, etc.? Who commissioned them? The list goes on. The case of secular embroideries is the reverse. There are abundant records of Royal households in both England and France but virtually no embroideries to associate with them.

Red velvet chasuble

Red velvet chasuble of 1330-50 showing Coronation of the Virgin, the Adoration of the Kings. the Annunciation. All worked in silk and gold thread, mainly split stitch and inside couching.

Examination of the techniques employed and the level of skill leads to the conclusion that there were workshops employing a whole host of skilled workers. Such a workshop would have to have a patron to commission the works in the first place – a patron with deep pockets as the large quantities of expensive silk and gold threads alone would have cost more than the common man would have been able to afford.

Medieval embroiderers are not, however, totally anonymous. Mabel of Bury St Edmunds, for example, has become famous through books written on medieval embroidery. There is no doubt that she was a competent embroiderer but we know little about the work except that her name occurs 24 times in the household accounts of Henry III between the years 1239 and 1245, usually with regards to ecclesiastical work. Consequently her name has become synonymous with opus anglicanum. The accounts also mention the names of other embroiderers: Maud of Canterbury, Joan of Woburn and Maud of ‘Benetleye’ (Bentley in Middlesex). They also created works for the royal households but unfortunately we don’t know anything else about these women.

Another prominent name is Adam de Basing, a rich London merchant who became Lord Mayor in 1251. He supplied large quantities of silk vestments and embroidered orphries and mitres to Henry III. It appears that de Basing was most certainly a middleman who specialized in trading opus anglicanum but it is not clear if Henry III commissioned them or whether de Basing was in direct employment of the London embroiderers. Henry’s son and grandson, Edward I and II, continued the tradition of acquiring elaborately embroidered vestments for their own purposes and as diplomatic gifts.

Syon Cope

Syon Cope

Opus Anglicanum AsioliPicenp- Palace

Opus Anglicanum Ascioli Piceno- Palace

It seems likely that the richly adorned works of arts that we have come to know as opus anglicanum, were created in small family-dominated workshops, mainly in London. Not only were they beautiful in their own right but they had been made for the service of God, and like all other church art, were greatly cherished. The ambitious works honoured both the benefactor and the recipient. Such a costly gift was given to Pope Nicholas IV who in turn gave it to his birthplace in Ascoli in 1288.

It is generally thought that many medieval embroideries must have been worked by amateurs. Those honing in their skills received no payment but also did not have the pressure of having to earn a living by embroidery alone. It is well-known that embroidery was a popular occupation of nuns and one which, according to contemporary chroniclers, was likely to distract them from the reading of books and singing of psalms.  A different view was held by the Abbess of Bourges, Eustadiola, in the 7th century who believed that idleness was the root of all evil and therefore encouraged work on vestments for  the alter and wall-hangings for the church, believing that by this means evil would be kept at bay.

A number of European embroiderers are known individually, either because of contracts between both patron and embroiderer or through signatures on their work. The same does not exist for English medieval embroideries and only one example bears what is believed to be a signature. This fragment is now in the Victoria & Albert Museum. It is worked in black silk on linen and bears the name JOHANNA DE BEVELAI. She is thought to have been a nun at Beverley Abbey in Yorkshire. It does not bear any resemblance to the richly decorated vestments of opus anglicanum.

Mitre of St Thomas a Becket

Mitre from the Abbey of Seligenthal, Bavaria. 12th century Byzantine silk with 13th century opus anglicanum embroidery. It depicts the martyrdom of St Thomas a Becket

Detail opus amglicanum early 13th century

Detail. Opus amglicanum early 13th century

Underside couching

Underside couching

Throughout medieval Europe there were a surprisingly varied range of embroidery techniques used such as counted, pulled or drawn threadwork, quilting, appliqué or intarsia, most of which was used in domestic embroidery. Purists do not accept appliqué to be a form of embroidery but it was popular and could be produced at a faster speed which made it particularly popular for heraldic devices for military use, jousting, tents or wall-hangings. In the 1330’s, in the workshops of Edward III’s armourer, appliqué banners and horse coverings were being made in which the heraldic leopards for the English coat of arms were cut from yellow cloth, silk or velvet and applied to  grounds of red cloth, silk or velvet. French accounts show the fleur-de-lis applied to a blue ground. Painting was also used but as a result of its transient nature was less popular. Quite often the painters would apply their skill as a draughtsman, much as later painters did for the Aubusson and Gobelin tapestry workshops.

Detail of Op Ang V and A

Detail: Opus Anglicanum. Victoria and Albert Museum.

It is known that in 1330, a certain team of embroiderers (70 men earning 4 ½ pence and 42 women earning 3 ½ pence) worked under the supervision of two artist/designers (earning 8 ½ pence per day) on three counterpanes for beds for the elaborate ceremonies following the birth of the Black Prince. They were engaged for a period of three months. The designs were broken down into elements and divided between groups of workers.

Mantle of Roger of Sicily

Mantle of Roger of Sicily. Applique silk and velvet.

The classic stitch used for opus anglicanum was split stitch in coloured silks which could define the images on the design. It was coupled with couching, often in gold. The ground was usually linen.  Opus tuetonicum – ecclesiastical embroideries produced in Northern Germany at this time, usually in convents, were often made as whitework and show a lack of means to purchase foreign silks. They are, nevertheless, equally skillful.

14th C Whitework

14th c Whitework Altar Cloth from Kloster Altenberg

Professional embroiderers formed themselves into guilds throughout Europe but unlike other guilds they left little documentary evidence during this time. The earliest set of regulations seems to have been approved in Paris in 1303 and involved about 200 masters and mistresses.  It seems likely that London supported a similar set of regulations and had a similar amount of professional embroiderers. In the later 14th and 15th centuries, it appears that conditions for embroiderers deteriorated – poor light, being just one complaint.

However little we know of the creators of such works of art, we have to be grateful to the popes, kings and wealthy nobility who encouraged this skill and who preserved these embroideries. Their legacy gives us a glimpse into the beauty of art in the medieval world.

References: Hali Magazine; “Medieval Craftsmen Embroiderers” by Kay Staniland. (British Museum Press); “Textile Collections of the World: volume II”

Excerpt from The Embroiderer

 Working well into the night, Dimitra embroidered a sash to present to the Sultan’s mother as a gift. Worked in gold, silver and silk thread on a fine silk ground, a row of three identical floral sprays bordered each end of the sash. Each complicated spray was held together by a stylized ribbon and between the foliage, nestled a pair of song birds sewn with such fineness that their very wings seemed in flight. It was the most exquisite piece that she had ever produced. The Valide Sultan and her ladies were captivated.

           ‘Hanim Efendi,’ exclaimed the Valide Sultan, ‘your fine hands create images that only Allah can express. Like a work of art, you dye your colours and spin your silks until they blossom in the spring, and as we see each flower unfurl, before us lies a meadow.’

            She gently ran her fingers over the embroidery.

           ‘Light and shade enhance the beauty of such composition that never before have all my senses become so aroused as when I touch your silken threads. I smell the fragrance of your roses and I hear the melodious song of the nightingale.’

Buy The Embroiderer

The Embroiderer
The Embroiderer is a beautifully written novel spanning the 19th and 20th centuries, set against the backdrop of the Greek War of Independence. It was published on 5th November 2014 and is available to buy in paperback and as an ebook.