Saint John the Evangelist is a popular figure in medieval embroidery. He is often present on the more elaborate vestments with multiple figures. Small wonder that some of these "Johns" look pretty identical. After all, there is only so much variation in depicting a figure that needs to be instantly recognisable. Almost like a caricature. Furthermore, it is likely that designs and prickings were used more than once. Today we are going to look at two Johns kept in Museum Catharijne Convent in the Netherlands. Some scholars have argued that they were made by the same workshop with the same design drawing or even the same pricking. However, I am no longer so sure.
These are the two Johns. On the left, is a loose figure which is part of an orphrey. And on the right is a complete orphrey which is part of a dalmatic. It is also one of only four orphreys that historical sources identify as being made in AD 1504 by (the workshop of) master embroiderer Jacob van Malborch working in Utrecht between AD 1500-1525. Being able to connect the other John to this famous embroidery master or his workshop is somewhat important. As there are many different aspects to the comparison of the two Johns, I am only going to compare the design drawing in this blog post. Future posts will examine the actual stitching.
Making tracings from the original embroideries and placing them on top of each other is sometimes done in the literature to prove the use of the same design and/or pricking and thus the production in the same workshop. Minor differences between tracings are always explained by the "uncertainties in the steps of copying" between the different stages of pattern transfer:
- copying the design from a model book onto the medium that will become the pricking (how well does the copyist follow the lines of the original?)
- pricking the holes of the pricking (how well does the pricker follow the lines?)
- rubbing pounce powder through the holes of the pricking (did the pricking move?)
- connecting the pounce dots with paint (which decisions were made by the painter?)
- the actual embroidering (skill of the embroiderer)
Theoretically, you can end up with very different results when the same design drawing or even the same pricking is being used. But what are minor differences and when are differences too large that they can no longer be explained by the "uncertainties in the steps of copying"? Are the above tracings proof of the use of the same design drawing and/or the same pricking? Were both embroideries made by the same workshop?
Firstly, let me explain how these tracings were made. My husband used CAD software and the high-resolution pictures available from the online catalogue of Museum Catharijneconvent. He then made both drawings the same length, whilst keeping their proportions. He also tilted them somewhat to achieve the best fit. Not ideal. But remarkably similar to the tracings which were made by curators of Museum Catharijneconvent from the original pieces. They encountered a problem too, which made their tracings not ideal either: the loose figure could be traced flat whilst the figure on the dalmatic needed to be traced whilst hanging. As the professional pictures in the online catalogue were likely all corrected for perspective distortion by referencing with actual measurements (common practice in archaeology), they are probably better to use as tracings than the original embroideries.
When you now look at the two tracings it becomes immediately clear that some parts of especially the top half of the Johns are quite similar. Other parts differ more greatly. The faces are different, especially the placement of the eyes and the extend of the hair. And whilst the bottom seam of his clothing and his foot match, there is no way that the bottom half of the clothing and the folds can be made to fit. When I used the same pricking for the 30 little stars I painted onto silk twill fabric for my recent online workshops for the Diocesan Museum Bamberg, I did not end up with differences of this magnitude. I am therefore pretty sure that we can rule out the use of the same pricking.
But what about the use of the same design drawing? I am pretty sure that the same model book was being used. Unfortunately, none are left to us and we have no idea what these model books looked like. Contrary, prickings and design sketches have survived as backing of these embroideries. I can imagine that from a smaller picture in a model book, the embroiderer made a design drawing the size of the desired embroidery (not all orphreys have the same size and thus the figures needed to be drawn taller/shorter, wider/thinner). By using a grid, it is easy to transfer a design to the desired proportions. And whilst you need to be quite precise whit the detailed parts of the design (upper part of John), you could probably fudge the simpler bottom a bit to speed the process up. This might explain the differences in the tracings.
So, not the same workshop? Who knows. Normally, you would keep your pricking for future use. After all, paper or parchment was expensive and making the thing was labour intensive. However, prickings are fragile. They don't last forever. Maybe a new design drawing and a new corresponding pricking was made from the same copy of the model book in the same workshop. We will probably never know. In my eyes, the tracings cannot be used to support the theory of the same workshop beyond a doubt. But what we really need is a test. At some point, I will set up a workshop in which all students will use the same complex pricking. After all the embroidery is done, we will compare the outcome. In this way, we will know the margins of error when the same pricking is being used by embroiderers of different ability.
