Weeks ago I saw mention of an embroidery exhibition in Paris on Social Media. After finding out that there is a direct train between Munich and Paris, I decided to go. As the exhibition was soon to end, I did not have the luxury of being choosy when to go or for how long. I and my husband ended up going for 48 hours to a very, very hot Paris. Although I have experienced 40+ degrees before when staying in the deserts of Egypt and Lybia, I hope to never experience Paris in 43,2 degrees ever again! Luckily, the Louvre has cool air vents in most of its stone-paved floors. Guess who walked barefoot during her nine-hour visit?
So, what was it all about? The Louvre housed a small, but spectacular goldwork embroidery exhibition in room 505. The pieces dated from the 15th to the 17th century and were made in modern-day Romania. And it turned out to contain some of the largest and most opulent goldwork embroideries I have ever seen!
But let's start with the bulk of the embroideries. Romanian or better Wallachian and Moldavian embroidery of the late Middle Ages and early Modern Times is closely related with the Orthodox Church. On display were Orthodox vestments such as: epitrachelion (stole), epimanikia (cufs), epigonation (badge) and epithaphios (an embroidered icon bearing the dead body of Christ).
When the Byzantine Empire ceased to exist in AD 1453, the Orthodox Church becomes the keeper of the Greek liturgical culture. The voivodes (princes) of Wallachia and Moldavia see themselves as the heirs and protectors of this heritage. They make donations to monasteries in their own realms, but also to those on Mount Athos in Greece. And some pieces even end up in Jerusalem.
Embroidery of this kind was supervised and practised by noblewomen at the court in Byzantium and later at the courts of the voivodes. Both within the noble household as well as in specialised workshops. There is some historical evidence that talented professional embroidery workers were bought free from the Ottomans and they then relocated to Wallachia or Moldavia. However, some of the embroidery workers were serfs. Equally, noblewomen from the Balkans married into the royal families of Wallachia and Moldova. Taking with them and preserving Byzantine embroidery techniques and styles. Due to the conservative nature of Orthodox iconography, it is often impossible to tell where pieces were made or by whom. However, most pieces bear the initials or full names of the donors (abbots, princes, princesses and other nobility). Certain patterns were often even faithfully copied over centuries.
Apart from the vestments, there were burial shrouds on display. These huge goldwork embroideries display the edifice of the deceased ruler, his wife or their offspring. The oldest one on display was made for Maria of Mangup before AD 1477 and measures a staggering 191 x 103 cm! Nearly 150 years later, these funerary portraits become even bigger and far more opulent. The goldwork embroidery on them is amazing.
Although the exhibition was centred around the banner of Stephen the Great (died AD 1504), I found the piece rather underwhelming compared to the other pieces on display. It measures 124 x 94 cm and shows St. George sitting comfy on a throne resting his feet on a dragon. The figure of St. George is entirely formed of couched silver and gilt threads. Due to the use of conservation net on the whole piece (and indeed many other pieces on display) it was rather difficult to see the actual stitching. This was further complicated by the very low levels of lighting and the dirty glass on the display cases.
For those of you interested in this type of embroidery, the Louvre sells an excellent catalogue. Each piece is beautifully photographed and there are even some detail pictures. The book further contains chapters on the political situation of the area during the late Middle Ages, on the historical context of the embroideries, on the banner of Stephen, on the vestments and on the funerary shrouds. As I can only read French with great difficulty, I translated the chapter on the historical context into English. And I am also working on the other chapters and the catalogue part. However, what the book lacks is a chapter on the 'how'. What embroidery techniques were used? What materials were used? It, unfortunately, does not go beyond metal threads and polychrome silk on a velvet background. Do 'how to' books on this type of goldwork embroidery exist? I would love to hear if you know of one!
At least a little bit of the 'how' was captured in some of the pictures I took. Here you see a glimpse of the padding underneath the gold threads forming the halo. It really is quite different from the way we do things in western-style goldwork embroidery. I would love to learn more ...
This might not come as a surprise to you: I love books on embroidery! Not only the so-called project books or books on a particular technique, but also museum catalogues and research papers. Whilst the first are usually promoted by and within the embroidery community, the later are a little harder to find. Second-hand bookshops are a good place to look for them. Since the topic is such a specific one, the people in the bookshop can often tell you in an instant if they carry some. Recently I rediscovered one such book in my extensive library. It is a Dutch doctoral thesis from 1948 written by Dr. Beatrice Jansen (1914-2008). The title of the thesis defended at the University of Utrecht is: Laat gotisch borduurwerk in Nederland (Late Gothic embroideries from the Netherlands). I bought the book years ago as I liked the technical and design drawings, but I had never actually read it ... Until now. And it actually is a gem! Let's explore together ...
