Popes, Bishops, Abbots, Kings and Queens! All were willing to pay absolutely anything to lay their hands on these sumptuous English embroideries from the 13th and 14th centuries.
At the same time his Holiness, seeing some desirable orphreys on the copes and mitres of certain English ecclesiastics, asked where they had been made, ‘In England’, was the answer. ‘Truly England our garden of delights’, he said; ‘truly it is well inexhaustible’; and where much is, thence can much be extorted’. Whereupon the Pope, allured by the lust of the eyes, sent his sealed letters to nearly all the abbots of the Cistercian order in England (to whose prayers he had just been committing himself in the chapter-house in the Cistercian order) that they should not delay to send those orphreys to himself – getting them for nothing, if possible – to decorate his chasubles and copes. The Pope’s order dit not diplease the merchants of London, who made commerce and sold them at whatever price they wanted, but many were highly offended at the open avarice of the head of the church 
The best English embroideries – Opus Anglicanum – have never been equalled. In their own way they transgressed every other art of the 13th and 14th centuries – magnificent architecture, sculpture, ivories, paintings, illuminations, musical compositions or glazed windows. Nothing come as close to sum all this up as the copes, chasubles, panels and other pieces of this exquisite art, which miraculously have survived everything from moths to iconoclasm.
Fragile and precious, the magnificent pieces are seldom exhibited and often forgotten, when we try to visualise the tactile impressions a Gothic church would offer people witnessing or taking part in a festive mass. The more is the reason to travel to the Victoria & Albert in London this autumn to enjoy a show of some of the most precious items still in existence.
One of the first times, we hear of this kind of work, is when the ever present chronicler Matthew of Paris commented on a request by Pope Innocent IV, who envied the gold-embroidered copes and mitres worn by English priests; something which apparently “did not displease the London Merchants who traded in these embroideries and sold them at their own price” [Chronica Majora]. Somewhat later, in 1295, an inventory from the Vatican listed 113 pieces from England.
This was obviously an important and very lucrative industry furnishing opportunities for numerous workshops, with some of the craftsmen even known by name. Marc Fitch has calculated that there may have been up to 70 – 80 embroiderers working in London c. 1270 – 1330. But also nuns and monks in religious institutions worked under the supervision of craftsmen to produce these very valuable pieces. Finally, it is reasonable to expect that most work was done as individual piecework commissioned on an individual basis with the artists taking in commissions and probably receiving the highly valuable materials from the commissioner – whether king or noble. Thus, William of Gloucester, who was goldsmith to Henry II, was paid twenty marks in 1258 for working a “certain precious cloth for the altar of the Blessed Edward” in Westminster; a few years later, in 1271, we are told it took four woman and nearly four years to work a frontal for the high altar. For this work they earned £36, while the material itself was valued to £220. Such works might easily be valued at prices between £40 – 200, literally the equivalence of the yearly income of a knight.
Technique and Motives
One of the reasons why the English work was in such high command was the new techniques of underside couching, surface couching and split stitch, which meant that the precious gold, silver and silk threads became as visible as could be. Also the design was homogenously filled out turning it into an embroidered painting. Originally, the designs were carried out on linen, but later imported velvets and silk was used as background for appliques.
However, the main quality has to do with the artistic design. Some of it is simply hauntingly beautiful and each piece exhibited is of such superior design that it is in fact not possible to digest common denominators.
Nevertheless, the long flowery and moving figures and the thin and expressive faces are nearly always placed inside architectural designs of arcades echoing the Gothic churches in which they were carried by priests when celebrating mass or participating in processions. Often empty spots were filled with angels and flowers leading us to contemplate the gardens, which some of the scenes were set.
Clare Browne, co-curator and textiles specialist, remarks that “The exquisite attention to detail in these embroidered works makes them not just impressive examples of craftsmanship and luxury materials, but vivid glimpses of life both in reality and in the medieval imagination. From the grim torture of martyred saints to a mother’s tender swaddling of her new-born baby, scenes are depicted with a meticulous precision that the sophisticated embroidery techniques made possible.”
It is only natural that some of the highlights in the exhibition are the treasures preserved in the collections of the Victoria and Albert itself. 33 pieces can be found there, among some of the finest: the John of Thanet panel, the Clare Chasuble and the Jesse and Syon copes. To this should be added the The Steeple Aston Cope, which was recently restored; a process which has presented the curators with several new insights into the actual construction of such a masterpiece.
But the exhibition is fortunate to be able to also show a number of pieces, which now returns for the first time since they went abroad as gifts or purchases. The most precious of these is a vestment associated with Thomas Becket. But other significant loans are the Hólar Vestments from The National Museum of Iceland as well as the intricately decorated cope adorned with saints and angels, normally kept in the Vatican. Other pieces, which deserve to be mentioned, are the Toledo cope and the Daroca Cope from Madrid.
Most of these pieces are of course church vestments. However, a few precious secular embroideries document that this art was not just for sacred use. A luxurious velvet horse trapper, and embroidered tunic worn by Edward the Black Prince, together with embroidered seal bags and a small purse, show us how lovingly the material culture of the elite was worked.
Here is a lot to take in for everyone interested in the Middle Ages and its textiles; textile researchers will rejoice in being able to see these treasures for themselves. But the exhibition also tells a vivid story about a part of the Medieval Art History, which is often locked away and hence all too easily forgotten by specialists in all the other art-forms – illuminations, paintings, architecture, sculpture etc. Finally, there is room for anyone who is just plainly interesting in wondrous gazing at all the unfathomable details.
Opus Anglicanum: Masterpieces of English Medieval Embroidery is curated by Clare Browne and Glyn Davies with consultant curator Prof. M.A. Michael, Academic Director, Christie’s Education, London and Research Fellow, School of Culture and Creative Arts, University of Glasgow.
 From Mathew Paris, Chronica Majora.Quoted by M. A. Michael: ‘Vere noster deliciarum est Anglia’: John of Thanet and a Fragment of English Medieval Embroidery. In British Archaeological Association, Transactions (2013) Vol 35, p. 276–295
Opus Anglicanum: Masterpieces of English Medieval Embroidery
Victoria & Albert Museum, London
28.09.2016 – 05.02.2017
English Medieval Embroidery: Opus Anglicanum.
By Clare Browne, Glyn Davies and M. A. Michael.
Yale University Press 2016