P.S. this series of blog articles on the Johns from Utrecht are inspired by a mail thread between me and art historian Stephan Kuhn. He wrote his MA-thesis on the vestments of St Martin in Emmerich. Presently, he is working on his doctoral thesis, but hopes to return to the Emmerich vestments with a proper paper.
Tomorrow evening, you have a chance to become one of the lucky people who gets a spot in the second run of my medieval goldwork course! And what a course it will be! I am excited about some upgrades in the materials we will use and the new platform Padlet. In addition, my research continued and the information of a couple of great new books is finding its way into the hand-outs. And thanks to the students of the first run, I will make some updates in the instructions as well. Read on so you'll know where the sign-up link will appear.
The 15 kits have all been packed. I've tried to reduce the use of plastic as much as possible. However, customs like to know what is in a kit and if they can spot contents at a glance, they are more likely to not open every little bit of the kit. Let's see how it goes. Other things simply need a bag in case they spill. The plastic that was used is of the "eco" kind. I know: not ideal either, but a tiny bit better.
And now the important bit: the sign-up link will appear at the top of the course page. You might need to refresh the page several times before it appears. You will only be able to pay with PayPal. And I won't be able to ship kits together to safe on postage. Shipping is still disrupted and the risk of losing multiple kits in one shipment is simply too large.
You might also have spotted some changes to my website. I've tried to make it less cluttered and hope that information can now be more easily found. One major change is that I have made category pages for my blog articles. If you hover over the blog category at the top of my page, a sub-menu will appear (see picture above). Over the next couple of weeks, I will go through all my past blog articles, clean them up and the ones about historical embroidery will be linked to these category pages. These pages will be nice little rabbit holes for a rainy day!
Today I am going to introduce you to a recreation project you might not have heard about. And that would be a shame! Dr Alexandra Makin, the writer of a book I reviewed, is working on a historically accurate reconstruction of a part of St Cuthbert's maniple. The original was stitched around AD 909-916, a good 100 years before the Kaisergewänder, and is thus probably the oldest more or less complete goldwork embroidery surviving in Europe. Trying to reconstruct any of these very early goldwork embroideries comes with a myriad of challenges of which finding the right materials is a large chunk. Alexandra describes the project in a series of YouTube videos. But beware: you might spend a LOT of money :).
Alexandra also curates a blog on early medieval (mostly) textile topics. Each month, a guest-writer is invited to write about her research. She has asked me to contribute a blog for December. When you enter the universe of the St Cuthbert recreation project, you soon realise that such an undertaking isn't a solo flight. It wasn't back in the 10th-century and it isn't today. Many people contributed with their specialism: dying silk threads with natural dyes, weaving the right silken open canvas, finding the right silk, vintage goldthreads, magical scissors from Japan, etc. You will be introduced to so many amazing people and (nearly) lost arts. Enjoy!
Sometimes, medieval goldwork embroidery has been purposefully flattened after it was finished. This is for instance the case with the Kaisergewänder in Bamberg. Burnishing or hammering finished goldwork embroidery was probably done to enhance the smoothness of the surface to make it resemble gold leaf or goldsmithing work. Whilst the flattening is clearly visible on high-resolution pictures, and certainly revealed in a cross-section of the goldthread, we do not know how it was done. Did they burnish the finished surface with a rounded piece of bone? Did they actually hammer the threads flat? Time for an experiment:
Hmm, not at all the result I was expecting ... Is this due to the difference in materials? Or is there another way to flatten goldthreads? Or what if they used pre-flattened goldthreads (called flatworm) in the first place? I would love to hear your thoughts on the matter! Please leave your comments below.
P.S. My husband and I are getting vaccinated this week! From today, Bavaria allows everyone, regardless of priority, to get vaccinated by their family doctor if they want to. Bittersweet: due to widespread vaccine-scepticism in our rural area, we got an appointment right away. Feeling immensely grateful!
