What does a dragon look like?
Since I don't have any official information on the beautiful chasuble from the Diocesan Museum Freising, I am trying to find parallels with the help of my database. I've started with the figure of Saint Margaret. She is quite common in medieval embroidery, yet not too common. I was hoping to find a twin relatively easily. No such luck. Although I was able to collate 32 embroidered versions of Saint Margaret, they turned out to be remarkably diverse. And it quickly became clear that medieval people did not really know what a dragon looked like :). Renditions range from angry dogs to very elaborate dinosaurs. Still, there seems to be some regional agreement on what dragons look like. Let's explore!
First things first: why does Margaret have a pet dragon? Margaret refused to renounce her Christianity and was tortured. At one point, she was swallowed by a dragon. The cross she carried gave the poor beast a sore tummy and Margaret was spit out. The story does not tell whether the dragon lived happily ever after. Margaret did not. She was decapitated and became a martyr. In iconography, Margaret is often depicted with a dragon and/or with a cross.
My favourite depiction of Margaret can be found on the lappet of a Mitre held in the Rüstkammer, Dresden. My husband and I refer to it as 'the blue angry dog'. I think it is adorable. The interaction between Margaret and the blue angry dog makes me smile. And besides, the embroidery is stunning too!
As said, the depiction of the dragon is very diverse in medieval embroidery. However, the depiction is remarkably uniform in England. Still, no two dragons are exactly the same. But the overall depiction is quite uniform. This is likely due to the fact that most of the surviving pieces date to a relatively short period: AD 1280-1375. That's classic Opus anglicanum. I love the elegance of this snake-like dragon and the action-pose of Margaret.
I did find twin dragons on two pieces from Germany. It is a cute blue dragon sitting on Margaret's hand. Both renditions clearly had the same master copy. The embroideries belong to a whole corpus of embroideries that have relatively naive depictions of saints and biblical scenes. They often have a characteristic background of gold threads couched down in a 'sunny spiral' pattern. It is believed that these designs were possibly block-printed onto the linen and then embroidered.
Margaret's dragon would make a good study subject when you want to learn medieval embroidery. They come in all sorts and shapes and can be very elaborate. They can be easily turned into a lovely design on their own or with their 'owner' Margaret. My Journeyman Patrons have access to a Padlet with all 32 embroidered depictions of Margaret and her pet dragon. Next week, we'll dive into the Burden stitch again. A little discussion on Patreon left me puzzled :). I ran a few experiments and I'll share the results with you next week!
Progress on my orphrey background
Currently, I am mainly working on my orphrey background. I will be teaching this design at the Alpine Experience in June. For the past couple of years, I have always combined written instructions with video. This seems to work well for my students. However, as the apartment next door is being gutted and then put back together again, my stitching and recording are very dependent on when the workmen are quiet :). So, let's check in on my progress.
As you can see, the tiled floor is in, the wall with the window has been completed, the sky was added and the basis of cloth of gold with the diaper pattern is in. The cloth of gold needs some minor further embellishment. I was going to do that today, but alas, the workmen are plastering, and it sounds like they are standing right next to me :(. Let's aim for tomorrow!
The diaper pattern has been a terrific candidate for demonstrating goldwork embroidery at my local open-air museum Glentleiten. People were fascinated by the simplicity of it and the lovely effect achieved. I even managed to get people hands-on involved. Two young girls, aged 8 (!), plunged right in and happily stitched a row on my orphrey. In the beginning, they stabbed around a bit before they found the correct hole with their needle. But I kid you not, after about 5 stitches their hand-eye coordination caught up and it all went very smoothly. By the way, I am happy for interested people to work on my orphrey. They can't really break anything. And it is much more fun than when you stitch a mock-up row on the side somewhere. Equally, I don't believe in doodle cloths. But that's a different story :). Would you be happy for strangers to have a go at your embroidery project?
