As the coming month is going to be rather full of exciting things, I'll take a blogging break. First, my parents are coming to visit. And then, I'll be preparing for my visit to the first International Festival of Gold Embroidery and Jewelery in Bukhara, Uzbekistan. I still can't quite believe that I have been selected to attend. It will be such a privilege to meet all these talented goldwork embroiderers from all over the world! I will be able to see the tools and techniques all these people are using. So far, I know that Alison Cole and Jo Dixey are also attending. It will be lovely to meet them for the first time. You will read all about it in my next blog post on Monday 30th of May. But before I'll take a break, there are some other exciting tidbits that I want to share with you!
FiberTalk, the twice-weekly podcast for people who stab ground cloth with a needle, is having its 500th (!) show on the 29th of May. The jury is still out on the exact length of that 500th show :). But, as it starts at a for Europeans convenient time (2 p.m. Eastern, I believe), I have been asked to be a guest. So do put that date in your diary if you would like to hear me talk about medieval goldwork and possibly Uzbekistan. And for those who missed it: my 4th podcast with Gary and Beth which was released during the Easter weekend. Click the link and you can listen to that podcast directly on the FiberTalk website. Don't forget to subscribe to the FiberTalk podcast through the podcast app of your choice (I use Podbean).
This coming Sunday (1st of May), I'll be demonstrating goldwork embroidery at the Openair Museum Glentleiten. Do stop by for a chat on medieval or nue! And don't forget to sign-up for my padded and unpadded diaper patterns workshop at the museum in July. Places are limited!
That's it for now. I'll be cleaning the house and mentally preparing for the many pieces of cake I'll be eating when my parents are here :).
Last week's beautiful Bohemian chasuble cross was a bit large to discuss in a single blog post. And it turned out to be even more interesting. So here is part II. On a personal note: I rarely display the crucifixion scene prominently on my blog. Just like the early Christians I see an execution. However, this particular crucifixion has such beautiful embroidery and such an interesting alteration story to tell that it would be a shame not to show it to you. And there is a mystery padding technique I hope you might be able to identify. But above all, it prominently displays my favourite biblical power woman: Miriam of Magdala. Unlike Yeshua's male companions, Miriam of Magdala did not cowardly flee but endured watching Yeshua's execution. Her grief of losing her best friend is beautifully captured in this Bohemian embroidery. As is often the case in Central Europe, Miriam kneels and embraces the wooden column of the cross. She is all alone. Emphasising the special bond between Yeshua and her. Not an adultress (that's an invention by Pope Gregory I and was revised by Pope Paul VI) but a primary witness of the life and death of Yeshua.
The very fine split stitch embroidery on the body of Yeshua has degraded to such an extent that the beautiful underdrawing has become visible. It is more than a simple line drawing and also shows shadows and many anatomical details. There is a red dye (probably madder) under the halo and on the beams of the cross (but avoiding the left arm). Clearly the work of a pro. The figure of Yeshua was worked as a slip and couched over the voided area of the sunny spiral background. You can see a gap between the top of the halo and that background. The halo has been elaborately padded with different shapes of parchment.
If you look closely, you can also spot some later repairs. There are newer silk stitches in the crown of thorns, the hair and around the outline of the cross. You can even spot some newer goldthread under the right arm (left side of the picture). Also, the crude couching stitches visible on the right (left side of the body) are not original.
And here is another detail. See the vertical line in the middle above the arm? That's a seam. Two different pieces of linen were joined here. The linen on the left is a bit finer than the linen on the right. It looks like a seam on both pieces was turned under and then the two pieces were slip stitched together. This seam was not visible when the embroidery was new. Because, if you look closely along the edge of the beam of the cross you can spot the remnants of a golden coloured fabric (probably silk). The order of work seems to have been to draw the cross on the linen background (pieced together from at least two pieces of linen) with ink and/or charcoal. Red paint was added to the beams of the cross. Then the golden background was stitched. Then the silk was appliqued over the beams of the cross and embroidered over (where the seam is, the silk of the beam lays on top of the spirals to straighten the beam and correct the line drawing). Then the figure was stitched to the background. Again, the red line along the beam and the blood splatters are later additions. The red of these later additions is much brighter than the original red silk used to edge the vertical beam (to the right of the halo).
And here is the figure of Miriam of Magdala. For the most part, she is worked as a slip too. However, to get the perspective right, the last part of her right forearm is worked directly on the linen background of the sunny spirals. It even looks like there is a partial sunny spiral below the silken split stitches. It seems the embroiderer changed the design when the slip was attached. The colours are a little off too and the stitching isn't as neat as that of the rest of the arm. What is going on here?
Here is another detail of the figure of Miriam of Magdala. As with the cross, there is a piece of green silk attached behind her halo. But something isn't quite right. The figure is appliqued onto the halo. The green silk is backed with a piece of coarse linen dyed a dark brown. It is not the same linen as seen behind the sunny spirals. The halo was thus not directly stitched onto the background linen on which the sunny spirals were stitched. And look at the gold thread. The gold thread in the halo (and that running along the seam of the headdress and the garment) is much shinier and hasn't oxidized in the same way as the gold thread of the sunny spirals. This is an indication that the thread in the halo is of a later date than that of the background. The thick crude white string at the top part of the halo would have been the padding for pearls. This again seems a later addition.
And what about the broad padded seam along the edge of the headdress? What is it? How was it made? It seems to be stitched on top of the fine split stitches and could thus be a later addition as well. Do you recognise the technique? If so, please leave a comment below!