In the past, I have rarely written about anything else than embroidery. And I don't intend to write more often about non-embroidery topics. However, tomorrow is an important day for me and my husband. The village council will meet and debate the litter data my husband and I have collected for the past three months or so. What did we do? Each year, we commit to a certain challenge for Lent. It is usually the "no cookies" or "no chocolate" 40-day challenge. But with the unpleasant pandemic restrictions, I did not want to restrict myself any further this year. Instead, we were looking for something to make a positive impact on our community. At the same time, as the weather improved, more and more people visited our beautiful lake. Not being able to leave the country means that many Germans now recreate in the Alps. This has a negative impact on this sensitive ecosystem. Especially littering has become a huge problem. So we decided to dedicate several hours each week to clean-up using the Litterati app. As archaeologists, we are perfectly skilled to analyse the litter data collected and advise our village council. Tomorrow, they will debate several data-based solutions we have come up with. For those of you who read German easily, you can find our analysis on this website.
Those of you who have visited my studio here in Bad Bayersoien, know what a beautiful place this is. Our village is actually located in Nature Park "Ammergauer Alpen". Protected wildflowers and certain rare animal species are living here. The lake is part of a bog landscape. And along one side of its shore, is one of Europe's largest habitats for European vipers. Especially at this time of year, these beautiful black snakes sunbathe right next to the walking trail. Unfortunately for them, women who need to pee, tend to go into the shrubs and woods of viper territory. It is a wonder that so far no one got bitten! How do we know it is women who like to pee here? They leave hundreds of tissues ... You might think that a paper tissue dissolves easily and does not harm nature too much. However, these tissues are no longer made of paper, but of bleached cellulose. And they don't easily decompose. And it doesn't stop at the tissues. Some even leave sanitary towels, tampons and adult diapers there!
You are forgiven for thinking, since we live so rural, that we don't have clean free public toilets here and that these women need to pee somewhere. Thankfully, we have a spacious toilet block right opposite the kiosk (from the trail, you are never more than 500m away from them!). The toilets are clean and free to use. Why are the woods then so popular? Probably because people park after a long drive and don't have time to search for the toilets. Not everyone knows that there are clever apps for your phone that tell you where (free) toilets are located. A good solution for our lake would be to place signs that point people in the right direction. Using a bit of humour could persuade people to walk that 500m (picture a woman squatting being bitten by a viper :)).
Another huge problem is the many cigarette butts being thrown away carelessly. Again, many people assume that they decompose. Wrong. They are made of cellulose acetate. Filled with the toxins of smoking, this substance falls apart in smaller and smaller bits. Just like micro-plastic, it lands in our drinking water and cannot be removed in water treatment plants. We all drink cigarettes each day when we make ourselves a cup of tea or coffee. Getting these cigarette butts removed from our environment is absolutely paramount. We are slowly but surely poisoning ourselves.
How can we persuade people to dispose of their cigarette butt correctly? Again: we hope to use humour! There is a German company that makes Kippsters. These are ashtrays with two see-through compartments. Above the two compartments is a yes/no question. People can "vote" using their cigarette butt. If our village decides to invest in a few of these kippsters, I am going to sponsor one. And I already know which question I want to get answered: Was King Ludwig II queer?
Maybe, I have inspired you to start cleaning up in your own community using the Litterati app (or maybe you are already doing something similar!). The app was originally invented in the US, but it has had the biggest following and impact in the Netherlands. Watch the inspiring TED-talk with Jeff Kirschner, the founder of Litterati. Due to the pandemic, they regularly organise webinars on the topic of littering and data-based solutions. Archaeology with modern litter :).
What were the strangest finds in the past couple of months? Well, you would be amazed at how many fake nails are lost. Or how about a small device to re-set your pacemaker? And this morning we found a urinary catheter in its original packaging! When we tagged our pictures in the Litterati app, it turned out that we were not the first in the world who had found one ....
By now, I have written a couple of blogs about the gold-embroidered garments held at the Diocesan Museum in Bamberg. These embroideries are about a thousand years old and are associated with Holy Roman Emperor Henry II and his wife Kunigund. For the past five years, the vestments were part of an interdisciplinary research project. The results are now being published in three volumes. Although these vestments are unique, with very few parallels elsewhere in the world, these volumes are unfortunately being published in German. Just like the Dutch thought it a brilliant idea to publish their unique collection of late-medieval vestments in Dutch in 2015 and the Italians cleverly published a monograph on the unique orphreys designed by Pollaiuolo in Italian in 2019. How about making it mandatory to publish in English for all scholars in the world? Enough of a rant. Let me review the first of the three volumes (the other two are not yet published). It is a beautiful book, even if you are condemned to only admiring the many detailed pictures.
