WITH this astoundingly beautiful exhibition the V&A has stolen a march on Church and State with impeccable, if unforeseen, timing. The exhibition, which runs for four months, opened hard on the heels of the debates about how best to negotiate Brexit, and as the Archbishop of Canterbury travelled to Rome to mark the 50th anniversary of the historic visit made by Archbishop Ramsey.
Archbishop Welby, preaching at ecumenical vespers on 1 John 4, suggested that all households experience tensions, giving as an example the irritation that a parent senses when a child interrupts them reading to ask to go out to play. Meanwhile, government ministers wring their hands discussing hard and soft options like so many useless shop assistants in a department store selling beds.
As front-bench policies unravel under scrutiny and threads of beautiful fraternity get picked up in the warp and weft of a shared common life in Christ, the V&A has put England, and more precisely the Church in England, back into the very heart of Europe — or, rather, of Christendom.
In prospect, an exhibition of medieval textiles has about it as much charm as a duty visit to a distant relative. But this show of luxury — and the V&A is the largest repository of these glorious fabrics — brings others together from across Europe and America and should get us all up and walking.
The depredations of the Reformation, and then the secondary reformation of Puritan radicalism, not only stripped our altars of their reredoses of Nottingham alabaster but emptied the sacristies of rich vestments. The Whig historians of the Protestant Revolution wrote out the colour and decoration that only gradually was recovered by our Victorian forebears.
The survivals of fabrics, such as they are, come to us usually from recusant households or — and this is the staggering European dimension in the show — from the cathedral and royal treasuries of the Continent, where they can be found as far north as Iceland and Skå in Sweden to Doroca and Toledo in the south.
Of course, England had a reputation for wool embroidery across Europe from as early as the Anglo-Saxon period, when the skill was often one of the attributes of high-born women. For instance, St Etheldreda of Ely (636-79) made a stole for St Cuthbert of Lindisfarne.
In time, the trade in wool meant that such embroidery became widely circulated across Europe and increasingly much sought after; St Anselm, attending the Council of Bari in 1098, commented on the English cope worn by the Bishop of Benevento, which had been obtained from Canterbury.
This exhibition, the first since one in 1963 which, to judge from the photographs, was monumental, addresses the slightly later period of medieval work from the 13th century to the eve of the Reformation, when imported silk began to enhance the luxury product, and opus Anglicanum (“English work”) became all the rage across the courts and cathedrals of Europe.
The skill itself outlived the destruction of the Reformation: in Elizabethan Chatsworth, for instance, the indomitable Bess of Hardwick had her embroiderers cut up vestments to make a famed series of patchwork figures depicting worthy heroines, which can now be seen at Hardwick Hall.
And it is the individuals behind the fabrics who come to life readily.
In July 1288, Pope Nicholas IV donated a spectacular cope to his home town of Ascoli Piceno, where it still is kept, in the Palazzo Arringo. If we want to see what it looks like, we need only go to Trafalgar Square, as, sadly, the cope has not come to London, although an early-20th-century hand-coloured photograph gives some idea of its splendour and offers an introduction to the exhibition.
Two hundred years later, in 1486, Carlo Crivelli painted The Annunciation with Saint Emidius (National Gallery). Crivelli depicts the martyred former Bishop of Ascoli in the act of interrupting St Gabriel to present him with a model of the medieval walled city. Perhaps it should be no surprise that the bishop is vested in a greeny-gold cope that matches the pope’s donation, suggesting that it was still highly prized.
The cope itself was most probably a cast-off when it was sent from the papal collection, probably in 1267 as a diplomatic gift on the occasion of the reconciliation of England and the Holy See. Pope Francis’s gift to Archbishop Welby of a replica of Pope Gregory’s pastoral staff (made in Warwick) and our Archbishop’s surrender of his own pectoral cross have long-established precedent.
Next to the photograph is a cope chest from York Minster, and confronting us is the “Bologna” cope (1310-20), which had been sent to the church where St Dominic was buried, probably by the Cistercian French Pope Benedict XII (d.1342), who reigned at Avignon from 1334 until his death, when Bologna was one of the great cities of the Papal States in Italy.
On it, the circuit of the events of the incarnation, including four scenes of the Magi (as on another famed cope still kept in Anagni Cathedral, just south of Rome) are traced on the outer ring, with the events from Palm Sunday to “early morning on the first day of the week” appearing above.