And then there is her nose! When I first saw this, I was reminded of the parchment padded noses sometimes seen in Opus anglicanum (for instance: V&A 28A-1892). However, could it be that Miriam's nose was instead damaged at some point? The stitches are a little different and the colour of the silk seems a bit off too. The repair might account for the padded effect seen today.
So. What the flip is going on? Well, I think that this beautiful Bohemian embroidery was taken apart when the current chasuble (or possibly an older predecessor with the same cut) was constructed. You see, when the original chasuble cross was stitched around AD 1380 the form of the chasuble it would have been appliqued onto was very different. It was much larger. Chasubles before the 13th-century were voluminous bell chasubles. Due to changes in the liturgy (elevation of the host) the priest needed more arm room and the chasuble became increasingly smaller. This eventually lead to the minimalist violin case shape of this 19th-century chasuble. This meant that older embroideries were too large and needed to be adapted. Often, they were simply cut off with little regard for the embroidered scenes.
Not so in this case. It seems that the figures were carefully taken off the sunny spiral background. The crucifixion cross was probably remodelled (cross beams and column shortened) and the silk was added. Miriam was given a new halo. She would have originally sat further down the column of the cross. When she had to be moved up, she either never had a halo or the halo could not be moved because it was part of the background (now possibly beneath her clothes). Due to the now shortened 'canvas' the pelican was moved down and now sits almost on top of Yeshua's halo. The figure of Yeshua is probably not quite in its original place either. A patch of newer gold thread next to his feet (big toe right foot) shows that originally something else was going on here. Maybe all the additional silk embroidery dates from this major remodelling too. All in all, it shows that this beautiful embroidery was valued and got a second lease of life.
Stolleis, K., 2001. Messgewänder aus deutschen Kirchenschätzen vom Mittelalter bis zur Gegenwart. Regensburg, Schnell & Steiner.
Wenzel, K., 2016. Görlitzer Kasel. In: J. Fajt & M. Hörsch (eds.), Kaiser Karl IV, 1316-2016. Ausstellungskatalog. Nationalgalerie in Prag, p. 505-508.
A couple of weeks ago, I was fortunate to visit the Museum in Görlitz to study their medieval goldwork embroidery. You can read my first blog article on a 15th-century chasuble with scenes from the Life of Mary here. Today we will have a look at a very special chasuble cross made at the end of the 14th-century in a royal workshop in Bohemia. Görlitz belonged to the kingdom of Bohemia during this time. It was an important trading city that controlled the trade with woad and woollen cloth. No wonder such a high-quality chasuble cross has survived in the treasury of Saint Peter's church. Bohemian goldwork embroidery flourished in the late 14th- and early 15th-century under the patronage of the Bohemian kings. They were of the House of Luxembourg. Bohemian embroidery is quite distinctive and once you know what it looks like you can easily link other pieces. Not many pieces have survived and I don't think all of them have been published in a cohesive overview. The chasuble cross in the Museum in Görlitz is one of the lesser-known pieces.
The red chasuble the Bohemian cross is mounted on is of a younger date (as is the embroidered cross mounted on the front). This shows that this piece of embroidery was still highly valued hundreds of years after it was originally made. Although the embroidered design is a classical one, I don't think that there is another Crucifixion scene with Mary Magdalene embracing the cross and with a pelican's nest above the cross within the corpus of Bohemian embroidery.
Now let's have a detailed look at the embroidery by picking (plucking?) the pelican apart. The pelican and her three young are stitched in coloured silks. The split stitches used are very fine and follow the contours of the birds. Sounds familiar, doesn't it? This is a very similar technique as seen in contemporary Opus anglicanum. However, the background consists of these golden spirals that have been couched down with normal surface couching. Underside couching is absent from Bohemian embroidery. Another peculiarity of at least some of the Bohemian embroideries seems to be that these background patterns, be them spirals or diaper, are drawn onto the fabric. In this case, each spiral with its 'rays' has been individually drawn onto the fabric.
Here you can see that the embroidery was worked onto two layers of linen: a very fine linen (c. 53 ct) backed by a coarser linen. Another piece of linen seen at the bottom left is from a later repair. The pelican and nest were worked as a slip and then sewn onto the chasuble cross.
Here you see the later repair as a whole. Aparently, the area between the adult bird and the chicks had completely worn away at some point. It was repaired with a piece of linen and then embroidered over. The stitches are much larger and the red silk is of a different colour than the original red silk used (see blood splatters on the head of the chick on the left).
And then there is the nest. It is padded with small strips of parchment. The gold threads are couched on either side of each strip in a technique known as gimped couching. By changing both the direction of the parchment strips and the gold threads, you get the illusion of a woven nest. When you look carefully, you can sometimes spot the little holes in the strips of parchment that were used to sew them onto the linen background fabric. I am also wondering what the dark-yellow substance is on the parchment. Is it paint so that the stark white colour of the parchment would not shine through? Or is it yellowed glue? This would probably help to fixate the gold threads whilst you are working.
