At the beginning of January, I and my husband were lucky enough to be able to visit the embroidery exhibition in Paris. Today I'll show you some stunning pieces from the Opus Anglicanum section. The term for this type of embroidery from the 12th-14th centuries translates as 'work from England' and usually consists of very fine silken split stitches and underside couching. It was greatly valued throughout Europe especially, but not solely, for religious purposes. Therefore, you will find these stunning pieces of embroidery in museums all over Europe. But beware: not all Opus Anglicanum embroidery was actually made in England or by English hands. Medieval Europe was already so well connected that both ideas and people travelled a lot.
The graves of bishops are a great place to search for medieval embroidery. Bishops were usually laid to rest in their finery in a grave with better preservational conditions than Joe Average. Antiquarians from the 19th century knew that too and when these graves were opened for whatever reason, they brought their scissors along. This is illustrated for instance on a pair of liturgical sandals from a grave from the Cathedral of Saint-Front in Perigueux: three different museums own pieces of the same pair of sandals.
Today, many museum visitors turn their noses up when they see these brownish fragments of textile. They are mostly not 'pretty' in the usual sense. But I was very pleased to see that Musee de Cluny devoted a whole display case to these extraordinary finds. For obvious reasons, the levels of lighting were lower than in the rest of the exhibition so my pictures are sometimes a little dark. Nevertheless, look at these stunning patterns of birds and scrolling in very fine underside couching!
Another stunning piece of embroidery on display was the above panel with the martyrdoms of the saints. There is a second panel too with female saints. Both are kept in different museums in Belgium but originate from the same church in Namur, Belgium. It was in use as an altar frontal but might have originally been a vestment. The embroidery on this piece is absolutely immaculate and very fine. I particularly love the different goldwork couching patterns in the background and the immense detail on the horse. Although only the above panel was on display in Paris, both panels were displayed at the Opus Anglicanum exhibition in the Victoria & Albert Museum in London a few years ago.
One of the biggest pieces of embroidery on display were the fragments of a horse trapper (a protective garment for a horse in battle or tournament). It was unfortunately impossible to capture all (over 20, many quite small) fragments in one picture. The detail of the goldwork embroidery is amazing. The lion's mane and hairy claws are so full of movement through laying the goldthreads in different directions. In amongst the bodies of the lions are many small human figures in courtly dress. They clearly show how to embroider on such a difficult fabric as velvet: cover it with a thin piece of silk. When the embroidery is finished, cut the excess silk away.
Although this piece of embroidery comes under Opus Anglicanum it does not show any underside couching and only small areas of split stitch (the silken parts of the claws). Instead, the goldwork is all 'normal' couching and the small figures and the foliage are stitched in running stitch (hence you can see the silk that was used to keep the hairs of the velvet at bay when stitching). It is said that in using these two embroidery methods the actual embroidery would take much less time then when split stitch and underside couching were used. I agree when it comes to the split stitch versus the running stitch. The latter is much quicker as it covers more ground with fewer stitches. However, I am not so sure that normal couching is that much quicker than underside couching. I now practice both and the only marked difference for me is that underside couching is harder on your body due to the slight extra force you need to apply with every stitch.
By the way, these fragments have an interesting 'upcycling' story to them. The horse trapper was probably originally made for King Edward III. He was a guest at the Reichstag (Imperial Diet) at Koblenz, Germany, in AD 1338. The horse trapper probably remained in Germany as a royal gift. It was turned into a set of vestments for the Altenberg Abbey. These were dismantled in 1939 to once more show the original horse trapper.
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. More on my textile adventures in Paris in further blog posts!
Browne, C., G. Davies & M.A. Michael (eds.), 2016. English medieval embroidery Opus Anglicanum. Yale University Press. ISBN: 978-0-300-22200-5.
Descatoire, C., 2019. L'art en broderie au moyen age. Musee de Cluny. ISBN: 978-2-7118-7428-6 .
Michael, M. (ed.), 2016. The age of Opus Anglicanum (= Studies in English medieval embroidery 1), Harvey Miller Publishers. ISBN: 978-1-909400-41-2.
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