One of the reasons for writing my weekly blog is to introduce you to medieval embroidered pieces that are in collections outside the UK and the US. Due to the language barrier, these pieces are often hardly known in the English-speaking world. This has led to such strange ideas as "stumpwork was invented in 17th century England" and "Opus anglicanum was only practised in England". Sorry to disappoint you, but both assumptions are wrong. One such collection is in the Bernisches Historisches Museum in Switzerland. A couple of weeks ago, we looked at an Antependium made in Vienna for Königsfelden Abbey. Today, I'll introduce you to another embroidered antependium from the same Abbey. It is very different from the first.
The above antependium or altar cloth measures about 3.18 m x 0.90 m. The background fabric is probably not original. The embroidered figures are about 60 cm in height. In the middle, we see the crucifixion with Mary and St John on either side. These figures were likely embroidered in the Upper Rhine area. The other figures (St Peter, St Catherine and St Agnes on the left and St Andrew, John the Baptist and St Paul on the right) were probably embroidered in Königsfelden Abbey. How do we know?
The padding material in the embroidery is parchment. During an extensive restoration in 1889, some of the parchment was removed from the back of the figures. Besides a cut-up breviary, they also found the remains of a letter between Queen Agnes of Hungary and Emperor Ludwig of Bavaria. Clever historical research by Jacob Stammler, later bishop of Basel, revealed that this letter was written between 20 October AD 1334 and 20 October AD 1335. The fact that a trivial letter to Queen Agnes was used to pad parts of the embroidery indicates that the embroidery was executed where she resided: Königsfelden Abbey. The style of the figures points to c. AD 1350 as the date for the embroidery.
Personally, I quite like to read 19th century papers on medieval embroidery. I love the tone (scholarship with a splash of Ivanhoe) and the beautiful technical drawings. Quite often, the embroidery was better preserved over a 100 years ago and the drawings clearly show that. However, there is a caveat: research marches on. The aforementioned bishop Jacob Stammler was quite convinced that Queen Agnes herself professionally embroidered and was quite capable to produce an altar cloth such as the one shown in an earlier blog post. After all, her biographer said that she was proficient with the needle! Nowadays, we know that these (former) queens were far too busy to embroider professionally. With all the diplomacy they conducted for their families and the overseeing of the royal household, they were probably as busy as any female CEO is today. Good luck embroidering professionally at the same time ...
So, who did embroider the additional figures on this second antependium used at Königsfelden Abbey? As Queen Agnes resided at (near?) the abbey for many years and was very active in international diplomacy with many visitors and envoys coming to see her, she basically set up court there. It is thus likely that she had a royal workshop as well. The embroidery on this second antependium is of far too high quality to have been worked by part-time embroidering nuns. This is the work of professionals. The fact that the saints chosen to accompany the central crucifixion scene have a relationship with Queen Agnes and her family (St Andrew for her late husband and St Catherine for several female relations) shows that she was, however, actively involved in choosing the design.
Last year, I visited the CIETA conference in Switzerland and we made a field trip to the Bernisches Historisches Museum. It has a large permanent display of medieval textiles well worth a visit. One of the many beautiful pieces is a large two-part antependium made in Vienna around AD 1340-1350. It was gifted by Albert II, Duke of Austria (AD 1298-1358) to the abbey of Königsfelden (now in Switzerland) where his sister, Agnes of Austria (AD 1281-1364) resided. Very kind of him, indeed. It is a stunning piece of embroidery and very well preserved. Let's explore!
The antependium consists of a larger part (90 x 318 cm) with seven scenes from the life of Jesus. From left to right we see: Gethsemane, Christ in front of Pilate, Christ carrying the cross, Crucifixion, Ascension, Crowning of the Virgin and Christ in Majesty. And a smaller band (18 x 292 cm (cut)) with angels surrounding Mary and Jesus in the middle.
My personal favourite is this Ascension scene. I just love the naive way this is depicted in medieval art. And this is a particularly detailed depiction. We even have the footprints :).
The smaller band with the angels is really lovely. Two of the angels are playing string instruments. Two others are carrying what looks like a tall white candle. The rest is having a blast. They seem to dance and clap their hands to the music. They form a rich resource for anyone looking to work a medieval musical angel.
The embroidery itself is very fine. The under drawing on the linen is of high quality. The faces of the angels are worked in very fine directional split stitch in untwisted silk. The same technique is used in Opus anglicanum. The other parts of the angels are worked in slightly longer split stitches. Probably because they don't need to be as detailed as the faces. The noses seem to be a little bit padded. And I think they used a knotted stitch for the hair. And it seems that the silk in the halos is laid flat and then couched down. A few additional embellishments on the clothing are stitched in couched gold thread on top of the silk. The background is formed by couching down parallel rows of gold thread with a light-coloured silk. The diaper patterns are relatively simple for the angels but more elaborate for the scenes of the life of Jesus.
All in all, the embroidery reminds me a lot of the embroidery made in Bohemia at the same time. This isn't too surprising as Vienna and Prague are relatively close. The Habsburg rulers and the Bohemian kings were also related by marriage and fighting for supremacy in the region.
If you ever have the chance, do visit the Bernisches Historischen Museum in Bern, Switzerland. My Journeyman Patrons will have access to many more pictures of this gorgeous embroidery. Please note: I will take a two-week blogging pause whilst teaching for the Alpine Experience. A fresh blog post will go up on the 10th of July.
Schuette, M., Müller-Christensen, S., 1963. Das Stickereiwerk. Wasmmuth, Tübingen.
Stammler, J., 1891. Königsfelder Kirchenparamente im historischen Museum zu Bern, Berner Taschenbuch 40, p. 26-54.
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