This first volume "Kaisergewänder im Wandel - Goldgestickte Vergangenheitsinszenierung. Rekonstruktion der tausendjährigen Veränderungsgeschichte" (Changing imperial garments - staging of the past in goldembroidery. Reconstruction of a 1000-years of change) came out in 2020 and is written by Dr Tanja Kohwagner-Nikolai. The book is very well structured with a detailed chapter each for the six garments that make up the Kaisergewänder. Additional detailed information on a very specific aspect of a particular garment is published in an "Exkurs" or sub-chapter. There are a whopping 10 of these. There is also an introductory chapter and a concluding chapter.
Tanja is an art historian who has specialised in epigraphy (the science of letters). This specialisation comes in handy as there are many embroidered texts on some of these garments. Using her expertise, Tanja found parallels in other textiles and manuscripts which meant that she could narrow down where a particular garment was likely made or designed or by whom. She also carefully studied all the available historical documents on these garments. Church accounts document the many instances when these garments were being repaired. Revealing who did the work (women were often involved) and how much it cost and how long it took.
Luckily, Tanja also reveals a lot of the details a typical stitcher with an interest in goldwork embroidery wants to know. Goldthreads, fabric, silken embroidery threads and stitches are described in detail. And although there will be a separate volume dedicated to the subject, there is already a lot of information woven into the narrative of this volume. And then there are the many detailed close-up pictures of the embroidery. Quite a few have been taken through a high-resolution microscope. Four folded-up A3-ish maps of three of the garments are tucked in two pouches on the inside of the cover. These are absolutely brilliant. They show a picture of the garment with a simple outline drawing of the whole design and a description of each scene. This makes talking about a particular part of a garment so much easier.
No negatives? Oh yes, it is written in German. And although I am a near-native speaker, I had to look up some words. Written German is somewhat different from spoken German. Scholarly written German is a whole lot different from spoken German. Additionally, when Latin is cited, it is not always translated. After all, Tanja writes for a scholarly German audience. Latin is mandatory for them (the fact that I hold a doctorate, but never had a Latin lesson in my life, is quite incomprehensible to German colleagues).
Personally, I do not like the way sources are cited. Only the last name of the author without the year of publishing is stated. This bugs me. I like to know who wrote what when. This shows me in an instant if a particular scholar could have known the source cited.
As I know Tanja personally, I do know that she can embroider and do other forms of needlework and sewing. However, I feel that the research project would have benefited greatly by adding professional goldwork embroiderers to the team. Replicating small parts of each of these garments with materials that come close to the originals would probably greatly enhance our understanding of the embroidery. Being able to repair or conserve historical needlework is not the same as being able to make a replica. It would also have given us a better idea of what the original embroidery once looked like. After all, the colourful silken threads that were used to couch down the near-pure goldthreads have faded considerably or are completely gone. This means that the intricate couching patterns are nearly invisible. These patterns would have dominated the fresh embroidery and would have given it a completely different look.
Kohwagner-Nikolai, T., 2020. Kaisergewänder im Wandel - Goldgestickte Vergangenheitsinszeb´nierung. Rekonstruktion der tausendjährigen Veränderungsgeschichte. Schnell & Steiner, Regensburg. The book is available directly from the publisher and costs €69 + shipping.
Are you interested in medieval goldwork embroidery? If yes, you might be interested in two upcoming events I am co-hosting. On the 16th of May, I will be giving a one-hour workshop through Zoom for the Diözesan Museum of Bamberg as part of the Internationaler Museumstag. And on the 1st of December, I will be giving a lecture as part of the San Francisco School of Needlework and Design's lecture series.
The Diözesanmuseum of Bamberg has asked me to create a beginner's goldwork workshop inspired by their Kaisergewänder. I've taken a small star from the blue Kunigunde Mantle (stitched around AD 1014). The little star is part of the central design in which the antiphons and responses of the Christmas liturgy are depicted. The text around the bust with the star reads: "orietur stella ex iacob" (a star out of Jacob). The little star will be stitched with gilt passing thread and silk onto a heavy silk twill backed with calico. The original star is about 3.3 cm high. The workshop version is about double that.
