Hello everyone and welcome to the December post of Early medieval (mostly) Textiles. This month we travel slightly forward in time to the period often called the High and Late Middle Ages (1000-1250 and 1250-1500 CE respectively). I am delighted to introduce (Dr) Jessica Grimm who is talking about gold-work embroidery. She is passionate about this form of embroidery, like I am about early medieval embroidery. Jessica is a practitioner as well as a researcher and brings both these aspects to her work, giving her a greater insight into the production of gold-work embroidery from across Europe.
As a little girl, I visited the Stiftsmuseum in Xanten, Germany. In the basement, you were invited to flick a timed switch and when you did you were suddenly surrounded by “wonderful things” as Howard Carter would say. Suitably impressed by the gold-embroidered vestments, but, being raised a Protestant these “wonderful things” were also a little alien to me. Little did I know then that I would end up studying medieval goldwork embroidery some 30 years later. Between now and then I studied archaeology of Nord-Western Europe, got a doctorate in archaeozoology from the University of Groningen (NL) and learned to professionally embroider at the Royal School of Needlework in London. In 2015, I encountered the “wonderful things” again. This time at the exhibition “Het geheim van de Middeleeuwen in gouddraad en zijde” (The secret of the Middle Ages in gold thread and silk) held at the Museum Catharijneconvent in Utrecht, the Netherlands. The “wonderful things” became my vocation.
At first, I completely concentrated on the practical side of things. Not hindered by much knowledge, other than what was available in the exhibition catalogue, I decided to make a replica of a late-medieval orphrey. Having a tonsure instead of a complicated hairdo, crown, or mitre, made Saint Lawrence the perfect candidate. Nowadays, Museum Catharijneconvent has an online catalogue with downloadable free of use high-resolution pictures of most of its vast collection of vestments. Back then I had to write to the museum, explain what I wanted and immediately there became the desired high-resolution image. Being able to zoom in and see each stitch made the process of replicating the orphrey of Saint Lawrence a lot easier.
As said, I wasn’t hindered by much detailed knowledge upfront. After all, how hard can it be to replicate a late-medieval orphrey that mainly uses simple couching stitches and a form of silk shading? Learned both at the Royal School of Needlework. And since you are trained to use a slate frame and the pick-and-pounce method to transfer the design, my initial set-up was pretty correct for the late-medieval period. Using even-weave 40 ct linen wasn’t too far off either. Although linen counts are not often mentioned in the literature, even-weaves of about this count were sometimes used. But then things went South. Using cheap yellow crochet cotton for the padding of some of the elements of the architectural background is, of course, a big no-no with purists. And it didn’t stop there. Chinese flat silk was my go-to thread for the or nué couching and the silk shading of the face and hands. The silk looks a lot like the silk used in the original and it is quite possible that embroidery silk was still imported from China in the late-medieval period. However, the chemical dyes were unknown back then. But my biggest rooky mistake was using imitation Japanese thread for the gold embroidery. This is a cheaper embroidery thread made of a golden coloured metallic component stuck onto paper and wrapped around an art-silk core. The threads in the original orphrey are made of a strip of silver-gilt metal wrapped around a silken core.
What most people don’t realise is that many of the medieval orphreys made in the Low-Countries and Germany are the result of mass production. The idea that mainly chaste ladies of higher social status or nuns produced these embroideries at a leisurely or contemplative pace is not at all supported by contemporary written sources. From these, we learn that men in professional workshops and organised in to guilds were making these orphreys. They were properly trained and overseen by the guild. And they did everything to make the by nature slow process of embroidery quicker and as efficient as possible.
Whilst vestments made in the High Middle Ages are usually one-off designs, the invention of the orphrey in the late-medieval period made mass production possible. A combination of these rectangular golden patches decorated copes, chasubles, and dalmatics. In many cases, the figure is worked separately and later appliqued onto the architectural background of the orphrey. The now complete orphrey is then appliqued onto the vestment. Not only does this mean that orphreys could be produced in advance for the clients to choose from, but it also meant that many more hands could work on the same vestment. Embroiderers in a particular workshop could specialise in a certain task. This makes the process more efficient and the result potentially of much higher quality. This has for instance been observed with Appenzeller whitework made in the 18th– and 19th-century in Switzerland. The pieces passed through many hands with each female embroiderer only adding a particular design element. Modern embroiderers have a hard time reaching the same level of excellence across the board.