As far as I know, none of the art historians who studied the Bohemian embroideries has ever noticed the similarities with Opus anglicanum. Although underside couching is absent from the Bohemian pieces, the very fine split stitch following the contours of the figures is indeed very similar. Are there any links between Bohemia and England at the end of the 14th- and the start of the 15th-century? Yes. The House of Luxembourg. King Richard II was married to Anne of Bohemia (AD 1366-1394) in AD 1382. Anne was a sister of Holy Roman Emperor Sigismund of Luxembourg (1368-1437), who was also King of Bohemia and Hungary. Prior to her marriage, she lived in Prague castle. In addition, the mother-in-law of Henry IV was Jacquetta of Luxembourg (AD 1415/16-1472). Her family had been living in England for a couple of generations. She was also a fourth cousin twice removed from Sigismund of Luxembourg. As the earliest preserved pieces made in England are about 100 years older (MET 17.190.186) than the earliest preserved pieces of Bohemian embroidery (V&A 1375-1864), it seems possible that the technique travelled from England to Bohemia in the second half of the 14th-century. Clearly, additional research is necessary to shed some more light on this tantalizing possibility.
Browne, C., Davies, G., Michael, M.A. (Eds.), 2016. English Medieval Embroidery: Opus Anglicanum. Yale University Press, New Haven.
Wetter, E., 1999. Böhmische Bildstickerei um 1400. Die Stiftungen in Trient, Brandenburg und Danzig. Gebr. Mann Verlag, Berlin.
Duh! Of course, you can. After all, most of us have adequate heating and lighting in our modern homes. But what happens when that is not around? With the return of winter here in the Alps coinciding with the start of the museum season, the above question became suddenly relevant. As the climate is not very warm in Northern Europe, you do wonder if the production of high-quality goldwork orphreys was a year-round activity in the late medieval period. In addition, the amount of daylight would have been another prohibiting factor. The regulations of the embroiderers of Paris from AD 1292 expressly forbid stitching by candlelight. This is one of the reasons why I wanted to become a volunteer at the Glentleiten Open Air Museum. So let me tell you a bit more about the building I am working in, the embroidery I am working on and my clothing plans for the future.
Although we are blessed with a lot of old stuff here in Europe, you will probably not find a preserved home from the 1500-1550s complete with its original furniture. Although Glentleiten has houses built in 1482, 1508 and 1555, these have all been 'dressed' according to a much later date. Remember, these were people's homes until quite recently! And naturally many updates happened during the past 500 years. So, I am using a house built in 1637/38, but with a reconstructed interior from 1700. Still at least 150 years too young, but it will need to do. The house is named after one of the families that used to live there: Zehentmaier. The 'maier' bit of the name hints at the fact that these were farmers and the building was indeed used as a farm. Today, the ground floor houses the modern pottery, the old living room (which I use) and the old kitchen (interestingly situated in the hallway). There is also an upstairs with additional small rooms.
The above picture shows you the reconstructed kitchen. Cooking was done on an open fire. There is no real chimney. A fire-proof hood collects the smoke and leads it out through the attic and out into the open. Behind the modern iron gate in the middle of the picture, is the old living room (it can be closed off from the kitchen by a wooden door). You can see one of the small glazed windows at the far end. Just at the left rim of this picture is the entrance door. And there is a further entrance door on the right (not visible in this picture). The kitchen literally occupies part of the hallway and could easily be opened up by opening the doors. This undoubtedly helped with the fumes from the open fire. As you can see, it is all very basic and would probably not differ much from how many people lived in 1500-1550 (the first half of the 16th-century).
Here you see a picture of the old living room. It has four small glazed windows (there is another one just outside the picture on the left). Back in the first half of the 16th-century, there would likely not have been glass. They would either have been open to the elements (with shutters) or they would have had oiled parchment as a covering. This produces a milky light. On a bright day, the light in the corner where the table stands, is fine for doing goldwork embroidery. However, what you can't see in this picture: the wall is made of wooden planks. The wooden planks have gaps... You are protected from the worst of the elements, but that is it. You cannot stitch here when the temperatures drop.
And this is me, last November, in my current stitching spot: in front of the oven. When the museum knows that I am coming, they fire her up three days (!) in advance. She is not fired through the night because of the danger of fire breaking out (remember: there is no real chimney). Yesterday, the outside temperature was quite a bit lower than it was in November. When you come into the room, it feels quite nice. However, you start to cool out after about 30 minutes and you have a hard time getting warm again. By about three o'clock, you are getting comfortable again. The oven has then been burning for hours and it is about the warmest outside too. So, if you would be able to safely fire her through the night, you could embroider more comfortably. For the record: I was wearing jeans over thick tights, thick woollen socks, my walking boots, two t-shirts, a woollen Norwegian cardigan and a large woollen shawl! And underwear for those who wonder. At the moment, I am having a set of medieval replica clothes made and it will be interesting to see how they compare. By the way: I am still feeling quite stiff from having worked for a couple of hours in this quite cool environment.
But then there is the small, but somewhat important issue of lighting. The above picture is taken with flash. Back in November with its gloomy light, I had to use two lamps to work and be able to show visitors what I am doing. That's how gloomy the light can be in this room. This was definitely not the spot where an embroiderer could have been working in the first half of the 16th-century. Could the embroiderer have alternated between the spot in front of the window and then walk over to the oven to warm up? Theoretically, yes. However, for good embroidery, you need to get into a rhythm. That would have been difficult as you cool out quite quickly and you tend to warm up slowly.
So, what was the solution? Where and when did people embroider back in the late medieval period? There is a lovely resource that depicts retired medieval craftsman going about their business: Die Hausbücher der Nürenberger Zwölfbrüderstiftungen. And although there is no medieval embroiderer depicted, there are other textile related crafts that probably give a good indication of how a contemporary embroiderer would have worked. Spoiler alert: it is going to be drafty.
- Heinrich Sibenburger, the cloth shearer, entered the almshouse in 1555. Heinrich works in front of an open window.
