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Opus Anglicanum

Burse decorated with Opus Anglicanum, early 14th century, Britain. Burse decorated with Opus Anglicanum, early 14th century, Britain. Copyright Victoria and Albert Museum, London, acc. no. T.62-1936.

Opus anglicanum is a Latin term that literally means 'Work of the English'. The term is documented in medieval sources from the continent (not from England !) to describe the highly regarded goldwork embroidery from England, whether it was religious or secular.

Extant examples of opus anglicanum are mainly ecclesiastical in function, and many medieval sources refer to opus anglicanum as the chosen form of embellishment for religious items, such as altar frontals and vestments, including chasubles, copes, and mitresOpus anglicanum was so fashionable at one point that various Catholic popes in Rome (Italy) ordered large quantities of liturgical vestments from English workshops. Pope Innocent IV (r. 1243-1254) was regarded as being particularly fond of opus anglicanum (comments made by the thirteenth century English chronicler Matthew of Paris). It is said that some examples of opus anglicanum (as for instance Henry III's altar frontal for Westminster Abbey) could take up to four years to make and cost more than a farm worker’s income for an entire lifetime. This may be just a story, but it does gives an indication of the costs involved in producing, selling and buying opus anglicanum.

Some modern writers are of the opinion that the term opus anglicanum should only be used to describe gold embroidered religious items from the late twelfth to the fourteenth century. However, the term also tends to be used in a more general manner to refer to English goldwork embroidery from the twelfth to the sixteenth centuries.

During the medieval period much of the opus anglicanum was made in London and other centres by professional embroiderers, as well as in various monastic communities (usually by nuns). In the fourteenth century there was even an opus anglicanum workshop in the Tower of London, presumably for making ceremonial and military items. The high point of opus anglicanum production (its 'Great Period') is regarded as being from between 1350 and 1450.

The names of some of the medieval (London) embroiderers have survived, including Robert Ashcombe, Thomas Carlong, William Courteray and Alexander le Settèrre. There is only one signed medieval piece worked by a nun. She was called Joanna Beverlai, who made an altar frontal in the early fourteenth century (Donna Johanna Beverlai monaca me fecit; this piece is now in the Victoria and Albert Museum, acc. no. T.70-1923).

Opus anglicanum was initially worked on a linen ground and then later on a velvet ground (usually red) with a heavy linen lining. The embroidery was carried out with metal and silk threads and further enriched with pearls and jewels. Much of the background was worked in gold thread using an underside couching technique, whereby the couching stitches are on the back of the ground material rather than on top. This makes the couching less subject to friction and wear. The finer details, such as the figures of saints (especially their heads and hands) were worked in a very fine split stitch using coloured silk threads.

The Black Death (plague) of the mid-fourteenth century (esp. in 1348) basically marks the end of the production of opus anglicanum in England, as many embroiderers and their potential costumers died. This was followed by the financial problems caused by the Hundred Years War (1337-1453) between England and France, as well as changes in the fashionable forms of embellishment for liturgical and secular vestments following European modes, notably the use of or nué from France and the Netherlands. Many examples of opus anglicanum were lost in Britain during the sixteenth century Reformation, when numerous monasteries and religious establishments were destroyed. But there were (and are) many examples in European collections, as well as various items preserved (usually by hiding them) by important Catholic families in Britain.

Between October 2016 and February 2017, the Victoria and Albert Museum mounted a large exhibition about opus anglicanum. Another exhibition, mounted in 1963, was curatored by Donald King and carried the title: "Opus Anglicanum: English Medieval Embroidery."

See also: the Bologna cope, burse panel; the Butler-Bowdon copethe Clare chasublethe cope of Saint Louis d'Anjou; the Daroca cope;  the database of English medieval embroidery; the Jesse cope; John of Thanet panel; the Melk chasublethe Pienza cope, the Steeple Aston cope, the Toledo cope, the Syon cope, the Vatican cope, and the Vic cope.

Sources:

  • BROWNE, Clare, Glyn DAVIES, and M.A. MICHAEL (2016). English Medieval Embroidery: Opus Anglicanum, exhibition catalogue, New Haven and London: Yale University Press.
  • COATSWORTH, Elizabeth (2012). 'Opus Anglicanum', in Gale Owen-Crocker, Elizabeth Coatsworth and Maria Hayward (eds.), Encyclopedia of Medieval Dress and Textiles of the British Isles, 450-1450. Leiden: Brill 2012, pp. 392-397.
  • MILLER, Maureen (2014). Clothing the Clergy. Virtue and Power in Medieval Europe. Cornell University Press.
  • SYNGE, Lanto (2001). Art of Embroidery: History of Style and Technique, London: The Royal School of Needlework/Antique Collectors’ Club, pp. 40-52.
  • YOUNG, Bonnie (March 1971). 'Opus Anglicanum,' The Metropolitan Museum of Art Bulletin, New Series, 29.7, pp. 291–298.

V&A online catalogue (retrieved 18 June 2016).

GVE

Last modified on Sunday, 14 May 2017 12:32

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