In a minute, I'll take you on a trip to see some world-class medieval embroidery in the Musee Cluny in Paris. But first, I'd like to thank those generous souls who responded to my donation plea at the bottom of last week's blog. Thank you so much for sponsoring what amounted to a tank of gas! Very much appreciated.
Last week, I and my husband visited the exhibition "L'art en broderie au moyen age" at the Musee Cluny in Paris. The exhibition draws together medieval embroidery from the museum's own collection and from other collections in Europe. Private textile collections from the 19th century (such as the one from Franz Bock) got split up at some point and fragments of the same piece would end up in the Victoria & Albert Museum in London and the Musee Cluny in Paris. It was great to see some happy reunions!
I encountered many new to me pieces as well as some 'old friends'. The exhibition was very popular with a wide range of visitors. And there was so much on display that we actually visited twice. Hence, I can't cover it all in one blog post. Today we'll look at the masterpieces from the Germanic lands and the Mosan region (the old Bishopric of Liege). These pieces are characterised by a Romanesque style which still contains many elements of classical art. They have an older feel to them. In addition, these pieces are often completely stitched in coloured silks on linen.
One of my favourite pieces of the whole exhibition was the altar cloth or antependium from Mechelen (now part of Belgium). The piece measures 82,5 x 186,5 cm and was made in the early 14th century. The piece depicts four scenes from the Saints lives: Saint Martin healing the infirm, Saint Mark being persecuted during Easter Mass, Saint John sleeping on Christ's lap and Saint John drinking poison in front of Aristodemus of Ephesus. The whole piece consists of counted needlepoint in silks and some gold on a linen background. The different parts of the design are filled with a myriad of counted needlepoint stitches made up of satin stitches. The stitches used for the background give it an embossed appearance. Look at the picture of the face of Saint Mark to see the fineness and the quality of the linen background used for this stunning piece of embroidery.
Another stunning piece is this frieze for an antependium made AD 1320-1330 in either the Mosan region or greater Paris. This piece was very hard to photograph due to the way it was displayed. The piece shows scenes from the life of Saint Martin of Tours. You can see him in the second picture sitting on his horse and cutting his mantle in half. The piece is only 19 cm high, but a staggering 256 cm long! The embroidery uses coloured silks and both gold and silver threads. Where the embroidery has worn away, the pattern drawing and the linen padding can be clearly seen. I especially like the treatment of the hair of the figures: very textured with a lot of tiny knots.
The third and last piece I like to draw your attention to is a beautiful alms pouch. It is made in the same counted needlepoint technique with silks and gold threads as seen on the antependium from Mechelen. The shine on the silken stitches is unbelievable! This particular purse was made around AD 1300 in either the Mosan region or the Germanic lands. As medieval clothing came without pockets, people wore purses like these to store their money and other belongings such as prayer beads, a book of hours etc. The name 'alms pouch/purse' refers to the common practice of giving alms to the poor as part of your everyday Christian duty. You can find an excellent article on these purses here.
There were many more beautiful pieces on display in this part of the exhibition. For those of you who were not able to visit in person, I can highly recommend the exhibition catalogue. It is packed full with good quality pictures and many close-ups. And for those of you who would like to try their hands at counted needlepoint in silk on linen: have a look at my very profane and modern embroidery kits for this technique: Autumn Pumpkin & Winter Snowman. More on my textile adventures in Paris in further blog posts!
Descatoire, C., 2019. L'art en broderie au moyen age. Musee de Cluny. ISBN: 978-2-7118-7428-6.
Müller-Christensen, S. & M. Schuette, 1963. Das Stickereiwerk. Wasmuth. No ISBN.
Wilckens, L. von, 1991. Die textilen Künste von der Spätantike bis um 1500. Beck. ISBN 3-406-35363-0.
P.S. Did you like this blog article? Did you learn something new? When yes, then please consider making a small donation. Visiting museums and doing research inevitably costs money. Supporting me and my research is much appreciated ❤!
P.P.S. Don't forget to sign up for my newsletter so you'll have a chance of winning a selection of embroidery threads each month!
