Last week, we looked at two identical orphrey figures of St John held at Museum Catharijneconvent in the Netherlands. From my analysis, it became clear that they were not made with the same pricking. However, they did have the same "origin source" which I called a model book. What these model books looked like, we don't know as they have not survived. Today we will look in-depth at the actual embroidery. How are the different parts of the figures worked? Could this have been done by people in the same workshop or even by the same person? Let's look at the evidence.
Above, you see a close-up of the faces of the embroideries. It becomes clear that the design drawing differs for both. What is really sad is that the fine silk shading of the faces has completely deteriorated. By working a copy of the orphrey of St Lawrence, I came to understand that the quality of the silk shading in the faces determines the quality of the embroidery. You often read in the literature that the or nue is the most difficult embroidery technique used in these pieces and thus defines the quality. This is not true. After all, or nue is a counted thread technique and as long as you are not colour-blind and you have ample dexterity, you will be able to copy medieval or nue to the highest level. Not so with the very fine silk shading of the faces. Unless you started learning this technique at a very young age (many Chinese for instance start at age three!), you will not be able to reach the highest level in medieval silk shading.
Here is a close-up of the face of St Lawrence. The actual face is about 2,5 cm in height. I call the embroidery technique silk-shading, but this is not quite accurate. This is not the silk-shading as taught at the Royal School of Needlework. You can clearly see rows of stitches. And these rows correspond to the shape of the face and give it the illusion of 3D. Splitting threads is not a necessity. It probably happened, but it wasn't aimed for. This variety of silk shading is closer to certain types of Chinese silk embroidery. Again, just like the or nue, it is for the most part a counted thread technique. Additional details are stitched on top of this foundation of silk-shading stitches. Note the multiple colours in the eyes: blue-grey iris, darker pupil, white of the eye and pink of the corner of the eye!
Back to the heads of St John. The reason that the faces often not survive is due to the fact that the lighter shades of silk were achieved by bleaching the silk. This weakens the fibre. Luckily, the ginger hair of St John did survive. And here we see marked differences in embroidery quality. The stitch direction in ABM t2165 is plain vertical. Contrary, the stitching in OKM t90a gives the illusion of curls. The silk thread has been split into a very fine fraction and multiple colours have been used to achieve this realistic imitation of hair. It is therefore likely that the face of OKM t90a was once more finely stitched too. I even get the impression that the design drawing hints at this too.
Furthermore, the halo of OKM t90a is more elaborate too. Whilst for ABM t2165 the halo is plain with no shading, there is elaborate shading in the halo of OKM t90a. But there are similarities too. Both halos are framed with a fine couched down twist.
Although nearly all the stitches have gone, let's have a look at the hands. They are usually stitched in the same technique as the face (but not always: sometimes the silk-shading pierces the underlying or nue, as is the case with St Lawrence). What you can see in the above close-ups is that the stitches of the silk-shading orientate themselves on the grain of the linen fabric. This underlines that this form of silk-shading is indeed different from our modern form of silk-shading.
Next time, we will compare the stitching on other areas.
Claire de Pourtalès
Dear Jessica, thank you for this work of sharing your discoveries! But as I don't have your level of expertise, I'm not sure I understand this sentence: "What you can see in the above close-ups is that the stitches of the silk-shading orientate themselves on the grain of the linen fabric."
Thank you Claire! Can you see that about three horizontal linen threads are pushed together? This is due to the fact that the stitches once spanned there three horizontal linen threads. You can see the stitching holes.
Claire de Pourtalès
Oh, yes I see now! So this means that the technique used there was a lot more regular that what we learn at the RSN. I love the fact that we can learn form the "negative", from what is missing but still left a trace! Thank you very much!
Thank you Mrs Grimm to share your knowledge and discovery. Always quite interesting.
You are very welcome, Marie-Renee!
Thank you very for teaching us about the history of embroidery and analyses that I would never be able to do or see without your wonderful work. Don’t ever think you are unappreciated.
Thank you for your kind comment, Sarah!
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