London: Opus Anglicanum @ the V&A

Sorry, I seem to be blogging about a lot of temporary exhibits lately where photography isn’t allowed, and this is yet another one.  I always think not including pictures is especially obnoxious when the exhibition is based around a type of art (rather than objects, though I suppose all museum displays are primarily visual in nature), but my hands are tied by the V&A’s policy and the guard in constant rotation around the exhibit to enforce it.  Anyway “Opus Anglicanum” (literally “English Work”) is an exhibition the Victoria and Albert Museum has on until 5 February 2017, and is all about medieval English embroidery.  Which probably doesn’t sound terribly thrilling (especially without any visuals, but bear with me).

First, the practicalities. Opus Anglicanum costs £12; I only went because they offer half-price admission to National Art Pass holders, so I got in for £6.  It also may be advisable to book online, as the V&A tends to always be busy, and it seems like they don’t release very many tickets per time slot (though there were still enough people in there to make it unpleasantly crowded at times); fortunately, unlike most other museums, they don’t charge a booking fee, you can book on the day of your visit, and they include all the discounts and concessions available as options when booking, so it’s quite easy to do so, and it means you don’t have to queue in the ticket line when you get to the museum.

Although the V&A is one of those vast institutions where if you take a wrong turn you’ll probably find yourself in a room you’ve never seen before, even if you’ve been there like 20 times, there are large signs pointing the way to Opus Anglicanum, so it is easy to find your way there, but the only indication that you’ve arrived is the ticket booth outside, because the Opus Anglicanum sign is hidden inside the doors to the exhibit.  The exhibition space was (probably by necessity, we are talking old, old fabrics here) quite dark, with the embroidered pieces (mostly copes, chasubles, and panels) inside glass cases lining the walls. By the way, in case you’re wondering (I know I was!) copes and chasubles are both types of religious vestment, sort of cloaky/poncho-y things.  You can see some examples on the exhibition page that I linked to in the first paragraph (and please do look at them since I have no photos to show you!).

As I said, it was fairly crowded; not crazy Museum of London crowded, where you actually have to queue to look at anything, but crowded enough that I sometimes had to crane my neck to look over the shoulders of people to read captions.  This wasn’t helped by how annoying some of my fellow visitors were, especially a group of what appeared to be university students who were jotting down notes as some woman lectured in front of a case, all of them completely oblivious to the fact that they were blocking the case for everyone else, and weren’t even looking at the objects within the case themselves!  Why they couldn’t have listened to a lecture on the benches provided or in the open centre space away from the exhibits, I do not know.  Fortunately, most of the people were congregated in the first and last rooms, so I was able to move along the middle section with ease.

Now, about the embroideries themselves: as the V&A say on their exhibition website, “from the 12th to the 15th centuries, England enjoyed an international reputation for the quality of its luxury embroideries.”  This was an attempt to showcase some surviving examples, there not being many of them, because as you can imagine, cloth doesn’t hold up particularly well centuries on.  Also, many of the ones that were located in England were destroyed during the Reformation.  Bearing that in mind, it’s rather incredible that they had as many examples as they did (I can’t even keep clothes hole-free from one year to the next unless I double-bag them in plastic, thanks to my impossible-to-get-rid-of moth infestation).  And most of the pieces they did have, despite being largely religious in nature, were very enjoyable indeed.

In addition to having a fondness for the way medieval artists rendered faces, I also like the way they depicted animals (and the unicorn just chillin’ out in a depiction of the Garden of Eden was another bonus), and there was lots of those embroidered on these objects.  I was also unexpectedly partial to the many, many depictions of the martyrdom of various saints.  Perhaps surprisingly, given how many years I was forced to attend Sunday School, I know very little about how saints were martyred.  For some reason they didn’t teach us that there, which is a shame, because that is the one part of religious education I could have actually derived some enjoyment from, given my fondness for both the macabre and memorising useless facts.  There was one panel in particular that showed the martyrdom of nine different saints that I was completely fascinated by.  One of them (Bartholomew, I looked it up after I got home) was being flayed alive, another (Hippolytus) was being pulled apart by horses, and another (Stephen I think) was being stoned to death, yet the saints had calm expressions, with only slightly sad down-turned mouths to hint at any kind of distress, which I found hilarious in a grim way.  Also, there was another scene that was apparently depicting the conversion of St. Paul, but it looked like someone was sticking something up his butt, more like a martyrdom a la Edward II (not that he’s a saint, but you know what I mean) than anything.  I’ve tried looking it up, but can’t make sense of it, so if anyone else knows the story behind (ha!) this please do let me know!

