Opus Anglicanum Embroidery
ca. 1320 - 1340
55.72 cm x 56.2 cm (21 15/16 in. x 22 1/8 in.)
silver-gilt and colored silk thread on velvet
Not on view
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This textile is a fragment of an English Gothic opus anglicanum (“English work”) embroidery dating to ca. 1320-1340. As presently preserved, the textile is assembled from two fragments, each eleven and a half inches wide, that are seamed together vertically down the center. The fragments are each made from two layers of fabric with the embroidery decoration worked through both layers. The top layer is of red silk velvet woven on a ground of untwisted linen threads, fifty-six to the inch, and one-ply, Z-twisted red silk threads, eighty to the inch, with red silk fibers incorporated into the weave, then cut to form the velvet. Under the velvet is a plain woven bast fabric with one-ply Z-twisted threads. The silk velvet is most likely of Italian origin. The decoration, which is of English origin, is worked through both layers of fabric with two-ply S-twisted silk threads, untwisted silk threads, and silver-gilt foil-wrapped, S-twisted silk threads.
The embroidery depicts St. Lawrence (left) carrying his gridiron and St. Margaret of Antioch (right) spearing a dragon, which she has trapped by the neck with a white cloth that she holds in her left hand; both stand within compartments made from oak (left) and ivy (right) stems which also provide support pedestals for the two figures. The four Evangelist symbols are represented at the top and bottom, to either side of the central seam. Each bears a scroll identifying the Evangelist: Iohannes (winged eagle, top left), MARCVS (winged lion, lower left), MATVVS (winged human, upper right), and LVCVS (winged bull, lower right). A.G.I. Christie suggests that the unusual spelling of MATVVS might be due to an incorrect repair (see Christie, A.G.I. English Medieval Embroidery [Oxford, 1938], 171). A lion mask, formed from two halves, is represented at the top of the central stem, and to the left of St. Lawrence is the remnant of a wheel, mostly likely the attribute of martyrdom of St. Catherine of Alexandria.
These fragments come most likely from either an altar frontal or dossal (a cloth suspended behind the altar) or a liturgical garment, such as a cope or chasuble. In either case, it is likely that the two figures were reversed in the composition, with Lawrence on the right and Margaret on the left, thereby placing the Evangelist symbols in the outer corners of the composition and re-establishing a more canonical order (see Susan Leibacher Ward, “Fragment of an Altar Frontal or Dossal” in Brown University, Department of Art., Transformations of the Court Style : Gothic Art in Europe, 1270 to 1330: an Exhibition by the Department of Art, Brown University at the Museum of Art, Rhode Island School of Design, Providence, Rhode Island, February 2 through February 27, 1977 [Providence, R.I., 1977], 98). The Evangelist symbols suggest that an image of the enthroned Christ may have been represented in the center of the composition. The fragment of Catherine’s wheel also suggests that at least one additional figure was between both Lawrence and Margaret and the central image. Most likely the figure beside Margaret was a male saint. If the Dumbarton Oaks fragments came from an altar frontal or dossal, then it would be possible for two additional figures to have been part of the composition, making up approximately a length of six feet, a probable size for an altar frontal or dossal (see Christie, 171). Donald King has suggested that the Dumbarton Oaks fragments may have been part of an altar frontal that included Saints Margaret and Catherine documented as a gift to Exeter Cathedral under Bishop Grandisson (1327-1367) (see Donald King, Opus Anglicanum: English Medieval Embroidery [London, 1963], 38).
However, the Dumbarton Oaks fragments are also frequently associated with the Butler-Bowdon cope in the Victoria and Albert Museum, London (T.36-1955), and the Chichester-Constable chasuble in the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York (27.162.1). The similarities of style, decoration, and technique suggest that all of these pieces originally may have belonged to a set (or chapel) of vestments. Especially the lion masks and foliate stems are found on all of these pieces. The use of both oak and ivy stems is also found on a cope at Steeple Aston, Oxfordshire. Both the Butler-Bowdon cope and the Chichester-Constable chasuble have (or had) representations of St. Lawrence and St. Catherine. (See Bonnie Young, "Opus Anglicanum," The Metropolitan Museum of Art Bulletin, new series, vol. 29, no. 7 [March 1971], 291-298). An opus anglicanum fragment, dated ca. 1320-1340, that depicts the confronted images of St. Margaret slaying a dragon and St. Catherine with her wheel, all within a barbed quatrefoil border, is in the Victoria and Albert Museum, London, (T.2-1940).
The dating of this textile to ca. 1320-1340 is based on stylistic analysis and well as the association of the Butler-Bowdon cope and Chichester-Constable chasuble with the patronage of King Edward III (reigned 1327-1377). The Steeple Aston cope is also usually dated ca. 1315-1335 on stylistic grounds.
Beck, Egerton. "English Medieval Art at the Victoria and Albert Museum." The Burlington Magazine for Connoisseurs vol. 56, no. 327 (June 1930), p. 298, pl. 2.
Read, Herbert. "English Art." The Burlington Magazine for Connoisseurs vol. 62, no. 369 (December 1933), pp. 244-254, no. 369, pl. 4.
Christie, A.G.I. English Medieval Embroidery (Oxford, 1938), pp. 171-172, pl. 130.
Griffith, Beatrice Fox. Treasure Under Glass, Examples of the Arts and Crafts from the British Isles from the Prehistoric Millennia to the Sixteenth Century A.D. In museums, Libraries, and Collections Open to the Public in the United States of America (Harrisburg, Penn., 1963), pl. 46.
King, Donald. Opus Anglicanum: English Medieval Embroidery (London, 1963), p. 37.
Young, Bonnie. "Opus Anglicanum," The Metropolitan Museum of Art Bulletin, new series, vol. 29, no. 7 (March 1971), p. 293, fig. 7.
Ward, Susan Leibacher. “Fragment of an Altar Frontal or Dossal.” In Brown University, Department of Art., Transformations of the Court Style : Gothic Art in Europe, 1270 to 1330: an Exhibition by the Department of Art, Brown University at the Museum of Art, Rhode Island School of Design, Providence, Rhode Island, February 2 through February 27, 1977. (Providence, R.I., 1977), pp. 98-99, no. 36, ill.
"Souvenir Mediaeval Art Exhibition," Victoria and Albert Museum, London, 1930, cat. no. 110.
Loan Court, Victoria and Albert Museum, London, 1930-1933, 1934.
"Exhibition of British Art," Royal Academy, London, 01-03/1934, cat. no. 1206, pl. 221.
"Arts of the Middle Ages," Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, 2/17-3/24/1940, cat. p. 35, no. 101, pl. 50.
"Opus Anglicanum: English Medieval Embroidery," Arts Council of Great Britain, Victoria and Albert Museum, London, 9/26-11/24/1963, p. 38, cat. no. 41;
"Transformations of the Court Style, Gothic Art in Europe 1270-1330," Museum of Art, Rhode Island School of Design, Providence, R.I., 2/2-27/1977, p. 91, cat. p. 98, no. 36, ill. p. 99.
"Seldom Seen," Dumbarton Oaks, Washington, D.C., April 21, 2014.
Collection of Mildred Barnes, Sharon, Conn., and New York, New York, ca. 1900-1908.
Collection of Mildred and Robert Woods Bliss, Washington, D.C., 1908-1940.
Dumbarton Oaks Research Library and Collection, House Collection, Washington, D.C.