Opus Anglicanum

John Westbrooke admires an exhibition of an almost forgotten medieval English art form

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For Bling Britannia at its finest, don’t miss the V&A’s latest exhibition. Though it’s been almost lost to history, the subtitle Masterpiece of English Medieval Embroidery says it all: for 300 years England produced Europe’s finest needlework.

It’s output was on a grand scale. The first thing you see as you enter is the Bologna Cope – a bishop’s cloak, but what a cloak: more than 10ft wide, with 18 panels depicting Christ’s life, as well as Thomas Becket’s murder, each one framed by a Gothic arch, and all in stitching so fine it’s barely visible. It was made around 1320 and probably belonged to Pope Benedict XI.

Though “opus Anglicanum”, as it was known – Latin for “English work” – was prized all over Europe, some of it stayed home. One example is the Steeple Aston cope, which seems to have been made for a rich buyer about 1320; it was later cut up, and parts of it found their way to the church in the Oxfordshire village of Steeple Aston, which recorded it in 1844 as “a very valuable relic of the olden time”. Among the decoration in silver and gilt thread is what’s thought to be the first English depiction of a lute, played by an angel on horseback.

Why England? And in particular, why London, where many of the exhibits are believed to come from?

Nobody quite knows. Other continental cities had similar workshops and well-to-do patrons. But it was London that made it big. The Broderers’ Guild didn’t come into being until the 16th century, formalising a system of seven-year apprenticeships with master embroiderers; before that, we don’t know exactly how they learnt their trade.

We can guess they were young, though – in the days before magnifying glasses or even spectacles, few older craftsmen would have been able to do work like this. Archaeologists have dug up some of their tools, including a tiny needle with a tiny eye.

The big clients were ecclesiastics, bishops, archbishops and even popes who wanted to dazzle the world, and their congregations, with magnificence – and educate them too: the decorations functioned as a useful picture book to teach scripture, or the lives of saints and martyrs, to the illiterate.

Silks and velvets, and even a rare Persian silk/cotton fabric, formed the background to elaborate Gothic designs, painstakingly stitched in silver or gilt thread, often with pearls and precious stones attached to increase the sumptuousness. A procession through the flickering lights of a great cathedral must have made for superb theatre, a dramatisation of temporal power and spiritual awe.

A lot of the survivals come from a 19th-century fad for digging up medieval churchmen and rescuing their apparel – hence all the copes, chasubles, maniples and orphreys on display. (Placards do explain what they are.) There are even pairs of shoes and stockings, decorated with fleurs-de-lys and dragons, from the tomb of Hubert Walter, Archbishop of Canterbury, who died in 1205.

Embroidery was an art form in those days, but it didn’t stand alone. The exhibition demonstrates how the layout and decoration of vestments echoed that of illuminated manuscripts (such as the De Lisle Psalter) and stained glass. One cope, from the Vatican no less, even betrays a hint of Islamic design.

Not all those who commissioned this work were religious: London was the centre of secular power as well, and royals too liked to overawe others with their clothing. One of the most striking exhibits is the Black Prince’s rather faded surcoat. He would have worn it over his armour to display his coat of arms – a combination of the arms of England and France that his father, Edward III, had optimistically chosen. So important was display that the post of Royal Armourer often went to an embroiderer.

Edward III was probably also responsible for a trapper on show here – the elaborate cover horses were decked out with for tournaments, in this case full of eye-popping lions from the English coat of arms. The king might have worn it to a meeting with the Holy Roman Emperor at Koblenz in 1338 – glamorous in itself but also, no doubt, a form of product placement. (One pope placed an order after being stunned by the outfits of a visiting English delegation.) Opus Anglicanum’s fame spread all over Europe from Rome to Reykjavik.

Times changed and the industry with it. The Black Death killing off maybe a third of the country didn’t help. A form of mass production was introduced, whereby standardised motifs were made, ready to be separated and attached ad lib to simpler garments. Ecclesiastical showiness came to be frowned on. Old embroidery might be cut into pieces for reuse, its rich threads and jewels removed.

But at the end of the exhibition is another gorgeous piece of finery, this time completed as late as 1538 and made not for a pope but for the rising middle classes: the Fishmongers’ Pall, an elaborate coffin cover used for the funerals of guild members and lavish with mermen and mermaids. One of them holds up a hand-mirror, so delicately done that even her reflection has been embroidered.

The textiles on display are in a remarkably good state for their age, but they’re understandably fragile. The last time such a collection was put on show was 50 years ago and, says the V&A, their condition means it will probably be another 50 years until the next; so this is your last chance for a long time.

Opus Anglicanum: Masterpieces of English Medieval Embroidery, at the V&A in London until February 5 2017. Admission £12, concessions available. (And for a look at another period when England swung, don’t forget the 1960s exhibition You Say You Want a Revolution, on concurrently.)

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