One of the many highlights of my recent trip to London was a morning at the Opus Anglicanum exhibition at the V&A. Masterpieces of Medieval Embroidery, Opus Anglicanum translates as 'English work' and I'll tell you what, if that's the case it makes you proud to be English.
I was slightly overwhelmed by the quantity and quality of the exhibits, and on reflection that is not so much about how many pieces there were, more about how much there was to see and take in with each one, and that was after I had recovered from the seemingly obvious realisation that so much of it was done so long ago and had survived for me to see.
The pieces that have survived from the twelfth century onwards were mostly ecclesiastical garments which I am guessing would have received less wear and been treated with huge respect when not in use. To my knowledge the Church of England still uses the services of a Sacristan, whose role is partly to care for the vestments, and it was clear that those we looked at must have been handled with extreme delicacy and kept in remarkable condition.
The copes were astonishing, these the semi-circular vestments worn by the bishops on processional and ceremonial occasions, the Jesse cope, made between 1310 and 1325 just one example...
This one has been reconstructed, it is thought that at some time it may have been cut up for an altar frontal, this information from the V&A website...
"Embroidered with silver-gilt and silver thread and coloured silks in underside couching and split stitch, with laid and couched work, on silk twill reinforced with linen"
Ah yes, now then 'underside couching' and 'split stitch'...we were a bit mystified. I had half an idea and was so mesmerised by the demonstration video that I watched it twice.
The actual makers are unknown, but it is known that both men and women worked on these vestments and mostly in the London area around St Paul's Cathedral. Commissions were undertaken for foreign churches and as diplomatic gifts for the papal courts.
The Toledo Cope interested me for several reasons, not least the beauty of the whole thing, as superb and intact as the day it was finished in about 1330, and the fact this is its first return visit to England since the fourteenth century, but also just look at the detail...
If one colour has stood the test of time, and it showed on many exhibits, it is the indigo. Good old unfade-able, unchanging indigo.
But then, looking carefully, the minutest stitches, barely visible to the eye and the detail astounding. This in the days when magnification and good light would have been nigh on impossible. Shades and differing tones of colour giving shape and depth and a three-dimensional perspective to the figures. It all made me realise how dependent much twenty-first century embroidery has become on charts and kits and threads already chosen...stitching by numbers, when all these embroiderers had to hand was an outline and their needle and thread. This was pure painting with thread.
The wooden cope chest...like an enormous slice of an even more enormous wooden pie had clearly done its job. No photography allowed in the exhibition so I have borrowed this one from Wells Cathedral, I think you can get the idea.
But think of all the potential assaults on the fabric down the centuries ...damp, moth, weevils, beetles, mould, the bishop tripping over and ripping the hem, spilling communion wine, to say nothing of wars and conflict, fires and tempest.
We watched the fire in Exeter with huge sadness last weekend. The Royal Clarence Hotel, just yards from the Cathedral in the heart of the ancient city burned to the ground, and even with hundreds of fireman to hand and thousands of gallons of water being pumped from the River Exe (a long way) to assist the quenching, it still burned for thirty-six hours. God was on our side because if we had been having a typical south westerly wind the damage would have been unthinkable.
So imagine how vulnerable those medieval vestments must have been down the centuries, their continued existence nothing short of a miracle.
I was very impressed by some Bishops' leg wear dating from the 1100s; stockings belonging to Hubert Walter, one time Archbishop of Canterbury, and a bit like a pair of ecclesiastical padded fabric Ugg boots for want of a better image, until I discovered that he had been buried in them and these had been recovered from his tomb along with his shoes some years later....
Sadly the exhibition catalogue at £35, and weighing in at a good-sized newborn, was a prohibitive purchase so I haven't been able to do my usual thing of reading up on everything I have seen afterwards; a reasonably priced, less-detailed paperback edition would have been very welcome.
And I have to say I think the V&A missed another trick...
I can't have been the only person who went into the shop hoping to find some threads and some linen, all the encouragement I would have needed to eschew all charts and kits, draw something simple and have a go at a tiny piece of Opus Anglicanum of my own, a souvenir of my visit.
If you have been to see Opus Anglicanum I would love to know your thoughts..
And if not, I'd still love to know them anyway.