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When the gloves were on

11 March 2022

Suzanne Fagence Cooper reports on a knitting project to celebrate a past accessory of the well-dressed prelate


THERE is a fragment of sculpture in the National Museum of Scotland. It is just half a hand, broken off at the wrist and knuckles. The rest of the figure has been lost. We cannot tell who carved it, or where it stood, weathering, before it was shattered. But we do know it was the hand of a bishop, raised in blessing.

How is this possible, given that we have no context for this medieval object? It is because he was wearing a glove. We can see a round medallion on the back of his hand. This is the clue, the sign of status.

Like a mitre or a crozier, gloves were symbolic objects that set a bishop apart. And often these gloves were decorated with appliquéd roundels that glinted when he blessed his congregation.

A new study, “Holy Hands”, is drawing attention to liturgical gloves, their making and meaning. It includes a database of all the known examples of knitted gloves that have survived in European and North American collections.

So far, the team has identified 96 pairs or singles. A few have been dated to the 12th century, but most are from the 17th and 18th centuries: liturgical gloves continued to be worn by bishops in the Roman Catholic Church until Vatican II in 1962.

Holy Hands is a remarkable survey that raises questions about ritual and relics, hand-skills, and conservation practices. It is truly interdisciplinary. It marries archival research with carefully crafted experiments, reconstructing the patterns of long-dead knitters.

Like the single carved hand, these fragile textiles have survived, when so much has disappeared that would help to explain their origins. There are many gaps in our understanding. But the Holy Hands project combines practical approaches with theology and museology to shed light on an unexpected corner of church history.

Knitting is sometimes called the “Cinderella” of textiles. It has often been overlooked as small-scale, domestic, and humble. But the evidence of the gloves tells a different story. They were made from luxury materials, and often embellished with embroidery, pearls, or gold-wrapped yarn.

These gloves were worked in silk using the finest needles, less than a millimetre in diameter. (For comparison, most shops now would not stock anything finer than a 2mm needle.) We do not know for certain whether the needles were made of Toledo steel or whittled bone.

But it is clear that the makers were highly skilled, working in the round and stitching two-colour patterns on the fingers and gauntlets.


MOST of the surviving gloves used red silk, but there are also white and green examples, their colours still strong even after 500 years in a cathedral treasury. They are small but telling witnesses to the complex trade routes and cultural interactions of the early modern world.

The silk thread used for the oldest pairs would probably have been harvested and spun in the Eastern Mediterranean. But, gradually, silk production was established in Italy, around Calabria, to supply the growing demand from clergy or courtiers.

So, the gloves now found in Oxford and Uppsala travelled long distances in their lifetime. It is not known whether they were knitted by women in convents, or men belonging to local guilds, or both.

It seems that some examples in Spanish collections were made by Muslim knitters who supplied highest quality work to Christian prelates and princes: these objects demonstrate possible areas of overlap between cultures.

National Museums ScotlandThe carved hand of a bishop, from a stone effigy

And, by gathering so many gloves in one online resource, we can start to piece together stories about how far Roman Catholic liturgy and dress became standardised across Europe, from the medieval Church to the Counter-Reformation. We can see regional variations and changes over time, mapped out in the delicate trimmings.

While one part of the Holy Hands project looks closely at the production of these gloves, the team also hopes to find out more about how they were worn, and why they became part of a bishop’s regalia. From the mid-12th century, beautiful gloves were recognised as an emblem of ecclesiastical authority.

As highly personal objects, bishops were often buried in their gloves; and there are accounts of embalmed relics being dressed in a fresh pair, if the originals had disintegrated over the years.

A new bishop was presented with his gloves during the ceremony of his investiture, just after he received his mitre. He did not put them on himself. Instead, during the consecration, he was helped into the gloves, with a prayer that they should represent “the purity of the new man” and “the healing gift that he offers with his hands”.

Sometimes, they were made of palest kid leather, but it seems that knitted gloves were more flexible, easier to slip on. Afterwards, whenever he celebrated mass, the bishop would again be vested with his gloves, which were worn until the offertory.

They emphasised the cleanliness not only of the bishop’s hands, but also the ritual purity of the chalice and paten. The gloves were then put on for the final blessing.


IT IS at this point that their distinctive decoration comes into focus. From c.1200, Pope Innocent III insisted that a golden circulus should be stitched to the back of the hand. William Durandus, writing at the end of the 13th century, and St Charles Borromeo in the late 16th century, also noted the importance of this gold roundel.

Very few of the gloves illustrated on the Holy Hands database still have their medallions: they were easily unstitched and reused on other vestments. But there is a well-preserved pair, knitted in white silk with cuffs embroidered in red and green, from Bressanone, in the Italian Tyrol.

They are dated to the early 12th century, and wonderfully are still intact. The medallions are decorated with enamelled images of the Virgin Mary and St Paul, and surrounded by tiny pearls.