The first chapter concerns itself with the embroidery techniques used. Dr. Jansen was probably not an embroiderer, but certainly a true art-historian. Back in the late 1940s, art-historians used French and German sources for their research. Dr. Jansen copied the French names of embroidery techniques from 'La broderie du XIe siecle jusqu' a nos jours' from L. de Farcy printed in Paris, 1892. You can find an online digitised copy of the catalogue and all the black-and-white photographs here. Although these are truly lovely, I would rather have had a digital copy of the chapter with the embroidery techniques explained. It is quite difficult to understand what Dr. Jansen is talking about.
The other source used is a German one: 'Künstlerische Entwicklung der Weberei und Stickerei' by M. Dreger written in 1904. This book can also be viewed online. However, this is only the text. They didn't digitize the plates ...
Both books are still around and can be purchased from book dealers. However, they sell for hundreds (till thousands!) of euros. So I probably go to the library in Munich :).
That said; when Dr. Jansen really dives into the embroidery seen on the Dutch liturgical vestments, she does present a lot of rather lovely technical drawings. And that's the true merit of this book.
The next chapter is a lovely one too! Dr. Jansen presents all the historical sources concerning medieval embroiderers or acupictores as they were called. The female form, acupictrix was rare and only used as 'wife-of'. Indeed, professional embroidery was a male occupation and females only seemed to have contributed in the ateliers of their husbands (and maybe fathers). What is also interesting, the embroiderers did not have a guild of their own. They were usually part of the guild of the painters as they were seen as 'painters with thread'. The embroiderers did not only stitch new vestments; they are explicitly required to mend existing ones as well. And, this doesn't really come as a surprise: the job wasn't well paid and did not have the same standing as that of artisans working in the 'high arts' like painters and sculptures. Discrimination against textile art certainly has deep roots!
The next two chapters try to divide the gothic vestments into a group made in the Northern Netherlands (roughly present-day Netherlands) and a Southern group (roughly present-day Belgium). These chapters are pure art-historian. Due to the fact that this book is so old, not all pieces talked about are represented by a black-and-white photograph in the catalogue. But lo-and-behold, I own a modern catalogue from the exhibition in the Catharijne Convent in 2015! So I wrote the modern catalogue number and, if applicable, the inventory number into the margins for quicker reference.
Even before the publication of Dr. Jansen, art-historians have tried to name the artists who made the design for these vestments. Successful matches could be made with paintings, woodcuts and sculptures of which the names of the artists have survived. It becomes evident that prints circulated in the embroidery ateliers after which the embroidery was executed. Clients would have had very specific ideas about what they wanted on their vestments and in which style.
Chapter V tries to further categorize the vestments by looking at the embroidered architecture. When you start looking at these vestments, you soon realize that certain elements of the architecture are very similar between different pieces. This chapter is richly illustrated with line drawings of all the different architectural styles found on the orphreys of the vestments.
Chapter VI high-lights that these kind of embroideries were made at least a century earlier than the pieces that have survived in modern-day museum collections. The oldest painting depicting this type of embroidery is the Ghent Altarpiece made by Hubert and Jan van Eyck between 1427 and 1432. This chapter lists nearly 60 other paintings depicting this type of embroidery. The thesis concludes with a sammery in Dutch and English.
I also found a rather embarrassing remark in the margin made by a previous owner. It reads 'Hier had ik nu eens graag gehoord, welke mof dit woord invoerde en welke hollander dit germanisme' (I would have loved to hear which mof (= Nazi) introduced this word and which Dutchman came up with this germanism). Remember, this book was published only three years after the end of the Second World War ...
Since this book was published so long ago, you can only find it in libraries (all over the world as it is a doctoral thesis!) or second-hand. Unfortunately, only more modern theses are available online from the University of Utrecht. And since the author died only 11 years ago, it will take another 59 years before the book can be digitised by me and put into the public domain :). I can probably just manage that before turning 100!
P.S. I am taking a blogging-break during July. I'll be back in August with lots of information on my first solo-exhibition!
At the end of March, I started a new project: On the shores of St. Nick. Whilst I regularly post updates on my Instagram account, I suddenly realised that I have not been sharing updates here. One of the reasons being: the piece is HUGE and progress thus rather slow. But I think you might find my musings interesting. Especially those of you who design their own pieces.
