Skip to content

Hunting for Medieval Embroidery

October 27, 2014

Hunting for Medieval Embroidery at the V&A

The V&A holds some of the oldest and best examples of medieval embroidery in the world. Where will they be hiding in this vast museum this time? The place is huge and in the past years it has been challenging to discover these treasures.  By chance, I walked in the main entrance from Cromwell Road and turned right into the Galleries. The various Opus Anglicanum copes and embroidered garments were staged dramatically in a gallery.  What joy!! This is the first time they have been so accessible and visible. I hope that some of my group of 21 tour students have also made this discovery.

What is Opus Anglicanum?

You may be asking yourself what Opus Anglicanum means and why it is important?  Literally it means English Work (Embroidery.)  It was worked from approximately AD 900 to 1500.  The quality of workmanship and the drawing and designing of the figures was at its peak. So was the demand from around the world to possess these finest of embroidered items.  The items were mainly ecclesiastical, as explained in the book The Needleworkers Dictionary by Pamela Clabburn.  Opus Anglicanum was mentioned 113 times in the Vatican Inventory of 1295, so important was the embroidery in the churches.

Gold, Silk, Linen and a Needle

As a needleworker, it is maddening not to be able to get close enough to see how tiny these stitches are and how they all work together. I really do appreciate being able to look at them and don’t really mind as I know they are protected for future generations. You can see the glint of the gold and silver threads even in the slightly darkened room.  The method by which the metal threads are couched down is called Underside Couching (Point Rentre.) A linen thread couches a fine gold thread to the fabric and takes a small loop of gold thread to the backside.  Split Stitch is made with the finest of silk threads to create spiraled faces, figures and backgrounds.   I have seen many examples close up in past years so I carry that memory with me when in a gallery. I am sorry that you can not see close detail in these photos.

The Syon Cope

The Syon Cope dates from 1300 to 1320. Interlaced quatrefoils sit on a faded red background. The background looks to me like a faded orangey brown. Twelve apostles and various scenes sit within the quatrefoils. The cross-shaped compartments between the quatrefoils have a green background and are generally occupied by six winged seraphs, most of them on wheels, but in the compartments alongside the main orphrey, these are replaced by angels holding crowns and by two kneeling clerics, each holding a scroll.  Threads used: silver-gilt, silver thread and colored silks. Stitches used:  Underside Couching, Split Stitch, and Laid and Couched Work on linen.


This slideshow requires JavaScript.

4 Comments leave one →
  1. Barbara Fox permalink
    October 27, 2014 4:30 am

    It feels like I am almost there. The Syon cope is magnificent and truly a work of art.

  2. October 27, 2014 3:39 pm

    I imagine it was even more exciting when the true colors of red and green were bright. It is definitely worth seeing should you find yourself at the V&A. You can actually see some stitches up close.Gail

    • Barbara Fox permalink
      October 28, 2014 4:43 am

      Yes, the true colors must have been magnificent in the day. And I would love to find myself at the V&A. So many amazing artifacts there.

  3. October 27, 2014 4:35 pm

    Amazing! And I salute again all those anonymous women who gave of their fingers,eyesight and sometimes lives to accomplish these glorious creations! thanks for sharing Gail.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: