A Garden of Delights in the V&A’s Opus Anglicanum
By the late Middle Ages, London was a locus of highly skilled embroidery—so much so that embroidery produced in London earned its own epithet, opus anglicanum (literally, “English work”). This epithet forms the title of one of the latest V&A exhibitions: “Opus Anglicanum: Masterpieces of English Medieval Embroidery”. This is perhaps the most representative collection of medieval embroidery that has ever been curated. Not only is the detail intricate and masterful, it is the first time since their creation that some of these pieces can be seen in England.
Visitors to Opus Anglicanum are greeted by a map highlighting the eventual destinations of all the embroidered pieces. Reaching as far north as Hólar, Iceland, and as far south as Toledo, Spain, these embroideries were viewed by secular and religious communities across Europe as precious craftsmanship. Completed pieces were even sent farther afield as diplomatic gifts; Pope Innocent IV (c. 1195-1254) purportedly remarked upon seeing the elaborate vestments and learning they were English, “Truly, England is our Garden of Delights.”
Because most secular pieces have long since been dismantled, discarded, or reused, the medieval embroidery exhibited primarily showcases liturgical vestments such as copes and chasubles. These religious garments survive because bishops often were buried in their finery, and thus the garments escaped being worn down completely—or destroyed during the Protestant Reformation.
The massive oak cope chest (1275-1300) sitting at the beginning of the exhibition indicates how highly valued the vestments were at the time of their creation. Incredible sums were spent on the copes by those who could afford it, thus warranting elaborate protective containers. The copes themselves vary in subject matter and decoration according to their commissions. One oft-repeated scene is the martyrdom of Thomas Beckett, popular due to his medieval cult following. Other vestments are decorated with musical angels on horseback, scenes from the life of Christ, and saints defeating demons. The Bologna Cope (1310-20) is decorated with a large Hellmouth swallowing sinners.
Labels throughout the exhibition indicate that materials were sourced from around the world in order to create these goods. Two panels on display (1335-45) consist of imported Italian velvet, the Orphrey fragment was embroidered on patterned silk woven in Asia, and the Clare Chasuble (1272-1294) was made from kanzi, an Iranian fabric woven of silk and cotton. England did not have the means to produce velvet or silk at the time.
The descriptive labels sometimes overlook key contextual information, such as how long making one of these extraordinary embroideries would take, and standard museum information, such as library call numbers for the manuscripts on loan. Furthermore, while the needlework on display is meticulous, the exhibit layout does not necessarily display it in the best possible way. For example, the exhibit ends with the Fishmongers’ Pall (1512-1538), a casket cloth featuring a mermaid painstakingly embroidered in gold, which the V&A site declares “one of the most sumptuous English embroideries from the first half of the 16th century”. However, with only the top and two sides visible due to its positioning, it feels as if the pall has been shoved in a nook. By moving the pall out into the center of the room currently occupied by manuscripts, visitors could admire it from all angles. A well-placed mirror would also do the trick. Another piece which would benefit from a mirror is the mitre (1180-1210) showing the murder of Thomas Beckett on the front; the martyrdom of St. Lawrence is described as embroidered on the reverse but not shown.
While the exhibition does not assume that visitors have a deep familiarity with the Middle Ages, and thus provides descriptions with helpful background information, it does assume extensive knowledge of embroidery. Terms such as “underside couching” and “split stitch” are not defined until late in the exhibition—if at all—even though the descriptive labels rely heavily on them to clarify technical differences between works. Visitors are still able to admire the beauty of the pieces without understanding the finer technical details of the needlework, but an understanding of the terms would provide a better appreciation of the techniques and admiration of the skill required. These challenges seem to have been foreseen; before you visit, be sure to check out “An A-to-Z of Opus Anglicanum” online, which defines terms associated with the exhibition.
The exhibition room’s reverential silence impresses upon visitors the religious nature of these vestments. Even with the lights of the room dimmed the gold thread still shines. While the silver thread has tarnished and turned purple, the images lose none of their elegance. Although most of the precious stones have been removed, the pieces are undiminished in their beauty. Seeing the wear and tear on these embroideries lessens none of the enjoyment. Where the needlework has not survived, visitors can spot the designer’s original pattern drawn directly onto the textile.
Overall, the exhibition’s progression leads visitors logically from piece to piece, building upon thematic elements and providing helpful context. Two videos elevate the exhibition further: one showing traditional embroidery techniques in action and the other reconstructing the lifecycle of the Steeple Aston Cope. From its original large semi-circular cope shape, the embroidery was at some point cut up and restitched to form separate altar furnishings. The digital reconstruction is an invaluable tool as it illustrates exactly how to piece the embroidery back together. Shown next to the cope in its current form, the video brings viewers from the fourteenth century to the present day.
Part of the excitement is in the witnessing of a truly international art form from late medieval England. These intricately detailed pieces are a stark contrast to today’s largely mass produced and machine-made industry. The richness of detail and material cannot be sufficiently substituted by a browse through the online catalogue and makes a trip to the V&A to see this stunning exhibit a must.
The exhibition, “Opus Anglicanum: Masterpieces of English Medieval Embroidery,” is at the Victoria and Albert Museum, London, from 1 October, 2016 – 5 February, 2017. For more information, visit vam.ac.uk.
Arendse Lund is a PhD student at University College London. Her research focuses on the intersection between medieval law and literary language, particularly in Anglo-Saxon England.