This is how far I have come to date. As this is all done on 40ct natural linen by Zweigart, you can imagine the many, many hours of stitching to come this far :). Although I now know that it is unrealistic to get it finished before the start of my exhibition in August, I am rather pleased with how it is coming together! And since I have to man the exhibition myself, guess who will be stitching what :).
This is a close-up of the migrant boat afloat on the mediterranean sea. The dark blue waves are stitched with House of Embroidery fine silk colour True Blue. The lighter waves use colour Forget me not M. Quite an apt name, don't you think? The stitch used is a common canvaswork stitch named Byzantine stitch. Another rather apt name since the migrants start out from modern-day Turkey.
The boat itself is a rather simple affair. I used padded satin stitch for the light-grey parts. The silk used is a heavy (60-fold or 1200 denier), slightly twisted one from DeVere Yarns called Glacier for the padding. The satin stitches itself are stitched with Chinese flat silk. As are the darker parts and the life-jackets of the migrants. To achieve some distinction between the persons, I used different stitch directions and added some padding in a few cases. The migrant's heads are made up of a French knot made with the same thick silk in the colour acorn. For anybody not liking French knots: try one with this type of sligthly twisted silk. They turn out perfect. Promised! To close the little gaps between the canvas stitches of the sea and the satin stitches of the boat, I added a couched line using Glacier again and the accompanying very thin 6-fold (120 denier) silk. That's the great thing about the DeVere Yarns silks: you get them in a wide range of sizes and twists!
In person, the boat has a very high-sheen and therefore a real 3D-effect. It does not come across well today in my pictures. We are preparing ourselves for a heatwave here in Bavaria and all my windows are completely covered in order to keep the heat out as best we can.
And here is a close-up of the beach. I changed the size of the 'sand' pattern as it was too small. Typically, you would like the canvas filling stitches to be largest at the front (the beach in this case) and smaller in the background (the sky). This enhances the depth of the piece. The stitch used is oriental stitch and it is stitched with House of Embroidery fine silk (for the wet areas) and raw silk (not shiny) for everything else. The colour used is Mud.
The letters of the word Peccatum (Sin) are stitched with lines of stem stitch all going in the same direction. To give the impression of the word being written in the sand, I will add French knots around the edges as soon as the background is fully stitched.
And last but not least, a close-up of the sky and the goldwork frame. The filling stitch for the sky is condensed Scotch stitch and the thread used is House of Embroidery fine silk colour Forget me not. The variegated nature of this thread gives a really good impression of the sky, I think!
For the goldwork frame, I am using #8 and #12 Japanese Thread. This is only the first layer of gold threads. All the small gaps you see at the moment will be covered when the next layer is added. For the shading of the couching stitches, I am using three shades of very fine silk (6-fold or 120 denier) by DeVere yarns. The colours are: Allspice, Fox and Ray. I used to use split Chinese flat silk to do my shading and or nue on St. Laurence. However, the flat silk does not have a consistent thickness and this can cause difficulties when following the grain of the fabric. I now prefer using this very fine silk made by DeVere yarns as it does not have this problem.
That's it for now! On a wholly different matter: you can now find a Google calendar with all my upcoming teaching engagements here. There are a few international opportunities coming up in 2020 and 2021. Maybe I'll see you there?
Last week, I showed you the vestments from the 17th and 18th century on display at the Dommuseum in Fulda. This week we will have a look at the medieval ones. Although the lighting was much better in this part of the exhibition, the glass of the showcases posed a huge problem when photographing the pieces. And to make matters worse, the warden revoked my permission to photograph. Nevertheless, I have a hand-full of nice pictures of very high-end goldwork and silk embroidery to share with you!
First up are two pictures of an embroidered cross which would have adorned a chasuble. These embroideries were so precious, that they were mostly re-used on a new vestment when the old one was worn. In this case, the embroidery is a little special: it is raised embroidery. We often associate stumpwork embroidery with 17th-century England. In this case, however, the embroidery was done around 1500. The exact provenance was not stated, but these stumpwork embroideries were all made in the German-speaking parts of Europe. The most exquisite examples can be found in Mariazell, Austria. Here the figures stand about 3 cm proud of the background fabric!
In the detail picture above, one can clearly see that the faces of both Peter and Jesus are padded. Jesus's ribcage is defined with a piece of string padding. The whole figure of Jesus seems to be somewhat padded. And the flesh-coloured fabric looks quite stiff and a bit like paper or vellum.