Attending the workshop is free and held in German. However, since the material pack needs to be mailed to you, only residents of Germany can attend. Sorry! That said, I am pondering the idea of turning this into a kit using the real goldthread with the silken core (that's what I actually used in the picture above). Just let me know if you would be interested by leaving a comment below!
In 2014, I embroidered a couple of beetles with real beetle wings. The blue one was named Wilhelmina and I taught her successfully to students in Germany. A couple of days before I opened my first solo exhibition in 2019, I sold my beetles. I was happy as pie! However, earlier this year, my mum confessed that she would have bought the beetles off me had she known that I was selling them. OOPS! Time to get my old instructions out and make a new Wilhelmina beetle :).
The original beetles were worked on a piece of heavy calico. Unfortunately, I did not have enough left to work Wilhelmina II on it as well. Instead, I opted for a piece of antique linen. It is a lovely, large piece of hand-woven linen. Unfortunately, it has quite a few nasty spots, especially along the folds. I always knew that I would have to cut out the good bits and use the rest as backing fabric. Using it on a beetle for my mum sounds like a worthy cause!
It is so no longer 2014! Back then, I was able to stitch all of Wilhelmina without magnification. That is no longer the case. Bummer. However, I do love my TriSpektrum LED-magnifier from Cross-Stitch Corner! For years, I only used the extra light (both daylight and warm), but now I had to peek through the magnifier regularly too. Interestingly, I am still fine with working my medieval goldwork on 40ct linen. Although thinking of it, I am probably so adept at those stitches that I do not notice that I do not see as well anymore ...
Last week, I showed you the set-up of my little experiment with underside couching. Today, I'll show you the exciting results. Show exciting results? Hmm, you probably need to take my word for it. This is goldwork after all and it does not photograph well. But first I need to make a confession. When I first experimented with underside couching for the epigraphy conference early last year, I took a thicker piece of chevron woven silk as my base. You can read all about my stitching nightmare here. The bottom line was that I needed a rather strong/thick 3-ply linen thread for the stitching. This made the back of my sample rock-solid and hard to stitch through when ending my threads. I thus concluded that you would always need a rather thick 3-ply linen thread. The 2-ply linen thread used in the Middle Ages must have been something of a super thread to withstand the force of underside couching. Nope. Wrong. Let me explain:
This time, I tested four different types of silk twill, two different types of goldthread and three different types of linen thread. They all worked. I only broke my linen thread once (!). Conclusion: my very first piece of red chevron woven silk was probably not suitable for underside couching.
What did I use this time?:
- "G" in the pictures stands for Goldschild 40/3 linen thread (3-ply).
- "B" stands for Bockens 35/2 linen thread (2-ply).
- nameless 26,5/2 bio-linen thread (2-ply) from Egon Heger.
- "RG" stands for real gold thread with a silk core (Stech 80/90 from Maurer)
- "G" stands for gilt thread with a polyester core (Stech 80/90 from Maurer)
- 65, 72 and 103 are the weights of the different silk twills I ordered from Sator
- one piece of madder-dyed silk twill lighter in weight than the lightest (red) silk twill from Sator.
- #22 chenille needle and 40ct Zweigart Newcastle linen base.
I worked two rows with each linen thread, six rows in total for each type of goldthread.
As said: all combinations work. However, I do have my preferences. Firstly, the 3-ply Goldschild and 2-ply Bockens linen threads are very round and stiff/hard. They don't compress easily. Whilst this probably is not much of an issue for underside couching, it is with normal couching. The linen thread pushes my goldthreads away from one another. In comes the more loosely plied bio-linen thread from Egon Heger. This thread is flat and compresses easily. Definitely my first choice! Added bonus of the 2-ply versus the 3-ply thread, the back of your embroidery is softer and it is now totally possible to end your threads on the back by weaving them in.
The weight and actual weave of the silk twill also plays a major role. Again: it all works. However, the thickest silk twill (103 gms, petrol coloured) is my favourite. The "hills-and-valleys" of the twill weave are very pronounced and can thus be easily followed to accurately space your stitches. This pronounced twill pattern is also seen in the historical pieces and from the drape, you can clearly see that the historical pieces used a heavier weight silk too. The madder-dyed silk and the red silk (65 gms) were okay to work with too. However, I didn't like the blue 72 gms silk as I had trouble stitching back into the same hole.