The scene of the presentation in the Temple comes after the annunciation to the bagpiping shepherds, the flight into Egypt, and the massacre of the Innocents, in which a luckless child is speared through and held aloft. The wise men appear before Herod, follow the star, and come to adore the Christ-child in Bethlehem. In the next roundel, they are tucked up in bed together until an archangel disturbs their sleep to hurry them on.
The last scene is that of the murder of St Thomas Becket (1170), whose feast day falls within the Christmas octave. He also appears on the “Toledo” cope (1320-30), which was most probably obtained by a visiting Spanish cardinal from Avignon, where such work was widely available, although it is known that one Spanish cardinal braved the English Channel in 1340.
The inclusion of other English royal saints in the lower zone of this cope, beneath the Apostles (Edmund of the East Saxons, victorious in death as he tramples the Dane, Aethelbert, and Edward the Confessor), argues for a link to Westminster Abbey. St Dunstan also appears alongside St Olaf, St Denis and Constantine’s mother St Helena. Edmund and the Confessor turn up in prime position on the front of the later cope from Vic (1350-75).
Becket features largely in this show as one of the most eminent of saints in the English calendar, and his martyrdom features on the front of a mitre that had come from the suppressed Augustinian priory at Oignies. Embroidered, no doubt, as part of the campaign to promote the cult of the martyr, it is reckoned to date from within a generation of his death.
Lack of space in the apex of the mitre (on the reverse side, apparently, is the martyrdom of St Laurence) restricts the number of his killers to three and omits his clerk, who was injured in the fray; but the composition broadly matches that in an illuminated manuscript page seen near by in the Harley Psalter (British Museum). The mitre, now kept in Namur, is by no means unique; others are in Tarragona and Braga.
Although the oft quoted association of the mitre next to it with the saint himself (it was sent from Sens to the first Archbishop of Westminster in 1842) has been corrected since the 1930s, one of the last items (held in a crystal and wooden reliquary) is Becket’s apparel: the strip of fabric appended to the amice to form a high collar (Erdington Abbey). The cathedral at Sens retains a second identical apparel with lattice-work patterns formed by intersecting circles and crosses.
As commonly, an apparel might be decorated with the 12 Apostles either side of the enthroned Christ. A striking example features among the red vestments from Hólar Cathedral in Iceland, commissioned from English embroiderers soon after two local bishops were canonised. St Þorlákr Þórhallsson (d.1193), canonised in 1199, and the earlier bishop St Jón Ögmundsson (d.1121), who was raised to the altar the following year, appear bristling in gold thread on a deep scarlet maniple. Images of St Peter and St Paul decorate either end of the matching stole.
Scenes from the book of Genesis appear on the back of a cope from an Aragonese collegiate church, which has at some point been trimmed for a short prelate. Among them on the so-called “Madrid” cope, the unkindest cut is that of the death of Abel. Similarly, the Apostles Jude and Philip and the deacon St Stephen, with his crown of stones, and St Laurence, who holds his gridiron as if strumming a washboard, are cut off amidships on another (Vatican Museums).
On the same Vatican cope, St Peter carries a papal tiara. Was this perhaps the cope for which Pope Nicholas IV wrote a thank-you letter to King Edward I in 1291? When it came to diplomatic gifts, the papacy did well out of Edward: he sent another to Pope Boniface VIII four years later.
With next week’s feast day on 25 October of St Crispin and St Crispinian, we might have cobblers in mind. Modern-day bishops seem to pay scant regard to the shoe department of their wardrobe, but that has not always been the case. The buskins on display here are to die for; indeed, they were recovered from the tomb of Archbishop Hubert Walter (d.1205) in Canterbury Cathedral in 1890. Dragons and lions bound across them in delicate silver thread.
Such magnificent and often mysterious beasts turn up in heraldry; and, only to mention in passing, surcoats, banners, and fragments of the royal arms of England from a caparisoned horse’s trapper are among the secular items on display. The exhibition also includes some of the achievements of the Black Prince, long since taken down from above his tomb in Canterbury Cathedral to be replaced by modern copies, and a 16th-century funeral pall decorated with mermaids and mermen. It belongs to the Fishmongers’ Company, obviously.
All in all, this is a magnificent display of English craft. The catalogue alone will make an excellent Christmas gift for that perhaps not so distant relative. For me, I hope to be given the matching set of mass vestments from Whalley Abbey on which scenes from the life of the Virgin are played out on a field of strawberries.
“Opus Anglicanum” is at the Victoria & Albert Museum, Cromwell Road, London SW7, until 5 February 2017. Phone 020 7942 2000. www.vam.ac.uk