- a cloth maker who works outside.
- as does the dyer.
- A weaver from the early 15th-century, there is only one 'glazed' window, the rest is open and he seems bare-legged.
- Another cloth shearer with small open windows in the background.
- This person combs wool in a rather open workshop around 1500.
- Otto is sitting outside in the late 15th-century to make cords.
- Hans is clearly struggling to see the sewing on the purse he is making in the early 16th-century.
- At around the same time, another Hans works his purses in the door opening.
It is unfortunate that the older depictions in the Hausbücher don't show any of the architecture. Pictures from after the middle of the 16th-century show increasingly larger glazed windows.
Lots of very interested visitors and the cold made for very little progress on the or nue figure of St Nicholas. Are my experiences and observations comparable to that of a medieval embroiderer? To a certain extent. My medieval counterpart was likely a man. Typically, men have more muscle tissue than women do and this wonderful stuff generates heat. That's why men in general have fewer issues with being cold than women do.
Were medieval people just made of hardier stock than me? Yup. As a Westerner born in the last quarter of the 20th-century, I have had central heating at my disposal for most of my life (with a brief interruption when I was living in England: I was cold all the time. Older night-storage heaters are a crime against humanity.). And although we do not heat excessively, but put on a cardigan instead, I do not doubt that it is much more comfortable than it was in the medieval period.
Periodically, I will update you on my work in Glentleiten. It will be particularly interesting to see how my replica clothing holds up. And at what point I can actually move into the doorway or even completely outside with my stitching. Do come by to visit me if you can! You can find all the future data here. If you would like to learn medieval goldwork yourself in the contemporary surroundings of Glentleiten, have a look at last week's blog post. You don't need experience in goldwork embroidery to attend this two-day workshop. You do need to be able to thread a needle and a little general embroidery experience won't hurt (cross-stitch is fine!). Hope to see many of you at Glentleiten this year!
Da die Covid-Beschränkungen immer mehr aufgehoben werden, ist es an der Zeit, wieder persönlich zu unterrichten! Aber nicht mehr in meinem Atelier zu Hause. Da zur Zeit immer wieder Hygienekonzepte vorgeschrieben werden, die sich jederzeit ändern können, fühle ich mich sicherer, wenn ich meine Stickkurse außerhalb anbiete. Und zwar im wunderschönen Freilichtmuseum Glentleiten. Spätmittelalterliche Goldstickerei zu erlernen und gleichzeitig Originalgebäude aus der gleichen Zeit besichtigen zu können, ist etwas ganz Besonderes. Zeitreisen vom Feinsten! Der zweitägige Workshop findet am Samstag und Sonntag, den 9. und 10. Juli 2022 statt. Wir beginnen jeden Tag um 10:00 Uhr und der Workshop geht bis 16:00 Uhr. Wir werden gegen 12:30 Uhr eine Mittagspause einlegen. Es gibt mehrere Orte im Museum, an denen Sie ein schönes Mittagessen bekommen oder Sie können Ihr eigenes mitbringen. Die maximale Anzahl der TeilnehmerInnen wird 10 sein, da ich jeden einzelnen von Ihnen gerne genau im Auge behalte :). Das Museum selbst ist jeden Tag bis 18:00 Uhr geöffnet, so dass Sie genügend Zeit haben, durch den schönen Park zu schlendern und die herrliche Aussicht zu genießen.
Sie werden ein kleines Mustertuch mit unterlegten und flachen geometrischen Mustern in Anlegetechnik sticken. Diese Sticktechniken wurden im späten Mittelalter verwendet für die Hintergründe von, und den Rahmen um, den Aurifries. Sie werden Seide, silbervergoldete Fäden und Süßwasserperlen verwenden. Alles Materialien die den ursprünglichen mittelalterlichen Materialien nahe kommen. Da es mir wichtig ist, dass Sie professionell und technisch einwandfrei zu sticken lernen, werden Sie mit einem traditionellen Stickrahmen ausgestattet. Da zwei Tage wahrscheinlich nicht ausreichen um das Mustertuch komplett fertigzustellen, haben Sie danach Zugriff auf Online-Anleitungsvideos.
Die Workshopgebühr beträgt €320 und beinhaltet:
- zwei Tage Unterricht
- Handout mit historischem Hintergrund
- alle Stickmaterialien: Goldfäden, Seide, Leinennähgarn, Polsterfaden, Süßwasserperlen, Nadeln und 18F/cm Leinen.
- ein traditioneller Stickrahmen (Köperband 30 cm)
- die Verwendung eines Lowery-Arbeitsständers und einer Lupenlampe während des Unterrichts.
Um einen der 10 verfügbaren Plätze zu buchen, wenden Sie sich bitte an das Museum. Die kümmern sich um die Buchungen.
English: As Covid restrictions are being lifted more and more, it is time to start teaching in person again! No longer in my studio at home, though. As hygiene concepts might need to be in place which then might change suddenly again, I feel safer by offering one on location. And what a location that is: Open Air Museum Glentleiten. Stitching late medieval goldwork embroidery whilst being able to visit original buildings from the same time period is very special indeed. Time-travelling at its finest! The two-day workshop runs on Saturday and Sunday the 9th and 10th of July 2022. We will start each day at 10:00h and the workshop will run until 16:00h. We will break for lunch around 12:30h. There are several places within the museum where you can get a nice lunch or you can bring your own. The maximum number of students will be 10 as I like to keep a close eye on each and everyone of you :). The museum itself is open until 18:00h each day so you will have plenty of time to stroll through the beautiful park and enjoy the magnificent views.