Happy New Year to you all! My 2020 started with a 630 km round-trip to Bamberg. The diocesan museum houses some of the finest medieval goldwork embroideries in Europe. These exquisite pieces are a staggering 1000-years old! I was able to take some good pictures, which I am going to share with you here. Unfortunately, there was virtually no information available in the museum so I can't really tell you much about the pieces. However, I've ordered some literature and will do a further post with those details when the papers arrive.
Probably the most famous piece held at the museum is the so-called "Sternenmantel Kaiser Heinrich II des Heiligen" (star mantle of Saint emperor Henry II). It was used as a cope or pluviale and measures 297 cm by 154 cm. The mantle shows Christological depictions, astrological signs and 14 roundels with busts of saints and many Latin inscriptions explaining what is depicted. Unfortunately, the gold embroidery was re-applied to the blue Italian silk damask we see today in 1503. The original design got mixed up and not all writing makes sense. Some scholars argue that in fact two mantles were made into one.
The original background fabric was a dark-purple silk samite. Traces can still be seen on the inside of the different design elements. When the pieces were transferred onto the new blue damask, the edges were covered with a thick white strand of silk couched down with a thinner strand of white silk. To have an even better attachment, some of the design lines on the inside were covered with split or chain stitches using red silk. The original gold embroidery uses VERY fine passing thread and white, red, blue and green silk for the couching stitches. It looked to me that the passing thread has been couched as a single thread, rather than in pairs.
Traditionally, this mantle is dated to AD 1010-1020 and its place of origin as Regensburg with a ?. The mantle is seen, based on the embroidered inscriptions, as a gift from Melus of Bari (died 1020 in Bamberg) when he sought the support of Emperor Henry II for his revolt against the Byzantine Empire. It is, therefore, more logical that the mantle was made in Southern Italy.
The second famous mantle held at the diocesan museum in Bamberg is that of Saint Kunigunde, wife of emperor Henry II. This cope measures 286 cm by 162,5 cm and shows biblical scenes, a.o. related to Christ saviour and to the lives of the patrons of Bamberg Cathedral: St. Peter and St. Paul. Lettering around each roundel explains the stitched scenes. This cope was likely a donation by empress Kunigunde to the cathedral and made around 1020 AD in Southern Germany.
The original VERY fine goldwork embroidery was stitched on a background of blue silk twill. There are 56 parallel passing threads per centimetre (!!!) and this means that each passing thread (a strip of gold foil spun around a silk core, see my previous blog on the manufacture of gold threads) had a width of about 0.18 mm. In comparison: my finest passing thread (Stech 50/60 CS) has a width of 0.22 mm. Pretty mindblowing, don't you think?! For the figures, these parallel passing threads lay vertically and are couched down in several different patterns using white, red, light- and dark blue silks. Further details are stitched in stem stitch. The embroideries from this mantle have also been re-applied onto a new fabric in the 16th century.
Why have these two pieces survived in such splendid condition? This is due to the fact that both copes or mantles were related to the emperor and his empress. Both were sanctified. Bamberg employed these famous saints for their own marketing purposes since the late Middle Ages. This is likely the reason why the pieces were re-applied and probably altered then. Quasi to strengthen the case of the link between Bamberg and these two saints.
Currently, a four-year research project on these vestments runs until 30-09-2020. For the first time, the art historians are employing scientific techniques to determine the origins of the materials used in these exquisite goldwork embroideries. We can thus look forward to a volume of papers being published on the subject in the coming years!
Enzensberger, H., 2007. Bamberg und Apulien, in: Das Bistum Bamberg in der Welt des Mittelalters (=Bamberger interdisziplinäre Mittelalterstudien. Vorträge und Vorlesungen 1), C. & K. van Eickels (eds), p. 141–150.
Kohwagner-Nikolai, T., 2014. O Decus Europae Cesar Heinrice? Die Saumumschrift des sogenannten Bamberger Sternenmantels Kaiser Heinrichs II, Archiv für Diplomatik, Schriftgeschichte, Siegel- und Wappenkunde 60/1, p. 135–164.
Schuette, M. & Müller-Christensen, S., 1963. Das Stickereiwerk. Wasmuth. No ISBN.