Most of the surviving gloves have complex knitted patterns instead, decorating the back of the hand: a sun-burst, a cruciform design, a leafy garland, or the holy letters IHS. Many also have gold bands circling the fingers, to mimic the rings which could be worn by bishops over their gloves. The gauntlets are often intricately trimmed, too, with knitted or embroidered borders, and sometimes finished with tassels.

These ornaments lift the gloves beyond the everyday: they are not simply luxury garments, but, through their decoration and use, they become part of a carefully choreographed, sacred action.

The medallions and gold embroidery catch the light of the candles on the altar as the bishop raises his hands to bless the congregation. The elaborate design becomes an essential part of this movement, making it visible at a distance.

We can perhaps get a better sense of the drama and symbolism created by the medallions and sunbursts when we look at paintings made during the Renaissance and Counter-Reformation.

There is, for example, an altarpiece in the Courtauld Institute, of St Peter, by Lippo Vanni. It was made in the mid-14th century. The painted panel is heavily worked in gold leaf, stamped and inlaid, creating a complex embellished surface. What is most noticeable, in this context, is the decoration of the gloves.

The jewels on the back of the hands are very prominent. They look like red garnets, surrounded by a gilded hexagonal outline. In fact, they resemble stigmata, the wounded hands of Christ. These markings also anticipate the wounds received by Peter at his own crucifixion.

It seems likely that, at least in this case, the deliberate placement of the decoration on the back of the gloves carries this additional symbolism. Certainly, it is an idea worth pursuing. At present, the Holy Hands project has only looked at extant gloves, rather than paintings of bishops and their regalia.

It will be interesting to see how the researchers might integrate images such as this into their study, adding a new dimension to their findings. St Zenobius wears some bold red and gold gloves, for instance, in a painting by Giovanni Bilivert in the National Gallery, London. And there is a late-medieval Flemish triptych in the Bowes Museum, showing a bishop with bright green gloves.


HOLY HANDS is led by Dr Angharad Thomas and Lesley O’Connell Edwards, and is funded by a Janet Arnold Award, through the Society of Antiquaries. They are mentored by Dr Jane Malcolm-Davies, and, as a result, have been able to add their work to her broader study of knitting in early-modern Europe (KEME).

The KEME website allows public access to research on knitted caps, as well as gloves. And it encourages skilled members of the knitting community to reconstruct the historical garments. In the case of the caps, this hands-on approach begins with finding the right breed of sheep to provide the fleece to spin appropriate wool yarn.

The sheep whose fleeces provided the yarn for the 16th-century caps no longer exist, in part owing to changes in the agricultural revolution; and the term “woollen yarn” in the 16th century referred to the preparation and spinning process — the other main preparation and spinning process created worsted yarn, and many of the caps were made from worsted yarn.

Both lead researchers are expert knitters themselves. Ms O’Connell Edwards has recreated children’s petticoats and mittens for The Tudor Tailor, a dynamic online resource for the social history of dress which offers “scholarly information with a sense of humour”.

Dr Thomas is archivist for the Knitting and Crochet Guild. She has been knitting a collection of personalised gloves, drawing on inspiration from natural colours and forms. Her work is also closely connected with Estonian knitting traditions.

As part of the Holy Hands study, Ms O’Connell Edwards has charted some of the complex two-colour patterns for the cuffs, while Dr Thomas has concentrated on the structure of liturgical gloves, recreating their fingertips. This is time-consuming and requires great concentration. As Ms O’Connell Edwards explains, there is only one way to find out how they were made, and that is to knit them again.

Lesley O’Connell EdwardsReconstruction of a gauntlet pattern on the gloves associated with William Warham at New College, Oxford. The original has a background of red silk, and the patterning is done with gold metallic thread and blue-green silk

Covid has meant that they could not visit the collections in museums and cathedrals overseas, to see the gloves for themselves. The team have been working from photographs and carefully recorded notes: about the gauge of yarn, the direction of knitting. But it is not the same as being able to hold them, or turn them over.

It helps to take a look inside, to find out how the knitter worked the silks together, without wasting too much gold-wrapped thread. These are things that were designed to be handled and worn. They are simultaneously holy and intimate.

They bring us closer to the men who once wore them, such as William Warham, Archbishop of Canterbury. His gloves are the first pair on the database, and are preserved at New College, Oxford. Did the Archbishop wear them when he crowned Henry VIII, and made Catherine of Aragon his Queen? Did he carry them to France, as part of the magnificent display on the Field of the Cloth of Gold?

And, perhaps, we might ask another set of questions: who measured the Archbishop’s hand, tracing his distinctive stubby fingers? Who spun the silk? Who knitted the red and green rosettes, and the flaming IHS? Through the Holy Hands study we begin to appreciate the past in new ways, by looking intently at the little things that have been left behind.

Dr Suzanne Fagence Cooper is an art historian specialising in 19th- and 20th-century culture and design. Her next book, How We Might Live: At home with Jane and William Morris, will be published in June 2022.

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