Sometimes I go to things on a recommendation and sometimes those things take me a little out of my comfort zone. That was certainly true, in both cases, of the V&A's recent Opus Anglicanum : Masterpieces of English Medieval Embroidery. It was a subject I knew next to nothing about and when I arrived in South Kensington I was half tempted to knock it on the head. Sometimes it'd be nice to spend a bit more time IN my comfort zone.
The enormous queues outside the museum didn't help and then I had a palaver with the ticket. Due to the exhibition's (surprising) popularity I'd booked earlier in the day but they hadn't got back. I asked at the door of the museum. They said try at the desk. The desk said try at the entrance to the exhibition itself where they finally, after three quite lengthy explanations and a bag check, let me in.
On the downside no photography was permitted in the exhibition. On the upside the age of the average punter made me feel very youthful. Even more so than at the recent Orchestra Baobab gig.
Opus Anglicanum translates simply as English Work but referred, here, more specifically to the embroideries made, often not far from St.Paul's Cathedral, during the 13th and 14th centuries when the international reputation of English embroidery was as its peak. Alas, there's far more religious than secular stuff on show. It's not that non-ecclesiastical embroidery wasn't made. More that it wasn't preserved. Boo!
Bishops were often buried in their vestments adorned with gold thread and jewels (making it difficult for them to enter into heaven one would imagine). In the first couple of rooms of the show you can see Pope Nicolas IV's cope, an elaborate (and ginormous) oak chest for keeping said copes in, seal-bags, mitres, reliquary caskets, psalters, and orphreys. The murdered, venerated, and sanctified Thomas a Becket proved very popular in adornment of said items as did the crucifixion (obvs) and St Lawrence. So far so much of an RE lesson. Educational. But very dry.
In the 13th century Westminster Palace shored up its position as the centre of court life. Henry III, Henry of Winchester, the then monarch, cultivated an interest in Parisian goods and his tastes influenced the rest of the country. The artists who made these French influenced embroideries were also expected to be able to create manuscript illuminations and stained glass. All these disciplines were used, of course, for instructing the lower orders how to behave piously. Something, you rather suspect, that was preached rather than practiced in Westminster.
Some of the Vatican copes on show are absolutely fucking massive. There's also a chasuble made using Iranian kanzi which goes to show the sort of distances that were being travelled even back then. There's a warning, too, for girls who went to Basingstoke indie discos in the late eighties. It seemed one of the ways of identifying Christ's attackers in these embroideries were by their striped leggings. A sign, we're told, of sinful pride and bad character. Many years ago I personally carried out some research on this very topic but the results, alas, were inconclusive.
The Toledo Cope, the Syon Cope, and the Vic Cope date back to even darker days than those spent dancing to Kill Your Television by Ned's Atomic Dustbin. All these copes. I couldn't bloody cope with them. Here a biblical picture book, there a Tree of Jesse, and of course St.Hippolytus of Rome torn apart by horses. Cue my catchphrase when relating tales of religious art:- cold blooded old times!
None colder than the Black Death which arrived in London in 1348 and, putting aside the 75,000,000 to 200,000,000 who died for a minute, didn't help the embroidery industry one bit. My flippancy hopefully illustrates a problem I had with the exhibition. It'd have been more interesting to me if the curators had majored on the historical events that surrounded the exhibits. Some context would've been more enlightening to this novice than examples of nue (shaded gold), stories of the rivalry with merchants from Flanders, the funeral 'achievements' of the Black Prince, and brief anecdotes about Dunstable's swan jewel and John Grandisson, a medieval bishop of Exeter.
In the 16th century much of this embroidery was lost in the Protestant Reformation (though there seems more than enough of it left knocking around to me). Catholic Emancipation wasn't granted until 1829 and, following that, an appreciation of these copes and vestments was reawakened. Three years later the V&A opened as the South Kensington Museum (you can read more about this in my blog about Lockwood Kipling) and the owners were keen to start collecting as much of this medieval embroidery as they could.
It was a little too much for me. A tad too arid. I didn't think it was a waste of time because I learnt a lot but for unbelievers and dilettantes such as myself this show lacked the wider remit that would've tempted us deeper in. As I walked out past a selection of mermen and mermaids decorating a fishmonger's pall I appreciated the fact that museums could host such niche shows and just hoped, selfishly, that next time they'd opt for a niche more appealing to me.