P.S. Did you like this blog article? Did you learn something new? When yes, then please consider making a small donation. Visiting museums and doing research inevitably costs money. Supporting me and my research is much appreciated ❤!
P.P.S. Don't forget to sign up for my newsletter so you'll have a chance of winning a selection of embroidery threads each month!
When I was in Trento, Italy, a couple of weeks ago, I did also visit the Diocesan Museum. It houses an important and impressive collection of ecclesiastical art. The building itself is the old Praetorian Palace where the Prince-Bishops of Trento lived. From one of the rooms you can actually look down into the Cathedral. Quite a spectacular sight! Although the museum houses many exquisite works of art, my main concern where the embroidered vestments. There are a few very fine examples of medieval goldwork embroidery on display.
The most important pieces consist of a chasuble cross and five orphreys from a dalmatic (vestment worn by the deacon). The sublime silk and goldwork embroidery was executed between 1390 and 1400 in Bohemia. Now part of the Czech Republic, but then an important and independent kingdom ruled by the House of Luxembourg. Charles IV (1316-1378) became king of Bohemia and also Holy Roman Emperor in 1346. He is the founder of the Charles University in Prague, the first one in Central-Europe. This was Bohemia's Golden Age and it is thus no wonder that there were embroidery artists of this skill working within its borders.
The chasuble cross and the orphreys are part of the vestments made for Prince-Bishop Georg von Liechtenstein (reign 1390-1419). He was born in Moravia. Now part of the Czech Republic and bordering Bohemia. Since AD 955 it formed a union with Bohemia. It seems that Georg patronised local Bohemian/Moravian embroidery artists when he moved to Trento in AD 1390. But on the orphreys he had them tell a typical Tridentine story: the vita of Saint Vigilius of Trent. The patron saint and first bishop of Trento. I can see why he used his fellow countrymen to make these works of art: the style is rather distinctive. With friendly round faces and bodies. Once you pay attention, you can spot a Bohemian embroidery before reading the museum caption. Perhaps, similarly today, Czech and especially Czechlowakian postal stamps have a very distinctive style.
Also on display was a chasuble made of white linen and embroidered with silks. I've written an ebook on these particular vestments made in the 17th century in Tyrol. This particular piece isn't made with great skill :). But the patterns and the colours of the flowers are identical to the flowers on the chasuble from the Diocesan Museum of Brixen. However, the Museum in Trento dates the piece much later: first half of the 19th century. But also admits that not much is known about its provenance.
When Trento does not happen to be next door to where you live, the museum published two excellent books (in Italian I am afraid) on its textile collection:
Devoti, D., D. Digilio & D. Primerano, 1999. Vesti liturgiche e frammenti tessili nella raccolta del Museo Diocesano Tridentino, no ISBN. Officially out of print, but available second-hand when you ask Google :).
Primerano, D. 2011. Una storia a ricamo. La ricomposizione di un raro ciclo boemo di fine Trencento, ISBN 978-88-97372-02-8. Ask Google :).
Some of you will know that I don't have a tv. Instead, I watch interesting documentaries (and highly necessary series like 'The Great British Bake Off`) directly on my laptop. One of my favourite channels is 'Arte' a French-German co-production. During this weekend's browse, I found a five-part series on the artisan production of fabric in Asia. Very beautiful and informative! The one on India zooms in on an embroidery atelier in Mumbai directed by the Italian professional embroiderer Maximiliano Modesti. He employs 600 embroiderers. All male, 98% muslim. Women do embroider, but not in a professional setting. This made me wonder how things were done in the 15th and 16th centuries in the Low Countries? After all, my favourite style of goldwork embroidery that I use as a basis for my artwork was made during this time. Would master embroiderer Jacob van Malborch have employed me if I had also lived in Utrecht in the first quarter of the 16th century?