What I liked the best though, is the real goldthread with the real silken core. It is stiffer than the gilt thread with the polyester core. This means that the stitches form a slight arch (see picture above). The embroidery becomes more textured. Just like in the originals. Combine these little arches with the more pronounced "hills-and-valleys" of the thicker silk twill and you come pretty close to the historical pieces (see picture below). In addition, the real goldthread did not stress the silks or my linen thread so much. It was therefore easier to work with.
So, why then did we switch from real goldthreads with a real silken core to gilt threads with a polyester core? Costs. Whilst a 10 gr spool of the "fake" thread costs about €14, the same amount of the real deal will set you back at about €64. I can now hear you think "well the difference in the pictures is not THAT spectacular, so why spend the money?". Me answers: but the stitching experience and the results ARE very different and better. It just does not show up well in a photograph. In my ever-quest to get closer and closer to the historical pieces, I have decided to use this real goldthread with the real silken core for the next run of my Medieval Goldwork Course (I hope I can get hold of enough of it). I am pretty sure that I will make a few more converts :).
P.S. For those of you who are EU-citizens, you might want to consider signing the petition for new fundamental rights in Europe, initiated by Ferdinand von Schirach. Thanks!
Today starts the last week of my 10-week Medieval Goldwork Course. It has been an exciting journey for all who participated! And although I will need to tweak some bits of the course, it is my pleasure to announce that the course will run again from 6-9-2021 till 13-11-2021. Sign-up will be Tuesday 1st of June 19:00h CET. This leaves me with enough time to order in materials and send them out to the participants in time. And between now and the 6th of September, I will be re-filming parts of the course with new materials, update the hand-outs and conduct a few experiments in my search for materials that come as close as possible to the medieval originals. First up is underside couching. Very little has been written on the exact materials being used in this Opus anglicanum goldwork technique. Somewhere in late summer, Tanya Bentham's book on Opus anglicanum will be out and I can't wait to see what exact materials she uses for successful underside couching. In the meantime, join me in my own experiments!
When you see people recreate pieces of underside couching, they often work directly on a linen background. However, a lot of Opus anglicanum was worked on a silken twill fabric backed by linen (see for instance the famous Jesse Cope). When you look at the detailed pictures of the Jesse Cope, it becomes clear that the silk twill used is of a heavier variety. But how heavy is heavy? Whilst silk twill is readily available in many colours today, getting your hands on a heavier version isn't so easy. And although the course sample of underside couching worked on a flimsy version of silk twill does work, I would love to see what results can be got by using a heavier silk twill fabric. I will therefore compare four weights of silk twill in my experiment.
Above, you see my slate frame fully dressed with a natural 40ct linen. On the linen, I appliqued the four squares of silk twill. Normally, I would use polyester buttonhole thread to set up my slate frame. But as there was no polyester thread in the Middle Ages, I decided to have a go with linen thread. I used Goldschild Nm 40/3 to attach my embroidery linen to the twill tape. That worked very well and the thread was strong enough. The big advantage of using linen thread over polyester thread is that the linen thread is rougher and thus keeping tension on your stitches is much easier. I also used the same thread to stitch on the twill tape onto the sides. However, the thread broke as it could not withstand the high tension. Switching to a stronger linen thread (Goldschild Nm 11/3) brought the solution.
Now that my frame is all set up, I can start the actual experiment. I will test several materials: silk twill weight, linen couching thread and gold thread. Although underside couching with the Goldschild Nm 40/3 works, I want to try a two-ply linen thread (the Goldschild thread is a three-ply thread). The original Opus Anglicanum embroideries were, however, worked with a two-ply linen thread. But again, getting your hands on a good two-ply linen thread is more difficult. What I have been able to get my hands on is real goldthread. Not gilt, but real gold. Not with a polyester core, but with a real silk core. This goldthread comes much closer to some of the goldthreads used in the medieval period (the others were made with animal gut as a substrate for very thin strips of gilded silver; unfortunately, no one can recreate these today). Next week, I'll update you on how my first experiments went!
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