You will be stitching a small sampler of padded and unpadded diaper patterns. These goldwork techniques were in use in the late Middle Ages to create the backgrounds of, and frames around, the orphreys. You will use silk, silver-gilt threads and fresh-water pearls; all materials which come close to the original medieval materials. As it is important to me that you learn to stitch in a professional and technically sound way, you will be equipped with a traditional slate frame and learn how to dress it. As two days are probably not enough stitching time to finish the whole sampler, you will have access to online instruction videos afterwards.
The workshop fee will be €320 and includes:
- two days of tuition
- online instruction videos
- handout with historical background
- all embroidery materials: gold threads, silks, linen sewing thread, padding thread, fresh-water pearls, needles & 46 ct embroidery linen.
- a traditional slate frame (webbing 30 cm)
- the use of a Lowery workstand and a magnifier lamp whilst in class
To book one of the 10 available spots, please contact the museum. They handle the bookings.
Two weeks ago, I spent a very enjoyable day in the storeroom and the permanent exhibition of the cultural history museum in Görlitz, Germany. Curator Kai Wenzel facilitated my visit and together with my husband, we studied the five medieval embroideries kept at the museum. Görlitz lies in the historical region of Upper Lusatia and is bordered by the historical regions of Silesia and Bohemia. Today, these historical regions are divided up between Germany, Poland and the Czech Republic. Most of the literature concerning medieval embroidery from these regions is a little older and not available in English. There is no comprehensive overview of all the medieval embroidery that has survived in modern museum collections and church parishes. Alfred Schellenberg published some preliminary overviews of what he called 'Silesian' embroidery in the late 1920s. His publications first drew my attention to this group of embroideries. As the map of Europe has changed quite a bit in this region after the Second World War, tracking the embroideries from his publications is a bit of a puzzle. Some are in Görlitz, others in several museums in Poland. By and by, I will try to track them all and arrange visits. Today, I'll introduce you to a chasuble cross that you can go see for yourself as it is displayed in the permanent exhibition of the cultural history museum in Görlitz.
Meet 15th-century chasuble cross 61-03b on loan from the Evangelische Innenstadtgemeinde Görlitz. The chasuble was originally kept at the Peter and Paul church in Görlitz. As Martin Luther was not opposed to keeping using these catholic vestments after the reformation, this particular example is quite worn. Despite its worn state, it was transferred onto this newer chasuble in the 19th-century. This reminds us that these pieces were still being valued hundreds of years after they were originally made. To a modern viewer, their worn state makes them perhaps less worthy of display and proper research. Especially as there are contemporary paintings and sculptures which have survived in a much better state. These are often seen as more beautiful and they appeal to a larger audience. However, look closer and there is a lot to be discovered. This was once a beautiful and high-quality piece of embroidery.
When you are a regular reader of this blog you might have a sneaky suspicion that you have seen a very similar chasuble cross before. Or even chasuble crosses. Well spotted! The scenes on this chasuble cross went viral in the 15th-century. They convey the story of Mary and baby Jesus in simple, easily recognisable pictures. The story reads like a comic book and usually starts with the angel telling Mary that she will be with child (Annunciation), pregnant Mary meets her pregnant cousin Elisabeth (Visitation), baby Jesus lies in the manger with Mary, Joseph and the as and oxen in attendance (Nativity), the Three Kings visit Mary and baby Jesus (Adoration of the Magi), circumcision of baby Jesus & presentation at the temple of baby Jesus. Depending on the space on the chasuble or local preferences other scenes could be added (Flight into Egypt, Massacre of the innocents, Jesus amongst the Doctors).
Because these embroidered scenes are so generic, art historians can only broadly date and locate them on stylistic grounds. However, I have a feeling that when we look closely at the used embroidery techniques, we might be able to group some of these embroideries together. These groups might then represent different dates, geographical locations or even stitchers and workshops. The art historians can then try to argue which of these it is based on comparisons with other, better dated and located art forms.
So let's start with this chasuble cross. Let's dissect the main scene with the Nativity. How many different embroidery techniques can you spot?
- background and figures are worked in one go (versus figures are stitched separately and appliqued onto a separate background) this seems to be a characteristic that might zoom in on the dating of these pieces.
- there's padded basketweave couching in the frame that goes partly around the scene. Gold threads (likely silver-gilt membrane with a white linen core) alternate with blue and pink coloured silk to form triangles. The string used for the padding has a strong Z-twist. This particular treatment of the frame around the orphrey is probably one of the characteristics on which basis groups of similar embroideries might be formed.
- the now heavily corroded and worn golden background shows a very common couching pattern in red silk: closed basket weave (the little 'diamond' formed inside the 'weave' is filled with additional couching stitches). Although the couching pattern is the same for all orphreys, the silk used is yellow/white for the scene with the Annunciation and in the Visitation both this yellow/white and red are being used. The reason for the use of different colours and even two colours in one scene is not really apparent. It is seen in other embroideries too and might simply be the result of an embroiderer running out of a colour. It might also be that scenes like these were made in advance and then the customer could pick and choose the ones wanted. Note: I cannot prove that each scene was worked separately as the back of the embroidery cannot be inspected. The use of a diaper pattern instead of the 'sunny spirals' might also be a characteristic that is specific for the area of Upper Lusatia/Silesia.
- there is gimped couching on the tracery of the architecture above the figures and on elements of the stable behind Mary.