Someone who has done extensive research during the '80s and '90s into the organisation of professional embroiderers during the late Middle Ages and the Early Modern Times in the Low Countries is Prof. Dr. Saskia de Bodt. She extended and corrected the earlier attempts of Dr. Beatrice Jansen executed some 40 years earlier. In more recent years, art historian Dr. Marike van Roon researched the Dutch embroidery ateliers active between 1830-1965 extensively. As far as I know, more recent research into the role and organisation of medieval embroiderers is not available for the Low Countries. Note: It seems that the above-named scholars started their careers researching embroidery, but soon gave up in favour of more 'real' art history like 19th-century paintings or ceramics. Even in research, embroidery seems to have an image problem ...
After going through many written sources such as the financial records of churches and towns, baptism records, marriage registers and death records from the 15th- 17th century located in the Northern Netherlands, Saskia de Bodt concludes that the professional embroiderer was a man. Only the men, like Jacob van Malborch and many others, are named. If a woman does show up in the records it is not under her own name but only as huysvrou van (housewife of) followed by the name of the master embroiderer. However, women were not explicitly excluded from the guild either. On the contrary. When the embroiderers of Utrecht formed their own guild in 1610, the guild ordinance speaks of meestersschen (female masters). The guild of embroiderers in Leeuwarden probably only consisted of men as the ordinance only mentions meesters and inwoonderssonen (masters and sons of poorters). But in Dordrecht, the embroiderers split from the St. Luke guild in 1487 as a result of a feud between the women ...
So would master Jacob van Malborch have taken me on as an apprentice? Possibly. Would someone have written down my name? Certainly not in the Low Countries. Female embroiderers are known from the written sources in other European countries. So I could have learned the ropes with master Jacob and then, after fretting over not making it into the written record, emigrate to Cologne or over the seas to England. But that's stuff for a further blog post.
Bodt, S.F.M. de, 1991. Borduurwerkers aan het werk voor de Utrechtse kapittel- en parochiekerken 1500-1580, Oud Holland 105, pp. 1-31.
Bodt, S.F.M. de, 1987. De professionele borduurwerkers. In: S.F.M. de Bodt, M.L. Caron et al, Schilderen met gouddraad en zijde, Museum Catharijneconvent Utrecht.
Jansen, B., 1948. Laat Gotisch borduurwerk in Nederland, Boucher.
Last week I was finally able to visit this magnificent embroidery exhibition in the Castello Buonconsiglio in Trento, Italy. It is on until the third of November and I urge you to visit if at all possible as it is as important as the Dutch exhibition in Utrecht in 2015 or the Opus Anglicanum exhibition in London in 2016. And yes there is a wonderful catalogue, but just as the Dutch did, the Italians thought it a brilliant idea to publish the scientific papers on these extraordinary pieces in their own language. At 423 pages, it will take me aeons to translate ...However, it is packed full with stunning pictures of the embroidery. Including many close-ups. Together with the 400+ pictures I took during my three-hour visit, it will be a treasure trove for years to come! You will hopefully understand that I can't publish all the 400+ pictures in this one blog post. Instead, I will concentrate on three (well actually four) extraordinary pieces that were on display.
First up is a chasuble made in the middle of the 15th century in Venice. Why did I pick this particular one to show you? If you are used to the orphreys from the Low Countries, these Venetian examples look very different. They show the same main principle: saint in front of some fancy architecture. But the embroidery techniques used are somewhat different. The examples from the Low Countries use much more gold thread for the architectural backgrounds. And their linen background is fully covered with embroidery. Not so in this piece: the background is stitched on green silk. They look airy and light; a typical sign of the art of the Renaissance. The examples from the Low Countries are in comparison much stiffer and heavy.
The figures themselves are also embroidered in a different way than the majority of the pieces from the Low Countries. As in the Low Countries, the figures are embroidered onto a linen base. However, the embroidery technique used is a form of shaded laid-work using untwisted coloured silk for the undergarments. Simple couching of pairs of fine passing thread for the cloak and fine silk shading for the faces and hands. The figures in the orphreys from the Low Countries are mainly done in splendid or nue. Unfortunately, the stiffness of the linen base in comparison to the lightness of the green silk makes the piece pucker. Not easy to photograph!
Most incredibly, this chasuble is still worn every 3rd of May on the feast of the Apostles Philip and James!
