In our time, embroidery has sunk to the level of a minor art. At one end of the spectrum there’s decorative embellishment for mega-couturiers such as Christian Lacroix, at the other there’s therapy for stressed-out suburbanites in the form of do-it-at-home kits. And there isn’t a great deal going on in between. But it wasn’t like that in the Middle Ages, when fabulously ornate embroidery in semi-precious threads provided some of the most resonant and universally understood expressions of spiritual and temporal power.
The epicentre of this world of gothic hyper-bling was London, where a tightly knit community of craftsmen and women made themselves wealthy creating specially commissioned clothes and vestments for potentates and churchmen all over Europe, a trade that became known as “opus anglicanum” – English work. This was an era when people thought nothing of wearing a garment that told the life story of Christ in 18 panels, each over a foot high, with the murder of St Thomas a Beckett squeezed into a corner, as in the Bologna Cope. This magnificent item is the opening work in the V&A’s new show, which is the first in over 50 years to focus on this fascinating, but neglected area.
From the Annunciation to the Resurrection, the great Christian narrative is all there on the Bologna Cope, in now rather worn silver-gilt and somewhat faded coloured silk thread. While I say “people” wore such things, this Bishop’s processional cloak belongs to a ritualised world in which textiles and clothes had a role in telling stories and conveying spiritual symbols quite as vital as that of painting, sculpture, architecture or books – in some respects more important, as most people were illiterate.
In the Toledeo Cope, one of the show’s true masterpieces, the architecture of the church seems to extend directly into the rhythmic pattern of scenes framed by gothic arches and, more whimsically, by pairs of birds, from woodpeckers to peacocks. These ornithological inclusions with no obvious symbolic purpose were a stylistic quirk of English embroiderers, and lend a lyrical touch to this garment celebrating the life of the Virgin Mary.
Looking at this spectacular work with its worn, but still sumptuous design in tawny reds and jewel-like blues extending over its almost 11ft expanse, or at a 14th-century fragment with scenes of the Flagellation and the Seizing of Christ that almost rival the great Giotto, you find yourself wondering why we inevitably esteem such works less than equivalent paintings or sculpture. Why, after a century and a half in which Modernism supposedly broke down hierarchies between subjects and art forms, do we still regard textiles as the poor relation of the visual arts?
The exhibition opens up a world where pattern and decoration weren’t just pleasant but secondary attributes of artistic endeavour, as we tend to think of them today, but expressive ends in their own right, as seen in the magnificent crimson velvet Butler-Bowdon Cope, in which the figures of saints and prophets are framed with intertwining oak boughs studded with lion heads, with the intervening spaces filled with enthroned angels holding stars that were once encrusted with tiny pearls.
Yet the overall effect isn’t cluttered or oppressively over-ornate. While there was a thriving trade in secular garments – represented here by a fabulously battered jerkin once worn by the Black Prince – it is the religious works that have survived, largely because they were only used on ceremonial occasions. Many of the works here have been lent by the institutions that originally commissioned them, such as Spain’s Toledo Cathedral. One of my favourite pieces, the heavily worn Steeple Aston Cope, has been on loan to the V&A since 1905, but is still the property of the Rector and Churchwardens of the village of Steeple Aston in Oxfordshire.
If the heyday of English embroidery was the 13th and 14th centuries, this show argues that its glories continued into the 16th via the so-called Fishmongers Pall (1512-38), embroidered for and still owned by the Worshipful Company of Fishmongers. Yet this technically astonishing work doesn’t hold a candle to the tattered remnants of the Steeple Aston Cope (1330-40) when it comes to imagery and story-telling. Life in the 14th century may have been horrendous in most respects, but its embroideries had a vitality that sings out even today.