- the rim of Mary's halo, the seam of her cloak, the rim of the banner the angel is holding and the rim of Jesus' halo seem to be made from a piece of string that has been wrapped with a gold thread. This wrapped string is then couched down with a silken thread at regular intervals. This is another technique that likely groups some of these embroideries together.
- Mary's cloak and Jesus's halo are stitched with two parallel gold threads couched down with silk in a bricking pattern. The design drawing underneath and fragments of silk present hint at further silken details once being present on top of the gold threads. This 'pseudo or nue' seems to be characteristic of 'German' embroideries.
- the manger is stitched in burden stitch over a single gold thread.
- some elements of Mary's and Joseph's clothing have been edged with two parallel gold threads. These seem to have been couched down at regular intervals with a twisted thread (possibly linen).
- Mary's halo is filled with laid flat silk. The silk has been couched down with a single gold thread which has been couched down with the same silk.
- the stable roof has received similar treatment, but in this case, two gold threads have been loosely twisted and then couched down with silk forming a zig-zag.
- the same twisted thread can be found around the wings of the angel and along the tracery of the architecture.
- although most of the silken stitches in the clothing and the fleshy parts of the figures has fallen out, it probably was some sort of long-and-short stitch with flat, untwisted silk.
- the triangles above the tracery of the architecture are filled in with laid flat silk and couched down with a trellis of the same silk. There seems to have been an attempt at shading in the laid parts.
- the round key-stone in the middle is made of silk and gold thread, but it is difficult to see what is going on exactly. The silk might be radial satin stitch which was then covered with parallel gold threads.
- the grassy background is made of laid untwisted flat silk in different shades of green. On top, small flowers were stitched with coloured silks and gold thread. The whole silk embroidery was then couched down with a trellis made with a twisted thread (probably linen).
- the hair of the angel and Jesus is made of an over-twisted thread (linen?).
- the only other technique present on the chasuble cross is an appliqued piece of silk which forms the headdress of the Mohel (the Jewish cleric responsible for the circumcision).
Note: the very fine horizontally spanned threads you might spot in the silken areas are modern conservation threads.
If you spot anything else or have corrections on the above, please let me know!
When I was looking at this piece in the museum, I exclaimed that it was one of these 'Bridget of Sweden' ones again. My husband contested as he was looking for the typical candle in Joseph's hand in the Nativity scene (our Joseph holds a staff; very common too). When I then started to search for pictures of other pieces on my laptop, I found a very similar chasuble cross in the Diocesan Museum of Bressanone in Italy (check out their virtual tour of the exhibition; also available in English and German!). This chasuble cross has instead of the scene with the Adoration of the Magi, the scene with the Flight into Egypt. Whilst the compositions are identical, the embroidery techniques used may differ. How did this piece end up in Northern Italy? Was it also locally made? This would mean that the geographical area in which identical embroideries were made in the 15th-century was much larger. Were embroideries produced in Lusatia/Silesia export products that were traded to Northern Italy? Or was the piece in Italy acquired through an antiquity dealer who perhaps sold it as an Italian embroidery? Kai Wenzel, the curator from the museum in Görlitz, is going to contact his colleague in Bressanone to see if they have more information on their piece. I'll keep you updated on this!
Schellenberg, A., 1927. Schlesische Textilkunst auf der Ausstellung Breslau-Scheitnig 1927. Der Cicerone 19, 477–484.
Schellenberg, A., 1928. Mittelalterliche Messgewänder in Schlesien. Jahrbuch des schlesischen Museums für Kunstgewerbe und Altertümer 9, 79–94.
During my research into medieval goldwork embroidery, I came across a cope held in the Onze-Lieve-Vrouwe Bezoeking church in Lissewege, Belgium. Although the beautiful cope hood was made in 1954 by the famous Belgian company Grosse of Brugges, the rest of the embroidery is much older. The literature dates the cope around AD 1500 and the online catalogue even as late as AD 1501-1600! This seems much too late to me. I have a suspicion that the cope is a composite piece. Embroideries from one or more vestments were combined into this new cope. Let me argue my case. For copyright reasons, I cannot incorporate pictures of the cope into my blog. Please click here for the online catalogue. You can change the language to English, French or Dutch. If you scroll down, you can see all the available pictures for this object. You can even download them (and zoom in even more) for private research!
Firstly, if we look at the embroidery of the orphreys on either side of the front opening we see that the goldwork embroidery is executed in underside couching. Although the goldwork embroidery is badly damaged it is clearly underside couching. When I pull all the underside couched embroidery from my database of nearly 1500 medieval embroideries it becomes clear that the bulk of underside couched embroidery dates to the second half of the 12th-century until the first half of the 15th-century. The Belgian cope is dated to the (beginning) of the 16th-century and thus seems too late.
If you look at the detailed pictures in the online catalogue, you'll see that the saintly figures of the orphreys on either side of the cope's opening have been cut out of the original fabric. They were subsequently appliqued onto the current red velvet and the seams were covered with a piece of twist (note the long linen? stitches that hold it all in place). Originally, these saintly figures were stitched onto linen. My database contains 68 pieces for which the base fabric of the underside couching is one or two layers of linen. These pieces seem to concentrate on the time period from the second half of the 13th-century until the first half of the 15th-century. We've narrowed the time period by about a century.
When I saw the embroidery on the orphreys for the first time, they reminded me of the embroidery on the Clare chasuble and that on the Vatican Cope. Both date to the last quarter of the 13th-century. It also has some similarities with the figures on the Syon cope from the first quarter of the 14th-century. The figure of Mary with a lily in one outstretched hand and baby Jesus standing on her lap is very similar to the one seen on the Jesse cope. Also dating to the first quarter of the 14th-century. A date for the Belgian orphreys somewhere between the last quarter of the 13th and the first quarter of the 14th-century seems to be more likely.