My orphrey background also contains a technique I had not tried before: Burden stitch over gold thread. It is used in the sky. I was familiar with Burden stitch but was a bit sceptical about the gold thread. When you are working the stitch it almost completely disappears below the silk. So, my thought was: "at least the texture is pretty". However, when the Burden stitched area catches the light it really glows! It never ceases the amaze me how little light, natural or artificial, goldwork embroidery needs to reveal its full potential.
Have you ever worked Burden stitch over a gold thread in any of your projects? Would you like to have a go? My Journeyman Patrons find handy PDF instructions on my Patreon page!
Earlier this year, the Diocesan Museum Freising opened its doors again after extensive remodelling. As it is not too far from where I live, I decided to check it out in case any medieval embroidery was on display. It turned out that they have a stunning chasuble with very high-end embroidery on it. Unfortunately, there were no captions in the museum. I emailed them and wrote an official letter. To no avail. They never answered. Frustrating as this is, it is unfortunately, a reality when it comes to European museums. Museums in the UK or the USA are usually very helpful. Museums in Europe usually do not even bother to answer, let alone host me for a research visit. This undoubtedly is the result of how museums were and are financed in the respective countries. And with the 'distance' between lay people and experts. Despite having a doctorate in archaeology, being a professional embroiderer and having studied medieval goldwork embroidery for a number of years, this does not always make me an expert :). So, let's see what we can find out on our own about this stunning piece of embroidery!
The chasuble cross on the back shows an interesting scene at the top: the mystical marriage of Saint Catherine. As far as I am aware, this is the only embroidered version of this particular episode. There are more embroidered scenes of the life of Catherine, but this one seems unique. The scene is flanked by two angles. One playing the harp and the other a lute. Below the central scene, Saint Margaret is depicted with the dragon. The beast playfully bites into her standard. The Saint at the bottom is Dorothea with her basket of flowers. Catherine, Margaret and Dorothea are known as the virgines capitales. As you can see, the orphrey has been cut at the top and at the bottom. Furthermore, we cannot see the front of the chasuble which might also have an orphrey. But the fact that the virgines capitales are usually four saints gives us an idea of what is missing: Saint Barbara with the tower. A further likely candidate is Mary Magdalene.
As said, the embroidery is very high-end. The silk-shading is very finely executed. Both in the actual shading and in the regularity of the stitches. There's no or nue, which gives us our first hint of where the orphrey was made. Or nue is typically something of northwestern Europe (the Low Countries and Northern France) and Southern Europe. It was not really used in England or in Central Europe. As the stitching is very high-end and England does not seem to produce outstanding medieval embroideries after the heyday of Opus anglicanum, we can rule out England as the place of origin. This leaves Central Europe as the most likely candidate.
The diaper pattern used in the background of all three sections of the orphrey is unusual too. I know of only one other instance where this pattern has been used: on an Italian orphrey with Bartholomew the Apostle in the Indianapolis Museum of Arts. Those orphreys are clearly Italian and date to AD 1500-1550. The orphreys on the chasuble from Freising are clearly not Italian. And the strong red couching stitches also support this (yellow is preferred in Italy).
Another important characteristic of the embroidery on this orphrey is the padding. Especially the arches above the central scene and above Saint Margaret are very highly padded. It would not surprise me if a little bit of wood is hiding in the most-padded parts. In contrast, the figures and the rest of the scenes show very little padding.
There's a relatively short period in the history of Central European goldwork when voluminous padding techniques (think stumpwork) really take off. Pieces belonging to this form of embroidery date from about AD 1400 until 1600 (some have a really wide date range assigned to them). However, when the dates are plotted for the 47 pieces in my database, we see that they cluster on either side of AD 1500. I, therefore, think that the orphreys on the Freising chasuble probably date between AD 1475 and AD 1525.
It is thus probably safe to say that the beautiful orphrey on the Freising chasuble was made somewhere in Central Europe around the turn of the 16th century. If you would like to see more pictures of this piece, please consider becoming a Journeyman Patron. As a Journeyman Patron you'll have instant access to a further 12 pictures of this piece. The monthly support of my Patrons enables me to keep this website running!
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