NewsView All

Anatomy of an Object: Opus Anglicanum Panels

8128A-1863 Apparels of an alb Apparels of possibly an alb England; Velvet Italy 1320-1340 Silk velvet, embroidered with silver-gilt, silver and silk thread

Opus Anglicanum panels depicting scenes from the Life of the Virgin, England, ca. 1335-45. Embroidered on silk velvet with silver-gilt and silver thread and coloured silks in underside couching, split stitch and feather stitch, with laid and couched work and small details in raised work, and an interlayer of silk in plain weave; two of the panels are backed with linen through which the embroidery is also worked. 26 x 49.5 cm (10″ x 1′ 7½”); 26 x 32.5 cm (10″ x 12¾”); 27 x 83 cm (10½” x 2′ 8¾”). Victoria and Albert Museum, London, 8128 to B-1863. Given by Ralph Oakden

Clare Browne tells the story of a set of 14th-century needlework panels with scenes from the Life of the Virgin.

These three ecclesiastical panels were the first examples of early medieval English embroidery acquired by the V&A, then known as the South Kensington Museum, in 1863. Although they have been in the museum’s collection for more than 150 years, their original function is still unclear. Between them they show ten individual scenes from the Life of the Virgin, but they are apparently incomplete; the intact featherstitch border framing the edges of the one with five scenes suggests there may have been fifteen scenes from the Virgin’s life in all.

It is possible that they were altar furnishings, either an altar frontal or a dossal (which hung above and behind the altar). They might also have been used as apparels (decorative panels) on an alb, the ankle-length linen vestment worn beneath others during the celebration of Mass.

The iconography would have been suitable for either use, as veneration for the Virgin was a significant aspect of Christian worship in the 14th century. Some of the scenes are taken from the New Testament, but others come from the apocryphal Gospel of the Nativity of Mary. These stories had been incorporated by Jacobus de Voragine, Archbishop of Genoa, into the Legenda Aurea (The Golden Legend), a book of saints’ lives compiled about 1275, which was widely read and circulated in medieval Europe.

On the first panel, the first scene shows an angel appearing to Anne, the Virgin’s mother, instructing her to meet her husband Joachim at the Golden Gate of Jerusalem. The second scene shows them embracing as they meet. In the third scene, Anne swaddles the newborn baby Mary, with the hand of God descending from a cloud in blessing. Each scene is separated by columns, buttressed to give a slight suggestion of perspective. There are ogee arches above, and two armorial shields alternating, one of which is of the Bardolf family.

The embroidery is worked on a ground of silk velvet, with large areas left unembroidered to allow the gold and silver thread to be set off by the lustre of the velvet’s crimson pile. There are a small number of surviving 14th-century English embroideries worked on red velvet resembling this group of panels in style and technique, which may indicate their origin in the same workshop. They include the Chichester-Constable Chasuble in the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, and the Butler-Bowdon Cope in the V&A.

, , , , , , , , ,

Comments [0] Sign in to comment

The latest news direct to your e-mail inbox