Opus Anglicanum: Masterpieces of English Medieval Embroidery, V&A Museum, Cromwell Road, London SW7, until 5th February 2017
The V&A’s world-class collections combined with works returning to these shores for the first time since they were made in the Middle Ages make this a truly spectacular exhibition and one that captures the imagination. Many of the objects have associations with notable figures such as the murdered Saint Thomas Becket, the Black Prince and Edward I and his consort Eleanor of Castile.
England was the leading producer of luxury embroideries from the Twelfth to the Fifteenth centuries and counted Popes, Cardinals, Kings and Queens among its patrons. The Latin phrase ‘opus anglicanum’ means ‘English work’ and was first used in the 13th century to describe the ravishing and desirable silk embroideries which were hand-made, using gold and silver threads, in London, usually by women.
The hundred plus objects in this show includes examples of both ecclesiastical and secular pieces. Some of the earlier ecclesiastical have survived because they were interred during the burials of the bishops or abbots who wore them. Secular examples did not fare so well as they were either discarded as fashions changed or wore out but records show that there was a demand for them. This exhibition has some rare survivals of secular work, including some with links to the Plantagenet English Kings.
Alongside the embroideries you will find other period works in varying media such as manuscripts, sculpture, metalwork and panel paintings which emphasise the connection in the artistic output of the times. The exhibition also considers the impact of the English Reformation on these textiles and the revival of interest in the 19th century.
The exhibition’s co-curator Glyn Davies sums it up saying: “As a historian, the opportunity to see all these objects, normally scattered across museums and cathedral treasuries in Europe and North America, together in one place is thrilling. We are grateful to all lenders that have generously agreed to loan works for this exhibition. England enjoyed an international reputation for the quality of its embroidery. This exhibition shows English art on a European stage.”
His co-curator and textiles specialist Clare Browne adds: “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.”
As I said at the beginning this is an exhibition that stirs the imagination and the sight of these embroideries stirs the mind and soul as much today as it must have in medieval times.
Support generously provided by The Ruddock Foundation for the Arts
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