And here we have two depictures of God from two different late-medieval chasuble crosses. Unfortunately, no further information was displayed for these two. Or maybe I forgot to take a picture ... I quite like these two. The clouds remind me somewhat of Chinese embroidery on the imperial Dragon Robes.
Last up are these two. They are chasuble crosses embroidered around 1480. No provenance is given. These two caught my eye as the embroidery techniques used are quite different from the other vestments on display. No or nue here; the figures are stitched in silk using long-and-short stitch.
In this detail shot, you can see what I mean. No or nue for the figures here. Instead, there is meticulous tapestry shading on the clothing (i.e. silk shading strict vertically instead of naturally). And the couching patterns for the goldwork threads in the background are so full of movement and quite different from the strict geometrical patterns seen in the late-medieval vestments from the Low Countries.
I had a strange feeling that I had seen this before. And luckily for me, my mind sometimes does a good job :). Instead of needing to go through my thousands of pictures taken at museums, I knew at which museum I had seen this: the Diözesanmuseum Brixen, Italy.
This late-15th-century (same date as the one from Fulda!) chasuble cross has a similar couched background. And most of the figures are stitched in tapestry shading rather than or nue (Mary being a notable exemption). So maybe the chasuble cross held at the Dommuseum Fulda has a more southern origin?
Being able to make these connections only works when I am allowed to take pictures. As lighting conditions or the way things are exhibited often do not permit studying the embroidery with the naked eye, my pictures are a great help. The camera is able to pick up details even when lighting is poor. I can zoom while taking a picture and again when looking at my pictures on the computer. Applying filters will tell me even more about the way things were made. It is therefore always very sad when the taking of pictures is not permitted. As long as you do not use flash (or use another source of light such as your phone!), you are not damaging the exhibits. And me taking pictures of the exhibits as is, has other benefits too. I don't need to make an official appointment for which museum staff needs to 'host' me (they have better things to do) and I don't need to handle the exhibits either.
Some museums argue that by taking photographs and publishing them in a blog or on social media will mean fewer people will actually visit the museum. Really? I have the sneaking feeling that more people will visit a museum when they know what is on show. Especially museums with a wide range of exhibits of which textiles are only a small portion. The museum's website often does not specifically state that there are gorgeous embroideries on display (they are a somewhat neglected category, especially when in competition with bling made of precious metals) which might interest the curious embroiderer. And I know that several of my readers have visited museums which featured in my blogs. I have been guilty of doing the same. Maybe we should start mentioning these things to staff on duty when visiting a museum after reading a blog or seeing a picture on social media. What do you think?
A couple of weeks ago, I visited the Dommuseum in Fulda. I knew from their website that they had at least some embroidered vestments. Little did I know that they had quite a lot of them! And when I asked if I would be allowed to take pictures, the clerk on duty said that he didn't mind me taking pictures. Unfortunately, he was quite a character and rather unpleasant. Half-way through the exhibition, he told me to stop photographing. No reason was given. Lucky for you and me, I had been able to take quite a few pictures before I was told to stop :). Enjoy the bling ...
The above short video was shot with my phone. What you see here is one of the rooms where the vestments are shown. There are several of these large displays. They are reserved for the 'younger' vestments dating to the Baroque and Rococo (17th and 18th century). The vestments are shown in a kind of altar setting interspersed with other liturgical objects. Sets of matching liturgical vestments (cope, chasuble and dalmatic) are grouped together. As you can see the lighting is rather sparse. And the fact that most pieces are placed at a distance from the glass wall, makes studying them almost impossible. The written information was mostly limited to the name of the vestment, the date and the person who paid for it or for whom it was made. Not ideal for the curious embroideress! That said: the dim light and the 'scenic' placement of the vestments did give a good idea of how these gold embroidered vestements would have sparkled all those centuries ago. And that is an impression not many of us get to see nowadays. After all, how likely would it be to sit in a church service in the semi-dark (safety hazard!) with enough senior clergymen present (they are thinly spread these days!) that a full set of these antique vestments (museum people in uproar!) can be worn?
And this is a picture of the same display made with my Canon digital camera (no flash, just a very steady hand). On the far left, you'll see a yellow cope behind a yellow dalmatic and maniple. They belong to the so-called Harstallscher Goldornat made in 1802 for the last Prince-Bishop of Fulda Adalbert von Harstall (1737-1814). The vestments are made of silk and gold brocade with some goldwork embroidery.