But that was not all. Technical analysis of the embroideries in recent years has shown that a particular group of 15th-century German orphreys is so similar that it is likely that the designs were block printed onto the fabric. Block-printed pattern books had just emerged, and it seems that the technique was applied onto embroidery linen too. The scenes from the lives of Mary and Jesus are readily identifiable. Individuality and great artistry are not being asked for by the clients. These vestments tell a story much like modern comics do. The scenes that depict the nativity according to the Revelation of Saint Bridget are a perfect example of an image going viral in several different mediums in the 14th and 15th-centuries.
For the more complicated and high-end orphreys made in the Low-Countries in the 15th and early 16th-centuries, some time-saving tricks in pattern design and transfer were also applied. After all, prickings are time-consuming to make but can be re-used many times. For instance, they could be used on the other side to produce a mirror image of the original. Or generic prickings of a saint could be adapted free hand by the embroiderer with the attribute(s) of the desired saint. For the more complex scenes that look like one-offs, several prickings could be combined into a new composition. From guild regulations, we know that prickings and design drawings were swapped between members.
When we look at the total corpus of late-medieval goldwork that has survived, it becomes clear that the embroidery workshop catered for different purses. Some embroideries are incredibly high-end. Their manufacture must be sought in the vicinity of the Royal Court or the higher clergy. Many of the surviving embroideries are simply good. Saint Lawrence belongs to this group. And then there is a group of poorly stitched generic saints. Most of these cannot even be identified. Only a little gold was used, and the embroidery has a hasty look. Mass-production at its worst, but still catering for a particular segment of the market.
And how did my replica of the Saint Lawrence orphrey turn out? Quite alright. The couching and most of the silk shading was not a problem at all. Stitching through the gold threads to silk shade the hand that holds the book was a bit of a challenge. I ended up gluing a tiny piece of fine linen onto the gold and then stitched through that. It worked a treat. But I did struggle with the face. Faces are difficult at the best of times for most people, regardless of the medium. When I zoomed in to see the tiny stitches on the original, I simply could not replicate them. This is probably because my embroidery linen was not a high enough thread count. My silk encountered too much “hole” and not enough linen thread for support. The whole experience made me think that the faces were probably stitched by an expert. This is such a specialist job that handing it over to a short-sighted embroiderer was probably a wise thing to do.
As said before, the orphrey of Saint Lawrence is a good piece of embroidery. But it is still a mass product. Short cuts and fudging can be seen. And the rules for correct perspective were probably seen as a not to be copied Italian decadency. For my replica, my husband redrew the floor tiles as the wonky perspective bothered him too much. And I decided to clean up one of the fudged areas: the gridiron. By working the gridiron as a wired element instead of stitching it half on and half of the figure, it enhances the three-dimensional feel of the whole piece. The red diaper patterned cloth of gold hanging behind the figure can run uninterrupted, and the handle of the gridiron can be placed correctly into the grip of Saint Lawrence. Wait. Can you do stumpwork, i.e. a wired element, on a late-medieval piece?
Yes, you can. A largely unknown chapter in late-medieval goldwork embroidery consists of a group of highly three-dimensional embroideries made in Central Europe. So, whilst the technique is not correct for a late-medieval orphrey from the Low Countries, it was well-known in Germany, Bohemia, Austria, Northern Italy, and Hungary. Although padding had been used in many pieces of medieval goldwork embroidery, completely three-dimensional pieces are rare. The pieces from Central Europe combine elements of embroidery with that of sculpture which is reflected in their German name “Textilplastik” or textile sculpture. As they are neither traditional goldwork embroidery nor sculpture, they have not received the scholarly attention they deserve. Extraordinarily little has been written about them. This has resulted in the idea that 17th-century stumpwork is an English invention. However, the embroiderers in Central Europe had already invented the genre in 1470 CE.
For those familiar with English stumpwork techniques, you will probably have recognized a lot. However, there is something very special about the most three-dimensional pieces. To achieve the sharpness and precision of the heads of the figures these must have been formed in a mould. These moulds were probably made by sculptors as they use the same techniques. The use of these moulds is the result of the unique way in which the painters and sculptors of Central Europe pursued the idea of realism. Unlike the Italians in the early Renaissance who achieved the illusion of three-dimensionality in their paintings by inventing the rules for correct perspective, they went fully three-dimensional in the late 15th– and 16th-centuries and shook off the constraints of silk shading and or nué which could only give the illusion of three-dimensionality.
