Opus Anglicanum: Masterpieces of English Medieval Embroidery, V&A Museum

Now my Latin is not up to scratch, so if I read ‘Opus Anglicanum’ without the tag line that follows it I would have had to look up what this exhibition was about. However, this title hopefully entices curiosity rather than causing complete brain shutdown because the objects on display in this temporary exhibition are sublime.

Thankfully Opus Anglicanum is explained as soon as you enter the room as ‘English Work’, prized embroidered art forms in Medieval Europe that enjoyed a peak of opulence in the 13th – 14th centuries. Stepping in your eyes have to reacclimatise to the darkened lighting that helps to protect the delicate embroidery on display. But the darkened space helps to add to the wonder, the spectacular objects glow and glitter in the gloom.

Straight away you’re introduced to a cope; a giant semi-circle of fabric intricately decorated with patterns and scenes, which would have been worn almost like a ceremonial cape. Obviously it’s just awesome, dating from around 1310-20 the condition is incredible. A large heavy cope chest to the left not only emphasises how such copes may have been kept in such good condition, being stored flat, but also highlights that they were considered important enough to protect

I was noticeably a bit younger than the general age group that this exhibition appeared to be attracting. But what was brilliant was the discussions about stitching that I overheard. Early on it was explained that the most popular stitches for this type of work were underside couching and split stitch; I sew a bit but not to know the names, but there were other older enthusiastic visitors explaining the techniques to each other. It’s great when an exhibition creates conversations.

There was a screen that showed a video of sewing footage and techniques, but I think this could have benefited from being placed in a different position. Rather than being wall mounted the screen was in a table and it was very crowded, everyone wanted to see how this sewing was done. Such creation videos are incredible hypnotic (there is an excellent one in the Oriental Museum in Durham). In its table top location, although it gathered a crowd and undoubtedly increased exhibition dwell time, it didn’t allow more than a handful of people to view it at one time.

The amount of cope capes on display is truly inspiring. There are also primary source illustrations in the exhibition which act as evidence within the historic records to indicate the existence of more, subsequently highlighting the rarity of their survival to the modern day. The copes themselves are magnificently mounted, either flat or like upright cones, both methods showed off the incredible needlework. I also really liked the addition of a contemporary Master Lantern light that incorporated all the names of embroidery workers recorded in English documents during the 13th – 14th century. Without this it would truly have been an exhibition dedicated to the unknown craftsmen and women who, through years of training, developed the skills (and undoubtedly patience) to create such wonderful embroidered pieces.

In the final room there is a wonderfully simple video alongside a number of squares of embroidered fabric that shows how what are now pieces once made up a magnificent cope. The repurposing of such an item which has ultimately lead to its survival to today is really emphasised by this visual footage showing how all the parts fit together.

This exhibition proclaims itself as the first opportunity to see the range of surviving examples of Opus Anglicanum in one place in over half a century, and it does not disappoint.

Opus Anglicanum: Masterpieces of English Medieval Embroidery is on at the V&A Museum until Sunday 5 February. To seem more about the exhibition, including some object photographs, as no photography is permitted within the exhibition visit the V&A website.

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