Prominently in the middle of the picture are some red vestments. From the left: chasuble, stola, cope, palla, bursa, pink chasuble, pink stola and dalmatic. They belong to the so-called Roter Schleiffrasornat made in 1702 for Prince-Bishop Adalbert von Schleiffras (1650-1714). It is the oldest complete set of vestments in the museum. The vestments are made of silk and heavily decorated with goldwork embroidery.
Detail of the cope hood of the Roter Schleiffrasornat.
And this exquisite piece of goldwork embroidery can be found on the hood of the cope belonging to the Weisser Buseckscher Ornat made in 1748 for the Prince-Bishop Amand von Buseck (1685-1756). The fact that Amand was very good at drawing and a sponsor of the arts is probably reflected in the high quality of the padded goldwork on his vestments.
Amongst all the bling I discovered what looks like a 17th-century casket of some sorts. No matter how hard I tried, I couldn't take decent pictures of it. And there was no information on the piece either. But since I know that there are several 'casketeers' reading my blog, I am including it here anyway.
That's quite enough bling for today me thinks! Although it is quite difficult to see the beautiful goldwork embroidery up close due to the way the pieces are presented, the museum is well worth a visit and even a detour when you are in the area. Especially as they have some even greater embroidered treasures dating to the Middle Ages. But that's for another blog post ...
Remember the two small black clutches with goldwork embroidery? One of my readers, Monica, suggested contacting the V&A in London to see if they knew some answers to my questions. I immediately wrote them an email. However, the autoreply I got stated that they generally don't do email consultations, but that I would be most welcome to bring my bags to a consultation day in London. Great was my surprise when I did receive an email back a couple of days ago! And this is what their Assistant Curator Jess had to say about my bags:
"Many thanks for getting in touch and sharing the images of your bags. These appear to be what have become known as Zardozi bags, based on the Indian Zardozi embroidery technique, and were very popular in the mid-century. They also underwent a bit of a revival in 1980s, with many black velvet bags with vivid gold embroidery upon them in various designs, but usually in a standard size and rectangular shape. The quality and design of your bags suggest these are earlier examples, perhaps even the 1920-30's when exoticism in fashion was rife. I'd suggest these have been made for the tourist/export market, probably hand-worked but by a professional working on quite a mass scale."
How cool is that? And Jess's answers explain a few things about the previous answers I got too. For starters, there is the confusion about the dating: 1920-30s, 1950s or 1980s. And as they were mass-produced in India it is small wonder that they are relatively unknown in the Netherlands. But since they were mass-produced, it is quite clear that your average flea market dealer is not going to tell you so even if they know :).
Now that I had a name for this type of embroidery, I could search my books and the internet for more. By just typing 'Zardozi bags' into Google, I came across an image of something else my mum had acquired at a flea market:
Yup, a glasses case made with Zardozi embroidery. So what is Zardozi? Looks like ordinary goldwork to me, you might think. Right! Zar means gold and dozi means work in the Persian language. The term Zardozi is used for traditional goldwork embroidery from Turkey, India, Pakistan, Bangladesh, Iran, Iraq, Kuwait, Central Asia and Azerbaijan. A browse through my needlework books resulted in a beautiful picture of Turkish goldwork in Mary Gostelow's "Embroidery: traditional designs, techniques and patterns from all over the world" published in 1977. As is usually the case with these overview books, there is not much additional information in the text. But lo and behold, my library contained two books with large sections on goldwork embroidery from the Ottoman Empire and the Arab World.
The book 'Flowers of Silk & Gold: four centuries of Ottoman Embroidery' by Sumru Belger Krody describes the collection of the Textile Museum in Washington D.C. It is a beautiful book with in-depth chapters about the history of the Ottoman Empire, embroidery techniques and embroiderers and the designs and types of embroidered goods as well as a great catalogue of the collection. The book was published in 2000 and the pictures are really good; I highly recommend it if you are interested in Ottoman textiles!
What does the book say on zardozi? It describes zerdüz (Turkish form of the Persian word) as an Ottoman embroidery using gold or silver wire or a braid and couching it down with a similar coloured thread. It is apparently similar to Ottoman dival embroidery. So what is dival embroidery? From the description, in the book, it becomes clear that this is gimped couching over cardboard padding. The design could be further enhanced with purls, sequins and pearls. I get the feeling that dival is seen as native to Turkey and zerdüz as foreign. The Ottoman Empire encompassed large stretches of Europe and Asia, so that is understandable.
