Thursday, 6 October 2016

On Wednesday, I went to the opening of the exquisite OPUS ANGLICANUM exhibition at the V and A.  It is a treasure-house of elaborate and exquisite works of art.  It makes the point very effectively that if embroidery is a skilled craft, it is also art of great sophistication.

I've reviewed it for the Oxford Medieval Studies blog - see here.

The exhibition has been criticised in the Guardian for failing to contextualise the objects sufficiently. In a particularly bullish review, Jonathan Jones comments that 'no one in the 14th century ever looked at copes in glass cases. They saw a bishop wear one as part of the vast, stupendous aesthetic experience that is a gothic cathedral. Illuminated by filtered light from stained-glass windows, glowing beneath a shadowy vault, to the sound of harmonious singing, these robes were a component of a much larger and more powerful artistic event.'  Frankly, this is a narrow-minded criticism.  An exhibition in a museum doesn't claim to replicate medieval viewing practices.  It is, by its very nature, a quite different experience.  Most medieval viewers would never have been able to see the minuscule and elaborate iconographic details on the copes and chasubles displayed here.  These were visual statements designed to function at a whole host of levels: amongst the sights, smells and sounds of the liturgy or of court life, garments and cloths would have formed part of an almost overwhelming sensual experience for viewers, dazzled by the colours and the extraordinary gilded threads, catching glimpses of the populations of highly expressive figures, ranging from saints to cheeky wildmen peeking out from behind embroidered foliage.  Up close, the iconography of the pieces functions very differently - it becomes didactic, witty, political.  Why try to flatten out ways of seeing things, rather than to acknowledge, as the exhibition implicitly does, that we are now able to engage with these embroideries in ways which resonate with, but are quite different from, those of medieval viewers?

In this sense, it seems to me quite right that an exhibition should imply both continuity with, and the alterity of, the past.  We see things with different eyes, different expectations, and in different cultural frameworks.  All this is nicely symbolised in the Steeple Aston cope: it was cut up, reconfigured and made into an altarpiece.  It is nicely characterised not just by the patina of age, but quite literally by the discontinuities and dislocation of time.  And yet, it's also still here - touching us across the centuries.

One of my favourite images is of the Virgin Mary as a child.  On a orphrey of around 1400 (a band to be applied to an ecclesiastical garment), she is depicted as small child just learning to walk with a baby-walker.,The child's expression is one of wide-eyed wonder (I don't have an image of this - you'll have to go to the exhibition!). In a similar scene on the Whalley Abbey vestments of around 1420, the iconography and lay-out are almost identical  but the child's expression has shifted to one of extreme concentration. Her mother watches, with hands out-stretched in surprise and admiration.

Orphrey from the Whalley Abbey Dalmatic showing the Virgin taking her first steps; source:

It is a rather moving emotional development across the two embroideries, 20 years apart.  The faces of this little child remind us that emotions and their representations shift across the years; we think about them differently, we view them differently; we can't perfectly reconstruct a medieval experience.  But despite this, they can still move us and reverberate across the centuries.


  1. Thank you for the beautiful description. As a children's doctor, what I find fascinating is how such images bring us close to our forebears: sans halo, toddler with baby-walker, what's different from a playground near you? Actually the three-wheeler is neat, simple and stable. Mum's delight is also delightful, we share her joy at her child's steps and it links us to the past.

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