What else supports the idea that moulds were used to create these embroideries? Firstly, the heads of these figures are between three and six centimetres ‘deep’ and feel solid to the touch whilst X-rays do not show a reason for this. The same holds true for the bodies of the figures. Secondly, constructive metal threads are only ever used to attach arms and legs. Even the hands are made of textile before the invention of silk wrapped metal thread fingers after about 1500 CE. Thirdly, Johannes Nigisch of the Bundesdenkmalamt-Werkstätten in Austria ran a successful experiment:
- Make a clay or wood model
- Make a negative in plaster of the front half of the model
- Carefully cover the inside of the negative with wet silk backed (towards the inside) with coarse linen
- Fill the hollow with a wet mass of textile scraps mixed with animal glue
- Push a support made of metal threads into the wet textile mass which will stabilise the figure and form the connection with the arms and legs
- Sew the back together and let dry in the mould
- Embroider and/or paint the facial details on the silk
- Applique the different parts of the clothing and other attributes onto the figure core
Moulds like these were likely used more than once as the uniformity in the faces suggests. To get the measurements of the pieces of clothing right, it is likely that pattern drawings existed. Here is the principle of mass production with a production line again.
These textile sculptures show that craftspeople of several different disciplines worked closely together. The sculptor made the moulds, the painter made the designs and possibly the pattern drawings for the clothing, the goldsmith made the embellishments, and the embroiderer collated the different elements into a piece of art. We know from the historical sources that these different disciplines were often living in close proximity to each other and befriended each other. For Munich, we know that the silk embroiderers formed a guild with the painters, sculptors, and glazers in 1489 CE. Sculptors or painters making a name for themselves or moving to a new place often saw the emerge of related works of art in other mediums.
And Saint Lawrence? He loves his “real” gridiron. After all the embroidery was finished, cutting out each element and assembling the orphrey was a little nerve-wracking. However, it went surprisingly fast and smooth. The high tension of the embroidery fabric on the slate frame and the uniform coverage with couched gold made the elements quite stiff. They did not warp or distort. It was simply a matter of reframing the orphrey’s architectural background to a slightly reduced tension, pinning all the elements in place, sewing them in place along the edges and covering the seams with a dark silken outline. Once the whole orphrey was put together, I decided to applique it onto a piece of modern green chasuble fabric. It is an easy-iron cotton damask.
Starting with the practical and then moving onto the academic study of the literature and museum collections has resulted in a sharpened eye for how things were done. And even now, I still often miss things and need to revisit pieces. My training at the Royal School of Needlework in the “proper way” of doing things can sometimes mean that I jump to conclusions. There is so much variation and still so much to learn on the “how”. By working together with art historians and material scientists, I hope to be able to refine the geographical attributions of these pieces. To fund my research, I teach the results as an embroidery course. The discussions with these fellow embroiderers from all over the world provide vital input to come to a better understanding of medieval goldwork embroidery.
I would like to thank Jessica for this really interesting and insightful post. I totally agree with her that making and then researching things sharpens the eye, and of course, collaboration. As Jessica shows, working with others can highlight the surprisingly diverse ways in which things were made.
Next month we start 2022 off with a bang. Nadeem Ahmad will tell us about his research and reconstruction of a male costume from Old Termez, now located in Ubekistan. In the meantime, I wish everyone a joyful Christmas or holiday.
Contact: If you would like to contact Jessica or follow on social media her work, please see her website below:
Bergemann, U.-C., Stauffer, A. (Eds.), 2010. Reiche Bilder: Aspekte zur Produktion und Funktion von Stickereien im Spätmittelalter. Schnell & Steiner, Regensburg.
Bodt, S. de, 1987. De professionele borduurwerkers, in: Bodt, S. de, Caron, M.L. (Eds.), Schilderen met gouddraad en zijde. Rijksmuseum Het Catharijneconvent, Utrecht, pp. 8–19.
Goetz, G., 1911. Die Münchner Handstickerei zur Zeit der zünftigen Gewerbeverfassung (1420-1825). Altbayerische Monatsschrift 10, 107–114.
Koller, M., Macho, E., 1998. Gotische Textilplastiken und die Zusammenarbeit von Seidenstickern mit Bildhauern und Malern. Restauratorenblätter 18, 95–105.
Leeflang, M., Schooten, K. van (Eds.), 2015. Middeleeuwse Borduurkunst uit de Nederlanden. WBOOKS, Zwolle.