Just a note of warning: the silk embroidery in these figures is not all original. Just like the goldwork embroidery, the silk embroidery is quite damaged. And whilst the later embroiderers had probably no idea how to repair underside couching, they did know how to silk shade. You can clearly see the difference in the silk shaded areas (thicker silk also) and the original minutely split stitched areas. When the figures were origianlly made, their embroidery was of the highest quality!
But there is more embroidery on this cope! The whole 'body' of the cope is 'powdered' with angels, double-headed eagles, fleur-de-lys and a large depiction of the coronation of the Virgin. This is not your classical Opus anglicanum. The goldwork embroidery is executed in normal surface couching and the silk embroidery is executed in vertical silk shading (also known as tapestry shading). These kinds of embroideries are of later date than the 'true' Opus anglicanum orphreys. From the sparse mentions in the literature, it becomes clear that these appliques were mass-produced in embroidery workshops in England and then traded within England and to Continental Europe. Literature from Continental Europe also states that it is likely that these appliques in the 'English style' were also produced locally. As these embroideries are generally considered inferior to 'true' Opus anglicanum, they have so far not gotten the attention they deserve. Their development and therefore their dating is poorly understood.
That's all for today. I hope you enjoyed the embroidery on the Belgian cope as much as I did! This piece seems to be unknown in the English-speaking embroidery scene. As I have been invited to study some chasubles in a museum in Görlitz, the next blog will be published on the 21st of March.
Browne, C., Davies, G., Michael, M.A. (Eds.), 2016. English Medieval Embroidery: Opus Anglicanum. Yale University Press, New Haven.
Versyp, J., 1955. "Engels" borduurwerk in het Noorden van Westvlaanderen. Artes Textiles II, 28–33.
Last week, we discovered that the use of gummy silk in medieval silk embroidery is probably not very likely. The string-like nature of the gummy fibres and its inability to 'spread' makes it an unlikely candidate for long-and-short stitch or for or nue. Today, I would like to explore another important part of medieval goldwork embroidery: couching over padding. You'll sometimes find that the silken thread used for this is described as 'slightly thicker/stronger' than the other silken threads used in the same piece. As de-gummed silk is rather slippery, using it in couching down gold threads over padding isn't easy. You just can't maintain the necessary tension when using a single couching stitch. One way around this is to use two stitches on top of each other. However, the 'coarser' nature of the gummy silk would probably do the trick too. In addition, the gum lets the silk look fatter. Let's explore!
For this experiment, I laid a simple foundation of cotton threads. It is rare that the nature of the padding threads is named in the literature, but cotton padding was definitely used in some Italian embroideries in the later medieval period (for instance the 14th-century panels held at the Metropolitan Museum of Art 58.139, 1975.1.1781, 60.148.1, 60.148.2, 60.148.3, 60.148.4, 60.148.5, 61.31 & 64.27.18). With the padding in place, I proceeded with a simple basket weave using a double passing thread. This pattern is commonly seen as a frame around late medieval orphreys from the Netherlands (for instance ABM t2109).
As I had expected, the gummy silks worked very well. You can tension your couching stitch and lock your gold threads in place with a single stitch. The couching stitch does not 'spring back up'. Stitching is quick and efficient. In the above picture, you'll see that the completely de-gummed silk (lightest colour) was unable to hold the gold threads down. This has resulted in a less crisp couching pattern (very difficult to photograph, but clearly visible with the naked eye).
Let's see what the couching stitches look like up close. Above is a picture with couching stitches made with gummy silk (left, first 6 rows) and partly de-gummed silk (right).
And here is a picture with the de-gummed silk on the left (lighter colour) and a waxed 2-ply Chinese flat silk on the right. Simply lightly waxing the silk works similarly to using gummed silk.
How do these modern samples compare to medieval embroidery? It all looks incredibly similar :). As you get the same result when you wax your silk thread lightly, I have a feeling that this is the way our medieval embroiderers went. Instead of having two different types of silk in stock with the added difficulty of colour matching, I think they just used beeswax. The above pictures prove that detecting either gum or beeswax in medieval embroideries can probably not be done without chemical analysis. Thanks to Dr Katrin Kania I was able to test the idea of gummed silk in medieval embroidery. I can now back up my arguments in future discussions of the topic with some hands-on experience!
Last week, Dr Katrin Kania, a fellow archaeologist and medieval textiles researcher, posted an intriguing article on her blog on gummy silk. In it, she mentioned a conversation she had had in the past with a conservator who had stated that medieval silk had a much firmer structure. This firmer structure probably has to do with the fact that this silk was only partly de-gummed (i.e. cleaned of silkworm spittle, the stuff that glues the silk threads together to form the cocoon). In contrast, the Chinese flat silk I like to use for my medieval embroideries is completely de-gummed. This results in a soft thread with a very high sheen. As I love silk and anything medieval, the combination of the two sounded like a real treat. In addition, questions on silk gum had also come up with my students. So, I ordered a spool of gummed silk from Katrin to see the stuff for myself. When it arrived, Katrin had kindly included some samples of the silk experiments she talked about in her blog. Time for me to test these in some simple stitching experiments!
