If you are able, spend a day in London before Sunday 5th February 2017 and visit the Opus Anglicanum exhibition at the V&A. It celebrates a time when English work (Opus Anglicanum) was sought after by popes, churches, wealthy families across Europe and as diplomatic gifts. Techniques which are still in use today, split stitch and couching, were employed by professional artists (skilled women and men) in workshops behind St. Paul’s Cathedral and in Cheapside from the late 12th to the mid 14th centuries. One misconception was that nuns were responsible for the work but recent knowledge has shown that towards the end of the period, workshops led by men were the norm.
Much of the needlework on display was on linen or silk cloth lined with linen. The silk was imported from China or Italy along with threads which had been especially dyed. Copes, chasubles or orphreys were stitched with scenes from the life of Christ, interspersed with flora and fauna, for use in ecclesiastical ceremonies.
Over half the exhibits in the exhibition are from the V&A collection whilst the remainder have been borrowed from various establishments across Europe and North America. Some of the items are for secular use – for example, the surcoat worn by Edward, the Black Prince, along with his shield, two seal bags, a pair of Episcopal shoes from the tomb of Archbishop Herbert Walter (1170-1200) in Westminster Abbey, and horse coverings. You can also see a large wooden chest which was used to store copes.
One of the most fascinating exhibits was a piece which showed both sides of the work. This had been executed on velvet so it was easy to see the relief. Also, a couple of copes still had seed pearls as part of the decoration, intact.
The images below show a detail from the Jesse Cope, 1310-25, from the V&A collection and a musical angel on horseback from the Steeple Aston Cope,1330-40, loaned by the church wardens at Steeple Aston in Oxfordshire.
I urge you all to go along and be stunned (and humbled) by textiles which are over seven hundred years old. I had a lovely day.