The last book with zardozi embroidery has been written by Gillian Vogelsang-Eastwood of the Textile Research Centre in Leiden. It is called 'Embroidery from the Arab World' and was published in 2010. This is an excellent book detailing the history of embroidery in this part of the world from the earliest examples in Egyptian Pharaonic tombs (early 14th century BC) to the modern era. With lots of background information on the history of the regions and social contexts of the embroidery and embroidered items. And the pictures are spectacular and come in great numbers. Another must-have for those of you interested in embroidery from this part of the world!
In this book, zardozi embroidery is called zari (metal thread embroidery). Badla is another form of metal thread embroidery associated with India, the Gulf region, Syria and Egypt. The later includes plate being used as a 'sewing thread' rather than being couched onto the fabric as is done in Western goldwork embroidery.
As can be seen from the terminology above, there are many terms which refer to particular types of goldwork embroidery. This is due to the fact that 'the Arab World' stretches from Mauritania to Syria to Oman and Somalia. Regional differences are likely reflected in these terms. At the same time, as these distinct regions function within the cultural meta-system of the 'Arab World', techniques, materials and designs blend and influence each other.
About four years ago, my mum discovered a little black velvet clutch with goldwork embroidery and white beads at a flea market. Now she has found another one! It is clearly of the same general type, but with another goldwork design. Let's have a closer look! The first clutch was covered in detail in this blog post.
Contrary to the first clutch my mum discovered, I really like the embroidery on this one! The trellis is made with pearl purl #1. The junctions are covered with a cross-stitch using two pieces of rough purl #6. The trellis is completely filled with pretty little flowers. Each little flower is made up of four petals: a larger cross-stitch with two pieces of rough purl #6 with each 'leg' of the cross encased with a piece of bright check bullion #4. The border surrounding the trellis consists of rectangular shapes made of 9-10 parallel pieces of rough purl #6 encased by four pieces of bright check bullion #4. The rectangles are surrounded by more pearl purl #1 and pairs of large chips made of bright check bullion #4.
The bag has clearly seen much love :). Especially the bright check bullion has come unwrapped in many places. This is such a rough thread that you can easily imagine how it got caught on clothing. There is also a spot in the middle, a little off centre, where the threads are heavily tarnished. This is precisely where the thumb of a right-handed women would rest when she holds her clutch.
As I never received any comments on the first blog post regarding these fascinating little bags, I asked some experts for help. First up was the curator of the Museum of Bags and Purses in Amsterdam. I was hoping that these bags are so common that she would be able to assess its provenance and age. Unfortunately, she couldn't as the bags have no label. However, she recommended asking Dr. Gilian Vogelsang-Eastwood of the Textile Research Centre in Leiden. As I've met Gilian years ago, it was really nice emailing my questions to her. Her suggestion was that these bags are not very old: second half of the 20th century and made by fashion houses for the tourist industry. It is clear to goldwork embroiderers that the embroidery on the bags is rather cheap and cheerful than exquisite. The construction of the bags is also rather simple and done with cheaper materials (see first blog post for details).
Personally, I still think that these bags were made by needlework enthusiasts rather than fashion houses or workshops. And I think they are a bit older: first half of the 20th century. And I think they were made, broadly speaking, in the Low Countries. If they were a cheap mass product from India, the curator of the Museum of Bags would have come across them before, I think. But what about you? What do you think regarding the age and provenance of these adorable little bags? Do leave your comment below!
When I was still working on Pope Francis, I already had the idea for my next piece in my head. After a bit of research, I have made the drawings and transferred the pattern onto 40ct Zweigart natural linen. As the piece is quite big, I had to use a window to do the pattern transfer. And even then it only just fit. So what is it going to be?
I am sort of working on a series using the religious goldwork produced in the first half of the 16th century as my inspiration. After two orphreys (St. Laurence and Pope Francis) I needed a bigger canvas for the next story I wanted to tell. So I am going for the shield of a cope or pluviale in Latin. This type of garment may be worn by all ranks of clergy during processions. It is modelled on the late Roman raincoat. The now decorative shield was originally a hood.
For me, the migration crisis of 2015 has left some powerful images in my head. There were these family fathers on Munich main station looking so stressed when trying to keep their wife and children safe. I immediately wondered how well my own father would cope with us at the central train station in Damascus. He is good with keeping an eye on us, but his Arabic is rather poor... Furthermore, I and my husband travelled amongst refugee families when coming from Vienna. When I confirmed that we had crossed the German border some refugees started to praise God. But the most powerful picture of them all has been that of the little Syrian boy Alan Kurdi washed up on a beach in Turkey. Whatever your views on immigration, a drowned two-year-old war victim is a shame on us all. That's why the Latin word for 'sin' is written in the sand.