First things first. I started by taking macro-pictures of all the silk threads. When you compare the silk samples provided by Katrin with the Chinese flat silk, you'll see that Katrin's samples are all more twisted. Such threads are not ideal for for instance silk shading. With silk shading, you try to achieve a smooth surface for maximal sheen and optimal blending of colours. Additionally, the silks that still have gum in them are very stiff/stringy and don't feel like silk at all. When used in embroidery, they would not naturally 'spread' as embroidery silk does. This would create bumps when using in or nue. So, I don't think that gummed or partly de-gummed silk threads were used in the making of medieval orphreys. To illustrate this further, I have stitched a few samples.
Here you see the four samples I have stitched using simple long-and-short stitch. From left to right: gummed silk, partly de-gummed silk, de-gummed silk and Chinese flat silk. Although very different in thickness, the de-gummed silk and the Chinese flat silk performed similarly. The thicker de-gummed silk from Katrin has just a little more twist than I would like. The two silks that still have gum on them were unsuitable for long-and-short stitch, just as I predicted. As the thread does not 'spread' it was difficult to cover the ground fabric completely. The surface looks very bumpy and unruly.
I've also done some simple couching with a left-over piece of passing thread. Again, the de-gummed silk and the Chinese flat silk performed best. They produced uniform couching stitches. The silk with gum produced couching stitches of various thicknesses.
How do my samples compare to the long-and-short stitched areas and the couching areas of medieval orphreys? Even though the silk on the face of St Lawrence has deteroriated somewhat, it compares best to the completely de-gummed silks. As various thicknesses of very fine silk threads were used, Chinese flat silk works best. As an embroiderer, you have total control over the thickness of your thread as you can split as you like. The same holds true for the or nue detail from St Lawrence. You can download a very high-resolution picture from the website of Museum Catharijneconvent so that you can zoom in even more. You will then also see that the couching stitches of the or nue lay flat and that there is a minimal twist. That's the same when you use Chinese flat silk. As long as you pay attention to your thread and let it 'dangle' every so often, you will have minimal twist too.
My conclusion is that the fine embroidery on medieval orphreys was made with fully de-gummed silk. Comparing my samples with the close-up pictures in the publication of the Imperial Vestments held at Bamberg also shows that they were made with un-twisted fully de-gummed silk. However, I do think that gummed silk was used in some medieval stitching. More on that next week!
Kohwagner-Nikolai, T., 2020. Kaisergewänder im Wandel - Goldgestickte Vergangenheitsinszenierung: Rekonstruktion der tausendjährigen Veränderungsgeschichte. Schnell + Steiner, Regensburg.
Today, I am going to review a book that has been published about four years ago. Just like me, you might have missed this one; it isn't primarily about embroidery. In addition, with a selling price of €215/$247, it is rather expensive. It is always nice to read a bit more about an expensive book before you commit. The full title of the book is: Clothing the Past: surviving garments from Early Medieval to Early Modern Western Europe. The authors, Elizabeth Coatsworth and Gale R. Owen-Crocker are leading experts in the field of medieval studies and medieval textiles. So let's explore what's between the covers of this 435-page book!
As said, this book is not primarily on embroidery. But since textiles of the upper classes were often decorated with embroidery AND these textiles had a better chance of survival, quite a few pieces with lovely embroidery are described in this book. This difference in survival chances between textiles of different social groups is discussed in the first chapter of the book: the General Introduction. One of the strengths of this publication is that the authors have tried to include as many 'everyday clothes' worn by 'everyday people' as possible. This has resulted in the inclusion of many archaeological finds from York (UK), Monasterio de Santa Maria La Real de Huelgas (Spain), Bocksten (Sweden) and Herjolfsnes cemetery (Greenland). Preservation issues regarding burial conditions in archaeological excavations (including tombs) are also touched upon. For instance, linen does not usually survive in an archaeological context; it rots away. Hence the misconception about medieval people not wearing underwear.
In total, 'portraits' of about a hundred textile pieces are grouped together in 10 chapters. We move from head to toe and from outer garments to socks and underpants. Each of these chapters starts with an introduction in which relationships, similarities and differences between the pieces in a particular chapter are discussed. Each chapter has at least several embroidered pieces in them. New to me were the textiles from the Royal tombs in the Monasterio de Santa Maria La Real de Huelgas. Have a look at this spectacularly embroidered and beaded Spanish Birette found in the tomb of Prince Fernando de la Cerda (AD 1255-1275).
Each 'portrait' consists of a picture or pictures of the piece and a description with plenty of citations for further reading. I got the feeling that the authors were more comfortable with sewing than with embroidery. The construction of the different garments is discussed in greater detail than the embroidery. For me, the gold standard of describing embroidered pieces are to be found in the publications of the Abegg Stiftung. However, as this book is published in English but contains so many pieces originally published in German, a Scandinavian language, French or Spanish you are bound to find information that is new to you. And when you then decide to dive into the original publications you have an idea of what they are about.
So: is this book for you? That's a little difficult to answer. For those of you who like to look at close-up pictures of pretty embroidery for inspiration; this book disappoints. There are no such pictures and the description of the embroidery is too flimsy. However, if you are interested in medieval textiles in general and archaeological textiles in particular; this book is for you! I have read it from cover to cover and placed many post-its throughout the book for revisiting later (and I've ordered suggested literature through second-hand websites!). As the book is quite expensive and has such a large scope, you might want to try to order it through your library first and then decide on a possible purchase.
Coatsworth, E., Owen-Crocker, G.R., 2018. Clothing the past: Surviving garments from early medieval to early modern Western Europe. Brill, Leiden.
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