Victoria & Albert Museum, London
1 October 2016 – 5 February 2017
It is a truly exciting experience to visit the latest exhibition from the V&A featuring embroidered work from Medieval England known as Opus Anglicanum (‘English Work’). This period was one of the most celebrated in embroidery history and the work created (mostly in the City of London) was in demand all around the world by Popes, Cardinals, Kings and Queens.
The V&A holds the largest collection of Medieval Embroidery in the world but other pieces have been brought from around Europe and North America to create an exhibition that has not taken place on this scale for around 50 years. One of the main reasons for making it to this show is the due to the age and fragility of many of the pieces, it is unlikely to be repeated. To be able to see over 100 pieces of work from this time, move from one to another and be able to study similarities, themes and stitches is a real gift.
Opus Anglicanum was at its peak in the Fourteenth Century. There are examples of both secular and ecclesiastical works. Many of the ecclesiastical works have survived due to their being interred with important church figures such as bishops and abbots and later retrieved. Pieces such as Epsicopal stockings and shoes from the tomb of Archibishop Hubert Walter are incredibly well preserved.
Of all the pieces on display, the copes are perhaps the most impressive. In terms of iconography, detail, embroidery and sheer scale, there is nothing to beat them. The design of the exhibition really makes a difference with how you see all the displayed items. They are behind glass but have been exhibited very close to the edge of the display case so in fact you are able to get really close and examine each piece. It works wonderfully for being able to see the fine detail in the exquisite embroidery.
The main embroidery stitches that were used in this work were underside couching and split stitch (the accompanying catalogue gives a lot more detail about this and is well worth investing in).
The knowledge of this allows you to see that by only using these two stitches, the detail, pattern, expression and emotion could all be achieved. There are motifs and imagery that pop up on different pieces, such as peacock feathers (used extensively for angel wings), dappled horses that look holographic, expressions and facial contours that are all achieved by split-stitch work. You can examine the stitches in detail and what is amazing is how tiny they are, how they flow to create movement and shape and the use of colour to give depth to skin tones and clothing (right: Jesse Cope detail).
The secular embroidery on display is of the courts or influential families. There is a Surcoat (picture above, the surcoat is in the centre of the glass cabinet) belonging to Edward the Black Prince and despite the red and blue velvet having worn away, you can see the designs of his coat of arms and how this garment would have been constructed and stitched. It is still a beautiful piece despite the velvet pile being long gone and finery faded with time.
The Charter, Seal and Seal bag of Edward III is not only a wonderful example of the embroidery but is of historical importance because the Royal Charter it contains is precisely dated as 8 June 1319 (you can see to the right of the photo above).
It also shares stylistic and technical features with the Syon Cope which you can also see so it is fantastic to be able to piece together their origins and production and understand that the same people were creating very different works. The Syon Cope is one of the V&A’s most important pieces of the period and depicts scenes such as The Virgin’s Death, Funeral, Assumption and Coronation. It is worth seeing as the background is worked in silk rather than metal thread (below).
Many ecclesiastical pieces were lost, repurposed and destroyed to extract precious metals.
One example of a cope being repurposed is the Steeple Aston Cope which was cut into fragments and reassembled as an altar frontal and dossal.
This piece is one of the highlights of the exhibition as both remaining pieces are on
display and accompanied by a video which you will want to watch repeatedly. The remaining fragments of the cope are shown and the design of the central panel is traced and animated. Below that the other fragment is outlined and then this panel is deconstructed and reassembled in the shape of the original cope, finally being brought to life three-dimensionally. It is a wonderful, mesmerising video.
It is such an important exhibition for us to appreciate how skilled the embroiderers of the time were and how lucky we are to be able to see all these wonderful garments and fragments brought together for possibly the last time. Having looked at the catalogue before visiting, it would be easy to think that you can see the pieces in detail without having to go but the catalogue doesn’t prepare you for how wonderful it is to experience seeing these pieces from 700 years ago and being able to admire and be awed by them. It is an experience not to be missed for the sheer beauty of the embroidery, the historical importance of Opus Anglicanum and how the past holds so much inspiration when we move forward.
Photos © Victoria and Albert Museum London.
This review appeared in the December 2016 issue of Workshop on the Web as part of bigger feature on Opus Anglicanum which included an interview with the curators of this exhibition, Glyn Davies, curator of Medieval Sculpture and Clare Browne, curator of European Textiles pre-1800.