Next up is an example of a chasuble which fascinates me hugely. This is serious stumpwork made at the start of the 16th century somewhere in the German-speaking parts of Central Europe. You come across this type regularly in this part of the world (there are in fact two more in the exhibition), but this is an exceptionally stunning piece with highly sculptured figures. The faces are incredible! And look at Jesus's curly hair.
A theory put forward by Aleth Lorne (2015, p. 99-102) to explain these highly sculptural pieces is that the embroiderers and the woodcarvers in the German-speaking parts of Central Europe influenced each other in their search for the three-dimensional rendition of the world. Both craftsmen were often part of the same guild and probably used the same designs made by yet another craftsman. These pieces were so well-known that they are recognisably depicted on paintings from the same period, but not necessarily from the same area. People were clearly fascinated by these pieces. Particularly good examples further adorned with thousands of fresh-water pearls can be seen in the treasury of the Basilica of Mariazell in Austria.
There is just one thing about this chasuble which I do not understand. See the bottom? Someone brutally cut through Saint Joachim when the taste in chasuble shapes changed from wide to a violin-case. This probably happened in the 17th century (Stolleis 2001, p. 29). I hope the scissors wore out :).
And last but not least, I am going to show you two dalmatics (vestments worn by the deacon) made in the Netherlands at the start of the 16th century. These new acquisitions by the museum lead to this exquisite exhibition. They are displayed in the last room together with three other chasubles. And the best thing is: they are not behind glass! You can get up close and personal with them :). The orphreys on these dalmatics are of the typical type seen on vestments from the Low Countries from this era (you now clearly see the difference with the first chasuble I showed you which was made in Venice). Completely covered in embroidery and featuring beautiful or nue on the figures. The pieces are quite similar to the vestments made for David of Burgundy, bishop of Utrecht in the 15th century. They are in fact so similar that I for a moment thought that they were the ones made for David.
The vestments made for David were probably embroidered by an atelier in Utrecht. These slightly later dalmatics could either be embroidered in Amsterdam or indeed Utrecht. I got the giggles when I saw that the museum Castello Bonconsiglio thinks that Amsterdam and Utrecht are situated in Flanders. Not quite. But close :).
Dal Pra, L., M. Carmignani & P. Peri (2019): Fili d'oro e dipinti di seta. Velluti e ricami tra Gotico e Rinascimento. Castello del Buonconsiglio.
Lorne, A. (2015): Borduurwerkers en beeldhouwers in de Nederlanden en het Rijnland in de late Middeleeuwen. In: M. Leeflang & K. van Schooten, Middeleeuwse borduurkunst uit de Nederlanden, Museum Catharijneconvent Utrecht, pp. 95-103.
Stoleis, K. (2001): Messgewänder aus deutschen Kirchenschätzen vom Mittelalter bis zur Gegenwart, Regensburg.
P.S. If you like what you see, please consider making a donation using the PayPal button in the right-side column. Hugely appreciated!
Ever since my visit to Cheb in the Czech Republic earlier this year, when we went to see the Egerer antependium, I wanted to try my hand at a small replica. Since the beading on the antependium is done on parchment/vellum, that was easier said than done! However, I finally managed to recreate a small portion of this stunning medieval beadwork. And I am going to share my journey with you in this blog post.
The first thing I needed for my efforts was a piece of parchment/vellum. Luckily there is a German online-shop (run by archaeologists!) who sell all sorts of re-enactment stuff. And they do parchment/vellum too. I ended up buying good quality parchment rather than vellum, I think. They are in essence the same material: thinly scraped animal skin. Vellum is the absolute premium version made of the skins of young animals. For months I was actually afraid to start the stitching. On the one hand my fingers were itching to start, but on the other hand I did not quite know where to begin. So my sheet of parchment sat on the shelves, patiently waiting.
The main question I needed to get answered was how to work with the parchment. Does one hold it in hand and stitch or does one put it in some sort of embroidery frame? Searching the internet, I came across a blog entry of a re-enactment lady. She just stitched a small motive in the hand and was successful. I decided to do the same and worry about the framing of a larger piece of parchment later :). The parchment is actually so stiff that you can hold it comfortably in hand whilst stitching.