My cope shield shows how Saint Nicholas finds the body of Alan on the beach. Saint Nicholas was bishop of Myra, in Turkey, in the early fourth century. He happens to be the patron saint of sailors. Also on my cope shield is the silhouette of the Greek island of Kos. Alan and his family were trying to reach Kos when their inflatable boat capsized and many drowned. The body of Alan's mother and brother also washed ashore. When researching for the piece, I found out that the family had tried to officially immigrate to Canada as they already had family there. Fulfilling all the bureaucratic requirements proved impossible and so the application was denied. This sad story has a lot of similarities to the heart-breaking stories of Jews who tried to migrate out of Nazi Germany in the 1930s.
So what am I planning to do embroidery-wise? The dome and columns framing the piece are going to be couched goldwork. The figures of St Nick and Alan Kurdi will be done in or nue. For the fast background of sand, sea and sky I will be using classical canvas filling stitches. Especially for the later, I am hoping to use fairtrade hand-dyed silks by House of Embroidery. Poverty and hopelessness, now increasingly the result of climate change, are the underlying factors of conflict and migration. Let's combat this one stitch at a time!
Before we finish the pope (hmm, for some reason this sounds very wrong), I'd like to tell you about a special place I visited this weekend: the Abbey of Niederaltaich. Here, Benedictine monks live according to the Roman Catholic rite (West) and the Byzantine rite (East). They celebrate divine office parallel in two churches: a Catholic church and a Russian Orthodox church. As, during the Russian revolution, the Russian Orthodox church was suppressed, the pope asked several Benedictine monasteries to study and celebrate the Byzantine rite (and possibly take in refugee monks from Russia) in order to preserve this branch of Christianity. Niederaltaich is such an 'Ark' and continues to function in this unique way. And as a visitor, you are more than welcome to join them and ask lots of questions. I and my husband were fortunate enough to be invited to the Easter service at a small monastery on Crete last year, but couldn't understand much due to the language barrier. At Niederaltaich however, the Russian and Greek have been completely translated into German. And the signing of the monks is just divine. And so are the beautiful icons. If you are interested in such things, this is definitely a place you should visit!
In last week's blog post you could read how I finished the background. This week you'll see how I finished the figure of the pope and how I put the whole picture together. Firstly, I had to build up the rest of the figure with or nue. As the pope is always mainly dressed in white, this isn't an easy task. I've used two shades of white and two shades of grey silk to work the or nue over silver-coloured Japanese thread. Contrasts are rather subtle and the next time, I will probably opt for stronger contrast. You can see in the picture how I use my pencil to add remarks on shading and colour placement.
The hands and faces are always very finely silk shaded. When I worked St. Laurence, I learned that simply silk shading over the Japanese thread doesn't work. Instead, I use Bondaweb and a small piece of very fine linen. The Bondaweb prevents the linen from frying. I've cut out the hands and glued them in place. I then carefully silk shaded the hands and outlined them.
Silk shading the face posed a problem when stitching St. Laurence. The 40ct Zweigart linen was just too coarse to get a fine enough result. I remedied that this time by glueing a small piece of the very fine linen in place using Bondaweb again. It worked really well! I did not attempt to get a life-like image of the face of the pope from the photo I had. In that picture, he has very dark bags under his eyes and quite red ears... Instead, I opted for a more cartoon-style face. Just so people recognise him as Pope Francis.
Last but not least, I defined the figure further by couching down fine silver plated Twist on the pope's clothing. I also added small beads for the buttons. Years ago, I found a small silver-coloured cross and it happened to be perfect for this piece!
With the background and the figure finished, it is time for the scary bit: putting the two together. First comes the cutting-out of the figure. The small seam is turned under and secured with a little dab of glue. The background gets re-framed onto my slate frame. I keep the tension just below drum-taut, this time. I then pin the figure into place and applique him to the background with a matching thread. In this case, I also needed to insert the stumpwork hands I had made from wrapping paper covered wire with a single strand of stranded silk.
One of the hands holds a wooden parrot that came off a pair of earrings I had saved from the bin at a charity shop. The same holds true for the peace-symbol. The venus or female symbol is made of a metal washer. The "plus" part is stitched with metallic thread by Kreinik. By placing a black outline around it, the different parts form a single symbol. The rainbow flag was made by stitching single rows of chain stitch in the appropriate colours using DeVere yarns silks. The stick is a piece of gold-coloured paper covered wire.
