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: Spring is in the Air, 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.
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