Home » Exhibitions » Exhibition Review – Opus Anglicanum: Masterpieces of English Medieval Embroidery at the Victoria and Albert Museum from 1st October 2016 to 5th February 2017

Exhibition Review – Opus Anglicanum: Masterpieces of English Medieval Embroidery at the Victoria and Albert Museum from 1st October 2016 to 5th February 2017

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The V&A presents a major medieval embroidery exhibition entitled Opus Anglicanum: Masterpieces of English Medieval Embroidery which features a number of rare treasures returning to England for the first time since the Middle Ages .The exhibition includes English medieval embroidery from the V&A’s world-class collections and will be the largest exhibition on the subject in half a century.  Over 100 remarkable hand-made objects will be on display with a number associated with notable figures from the Middle Ages, from Edward I and his Queen Eleanor of Castile to Edward the Black Prince and the sainted martyr Thomas Becket.

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The phrase ‘opus anglicanum’ which is Latin for ‘English work’ was first used in the 13th century to describe the highly-prized and luxurious embroideries made in England of silk and gold and silver thread. These extravagant embroideries were often created by a workforce of mainly women based in the City of London near to St Paul’s. The skills of these workers were highly prized and often high wages were paid to secure their services.

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From the 12th to the 15th centuries, England enjoyed an international reputation for its luxury embroideries which were highly sought after by elites all over Europe. The exhibition presents a number of rare, surviving examples including a seal-bag dated to 1100 – 1140 made to contain the seal from a foundation document of Westminster Abbey.

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Although there were embroideries made for secular use, the vast majority that have survived are associated with the Church.  Some of the earliest embroideries from the period only survive today because they were interred during the burial rites of bishops and abbots. One of the highlights of the exhibition is an embroidered vestment associated with Thomas Becket, after his death Becket’s image became iconic and exhibition will showcase some of the earliest examples demonstrating the popularisation of the Becket cult.

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Other highlights include The Hólar Vestments depicting Icelandic saints, originally from the Cathedral church at Hólar in Iceland, are early examples of foreign bishops procuring embroideries from England. Objects from Westminster Palace and the Royal Court between 1250 and 1325. The V&A’s Jesse Cope depicting the Tree of Jesse joins an intricately decorated cope adorned with saints and angels from the collections of the Vatican Museums in Rome. 

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In the first part of the 14th century, English embroidery achieved its greatest popularity and status in Europe. Some examples from the period include The Daroca Cope, which portrays scenes from the Creation of the World and Fall of Adam and Eve which was rarely depicted in English medieval embroidery. 

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Some of the most remarkable embroideries in the exhibition are not the most lavish but linked to Plantagenet kings of England, including part of a red velvet horse trapper probably made for Edward III’s Court. An embroidered tunic worn by Edward the Black Prince renowned for his defeat of the French army at the Battle of Crecy from Canterbury Cathedral and embroidered seal bags linked to English medieval monarchs, including Edward I.

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Towards the end of the exhibition, it explores how the English Reformation of the 1530s led to a considerable decline for the English embroidery industry, many of the most precious embroidered church vestments were either destroyed or altered for different uses.

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Whilst many people may not be at first be attracted to an exhibition on English Medieval Embroidery, it is important to realise that these types of exhibitions are extremely rare. The age and fragility of the objects means that few will travel from where they have been kept for centuries. This fascinating exhibition tells the little known story of when English Embroidery was highly sought after by the Kings, Princes, Popes and Bishops of Europe. Walking around the exhibition, there are many screens that illustrate the skill and techniques involved in the creation of the embroideries. Close inspection of the pieces provide some insight into the Medieval mind-set and a connection with some of  the skilled workers who often included their own small characteristics into the pieces with different expressions from the people and animals.

Visiting London Guide Rating – Highly Recommended 

For more information or book tickets, visit the V & A website here

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