For maximum contrast and in keeping with late-medieval traditions, I outlined the pope with black silk. I then cut out the whole orphrey and turned under the seam. I framed a piece of red patterned cotton damask onto my slate frame and appliqued the orphrey onto the new backing. Currently, the piece is at the framers to get the same hand-gilded frame as St. Laurence has. Can't wait for the piece to return to me!
In the mean-time, I have started the drawing for the next piece. Not an orphrey, but the hood of a cope this time. I need a bit more space to tell the story of illegal immigration across the Mediterranian Sea. More on that in a future blog post. You can find the other blog posts on Pope Francis by clicking the category on the right side.
A few days after I had submitted my goldwork piece for the 'Emerging Fiber Artist' print exhibition by the Fiber Art Network, I received an email. Pope Francis had not made it into the exhibition due to the high volume of extraordinary work submitted this year. I did ask if they could be a little more specific, but I did not receive an answer. My guess is that, due to its religious content, my piece might be uncomfortable. Or maybe it is because I am not an emerging, but an established textile artist? Or were they looking for more abstract pieces? Or more mixed-media? We will only know when the print exhibition comes out. In the meantime, let's continue exploring how I made Francis shine!
One of the main differences between modern goldwork techniques and the way Late-Medieval embroiderers used their gold threads, is that they don't plunge. You can see that clearly in the picture above. The ends of the threads forming the lentil around the window are just cut to size and then secured with a few extra stitches. Another difference: gold threads are happily layered. This is often done to accentuate parts of the design. Or to hide an ugly edge as in the picture above. The gilt Twist covers the ends and turns at the top of the gold screen behind the figure. At first, it is really weird to lay a goldthread over other goldthreads and stitching it in place. Yes, you might stitch through the threads, but that's okay! And this layering of threads opens up so many nice possibilities.
As I am not doing a historical reconstruction, I was able to use 'modern' threads. Originally, the separations between the roofing tiles were stitched with passing thread. Due to the pattern, they had to start and stop the thread many times. Far too time-consuming! I decided to use the Coronet Braid #8 by Rainbow Gallery. I couched my long stitches down with a fine metallic threads by YLI.
I struggled a bit with the keystone. The padding was a straightforward yellow cotton string. But then I used the same thread as I had used for the gold screen: gilt passing thread #6. However, I wasn't pleased with the result. The thread was just too stiff to sit smoothly atop the padding. So, out it came... That's not a nice job and it probably took twice as long as putting it in. Due to the fact that some of it went on top of previous stitching, that had to be repaired too. Luckily, my second attempt with a finer passing thread looks very pleasing.
Next up were the city or castle walls. Firstly, I put in all the string padding. When the padding was wider, I simply couched down an additional piece of waxed yellow string. The construction of the city walls is very straight forward: couching down gilt passing thread #6 with red Chinese flat silk.
Again, the edges are covered with two thicknesses of gilt Twist. This defines the shapes and hides the rough edges underneath.
Next up is the construction of the middle section of the city walls. Due to the nature of goldwork, you are often left with gaps between previous stitching and the next. In this case, there is a gap between the passing thread and the red silken lentil of the window. However, this gap nearly disappears when the Twist is couched over the top.
This is what the finished city walls look like. Next up was the 'keystone' on the roof. I padded it with stranded cotton using chain stitches. This is an ideal way to pad irregular shapes as it is very flexible. I then used gimped couching with the thinner passing thread to fill the shape. To let it stand out some more, I added an edge of couched black stranded silk.
I drew the two towers on a separate piece of linen. Making separate pieces and then applique-ing them onto the piece gives the whole embroidery a better sense of depth. This stumpwork is a key characteristic of these Late-Medieval embroideries. After the string padding and the or nue couching, I cut out the pieces. I turned the small seam under and secured it with a dap of white glue. I pinned the towers in place and couched them down. I added a spangle with a 3mm amethyst bead (bought when I visited Crete) to the diamond shapes. And last, but not least, I couched down a black stranded silk edge around the tower shapes for maximum contrast. To finish the background, I couched down two double rows of Rococo thread with red Chinese flat silk.
As this blog post is already rather lengthy, I'll save the finishing of the figure and the putting together of figure and background for a future blog post. You can find all blog posts related to this project by clicking Pope Francis in the categories menu on the right.
Jessica M. Grimm
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