The second main component would be the beads. On the original, the beads are quite small but irregular. Using some of my collection of perfectly formed Japanese high-quality beads would just not be the same. Luckily, I hade some, otherwise crappy, cheap hobby beads in about a size 9 and a size 10. Perfectly irregular :). The original beads are more like a size 11. I even had these in roughly the right colours: sea-green, dark blue, pearly white and coral red.
The third component proved to be quite difficult and partly impossible to get. In amongst the beadwork on the original are stamped metal decorations. The closest I could get were those gilt 'folien' used to make a bundle of grapes in goldwork embroidery. Whilst they worked fine for some parts of the capital motive I had chosen to replicate, it did not work for the centre. I ended up using a fancy 'folie' and filled in the empty space with small golden-coloured beads.
On to the stitching! But first, I transferred my chosen motive onto the parchment using a pencil. From my pictures and the written information I had on the antependium, I was able to deduce that the capitals of the columns between the saints were about 5.4 cm in height. That's what I based my pattern on. I then started by stitching the design lines of the petals first using my blue beads, a number 10 needle and Coats Dual Duty glaced hand-quilting thread made of polyester and cotton. In the original piece they probably used a linen thread.
According to the written sources and from what I could see in my pictures, the appropriate number of beads were strung first and then couched down with a separate thread and needle every two beads or so. At first, this felt as if I needed an extra pair of hands! Holding the parchment in one and manipulating two working threads with the other wasn't easy. Especially not as the needle only pierces the parchment when a certain amount of force is applied. However, after struggling for a while, I changed my method slightly. Firstly, I did away with the couching thread. Instead, I laid out the strung beads carefully on the design-line, go down with my needle in the appropriate spot, and then couched between the beads using the same thread. In this way I could eliminate the extra pair of hands :). As it proved very hard to hit the exact spot from the back of the parchment (parchment is surprisingly slippery stuff), I ended up making holes from the front and subsequently finding them from the back. Much, much easier!
To attach my 'folien', I carefully punched two small holes in the rim using a larger needle and a normal hammer. Usually only one hole turned out successfully, but that proved to be enough to hold the piece in place long enough until I had couched the beads around it. As the folien have a small flat rim or lip, the couched ring of beads keeps it in place.
Once all the beading was done, I cut out the beaded element as close to the beads as I dared. In my embroidery hoop, I stretched a piece of terracotta dupion silk over 36ct even-weave linen (the original has a linen support too) and appliqued the beaded element in place using the Coats Dual Duty thread. Last but not least, I mounted my small replica onto acid-free cardboard and added a linen backing. I am planning on sending it to the museum so they can use it for educational purposes. As I used slightly larger beads than were used in the original, my motive measures 6.2 cm in height.
I hope you liked my foray into medieval bead embroidery. At some point I would like to attempt one of the saints. However, I will need to find a solution for framing the parchment as that will be too large to hold in hand. I would also like to find a source for larger stamped metal decorations such as were used in the original. If you know of a source, please let me know!
There are quite a few embroidery exhibitions going on at the moment or coming up in the near future. As I am going to all of these (in the name of CPD!), you will all have the opportunity to read about them on this blog. However, with this advance notice, some of you might be able to go an visit yourselves!
First up is an embroidery exhibition in Trient, Italy. Until the third of November, 40 vestments from all over Northern Italy and dating to the second half of the 15th to the first decades of the 16th century are shown in the Castello del Buonconsiglio. There is also a catalogue available. Here are some more beautiful pictures of the vestments on display. As some were specially restored for this exhibition, it is surely going to be a treat!
From the 24th of October till the 20th of January 2020, there is an exhibition on medieval embroidery on at the Museum Cluny in Paris. You can find the general press release here and a full list of high-lights with pictures here.
And last but not least: our 'own' exhibition in London from the 12th till 17th November! My piece of Pope Francis will be joined by many, many amazing pieces from a great number of contemporary embroidery artists from all over the world. An opportunity not to be missed!
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!
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?
Jessica M. Grimm
Want to keep up with my embroidery adventures? Sign up for my weekly Newsletter and get a chance at winning a selection of embroidery threads!
Liked my blog? Please consider making a donation so that I can keep up the good work and my blog ad-free!