The “Jesse Tree” also seems to have bee a popular motif, as there were about ten depictions of it here (still not entirely sure what a Jesse Tree is, but my friend who attended Catholic school used to call me that as a child, which pissed me off because I hate being called Jessie), and lots of Holy Family scenes. There was also a shirt belonging to Edward the Black Prince, some splendid brass rubbings of knights that were drawn in almost an Edward Gorey-esque style (or more likely, Edward Gorey copied that style), loads of items sewn with gold and silver thread, which is why they had survived so long, and a few pieces of stained glass with amusing angel designs.  In addition, I loved the illuminated manuscript depicting the Garden of Eden (with the aforementioned unicorn), and I thought it was awesome that they had a surviving embroidery needle in one of the cases! But unsurprisingly, my favourite piece there was entirely secular in nature: The Fishmongers’ Pall, commissioned in the 16th century by the Fishmongers’ Guild and used to cover guild member’s coffins (I think up to the present day!), was a magnificent piece of embroidery from the last years of English dominance of the art, and was covered in delightful merpeople.  The end of English embroidery came about shortly after the mid-16th century, largely because of Henry VIII (the man has a lot to answer for), as elaborate gold-and-silver embroidery wasn’t much in demand in Protestant churches, and in the secular world had somewhat gone out of fashion amongst the nobility as well.

I think the exhibit did an adequate job of explaining the rise and fall of English embroidery, although I would have appreciated more context on some of the saint martyrdom pieces, since they looked so interesting (read: gory) and I really had no idea what was going on in most of them!  Same goes for some of the other less well-known religious images as well; for example, all the Jesse Tree pieces had captions saying that Jesse was asleep at the bottom, but who was Jesse, why was he asleep, and most importantly, why the hell was there a tree growing out of his head?! Also, although it was large enough to justify £6, there ain’t no way this was a £12 exhibition, but the V&A’s exhibition prices tend to be rather high, so it wasn’t unexpected (it is in Kensington after all, must pay the bills somehow!).  The embroideries themselves are very enjoyable, and well worth seeing just for the animals (lions with eyebrows!  I was glad to see that I’m not the only person that draws eyebrows on animals (eyebrows add personality, I think)) and the facial expressions on some of the embroidered people, but don’t expect to spend a lot of time here, because the captions are fairly short and there’s nothing interactive. 3.5/5.

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10 comments

  1. Thank you for this! I had no idea what a cope or chasuble was prior to reading your post. And you’re so right about the faces – they’re wonderful! (I really want to say “adorable” but that sounds like I’m trivializing them.) And the martyrs’, and their executioners’, expressions are hilarious (OK, definitely trivializing now). I’m especially partial to Saint Margaret’s goofy dragon. He looks like a big, happy dog who ate her by accident.

    1. This knowledge will serve you well, because I have a couple more copes and chasubles coming up next week (with pictures this time though, and lots of other art as well!). Although I just realised that there’s a glossary on the V&A’s site that explains the difference in more detail than I did. Actually, I also just noticed that there are pictures of most of the pieces on their website if you click around (as you clearly have as well!), which makes me feel better about not hunting down and linking to more of them myself (normally I would, but I’ve been fighting jet lag all week,and really couldn’t be bothered). And yes, St. Margaret’s dragon is wonderful! I’d have him as a pet for sure.

      1. Thanks! To be honest, it’s probably more homesickness (I got too used to hanging out with my brother and friends again when I was in Cleveland) plus a touch of the winter blues that’s causing my insomnia, but the time difference doesn’t help either.

      2. Oh man, that’s a tough combination alright. I feel for you – I haven’t got the homesickness but the winter blues have begun to wear me down. If it helps, I recommend vitamin D tablets (preferably the chewable chocolate variety, which shouldn’t be so tasty but actually are), a stack of really good, silly books and anything that involves butter and sugar.

      3. Oh, I love those chewy chocolate ones! The ones that kind of taste like tootsie rolls? I don’t think they sell them in the UK though, and if they did, they’d probably just come in some horrible flavour like black currant (now is also the time of year when I get really pissy about British food, after being spoiled by two and a half weeks of eating all the cake doughnuts, bagels, restaurant breakfasts, and frozen custard that I can’t get the rest of the year. Which also means I’ve been trying to lay off the butter and sugar somewhat to make up for all that doughnut consumption 😦 At least I have books to sustain me!).

  2. I love medieval embroidery – wish I could be in London to see this show! My favorites from the website are those horseback riding angel musicians. I know, not gory enough for you, but delightfully weird. Thank you for the virtual tour!

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