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Art review: ‘Late Medieval and Renaissance Textiles’ at Sam Fogg

06 July 2018

Nicholas Cranfield on fine medieval textiles

Sam Fogg

Chasuble back depicting the Crucifixion with the Virgin and St John, Cologne, Germany, c.1480,

Chasuble back depicting the Crucifixion with the Virgin and St John, Cologne, Germany, c.1480,

TO ENTER the dark wood-panelled showroom on the corner of Clifford and Cork Streets is to leave behind the hurly-burly of Mayfair with its designer stores to find a very different world, offering foretastes of the divine against the imperfections of civilisation.

Rosamund Garratt and Matthew Reeves have brought together some 36 textiles that brilliantly illuminate the world of the late medieval. Necessarily, the emphasis is on the Church as patron, but there are delightful household fabrics.

Woven linen “Perugia towels” were often used for table coverings; here knights on horseback, rearing unicorns, rutting hogs, stags, and eagles populate a blue-and-white world. The riotous coloured silk threads of another find a statue of the Diana of the Ephesians which morphs into a skirt of acanthus leaves surrounded by wild cats, butterflies, lizards, and weasels, within a trellis of vine leaves with sprouting acorns.

Sam FoggTapestry with scenes from the Life of Christ, Germany, possibly Eichstätt, c.1480

The earliest textiles are those made in 15th-century England, the celebrated opus Anglicanum with panels from orphreys for copes, chasubles, dalmatics, and altar frontals including scenes from the Lives of the Virgin and of Christ. These luxury export items took centre stage at the V&A exhibition in October 2016.

Seven individual canopied saints in opus Anglicanum carry their attributes. St Mary Magdalene, St James the Great, St Peter, and St Paul are easy to identify, but who is the female saint, dressed in brown with a blue mantle standing on a river bank and holding a book in one hand with a fish, held by its tail, in the other? (Answers on a postcard to Sam Fogg, please.) Three other panels, 1400-30, depict the raising of Lazarus, the supper at Emmaus, and the miraculous draught of fish.

Sam FoggRed velvet chasuble with the flowering cross, Italy, Veneto, c.1520

By the end of the 15th century, the production industry was largely centred on London. Designs developed, and, at the eve of the Reformation, when so many were destroyed or cut up for domestic use, the visual representations wrought in them manifested the inner glory of the Church.

Abroad, a rich velvet chasuble of senatorial red, worked with a gold Tree of Life dating to around 1520, now lacks the figures of the Crucified and of Mary and John, but the outline of the scene at Calvary has still left traces in the thick double-height cut pile. A green velvet chasuble from Bohemia, from a generation before, shows just how powerful such imagery would have been when the priest was seen from the back at the altar.

Equally as opulent is the altar frontal of brick red on which has been inserted the Johannine scene of the first Easter morning. Unusually, the Castilian patron has insisted on a depiction of John 21.15, as if to invite all who kneel before it to seek out the place of the Living Lord in the sacrament.

The works on display have been collected over three decades, and offer a glimpse of a lost European world.


“Late Medieval and Renaissance Textiles” is at Sam Fogg, 15d Clifford Street, London W1, until 13 July. Phone 020 7534 2100.


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