A garden of delights
It’s hard to imagine a more colourful or compelling portrait of English medieval artistic achievement than this extraordinary exhibition, says John Goodall
IN 1246, according to Matthew Paris, the monk chronicler of St Albans, the attention of Pope Urban IV was arrested one day by a group of English clergy dressed in embroidered vestments. He discovered that the garments they wore came from their homeland and remarked with predatory pleasure: ‘Truly, England is our garden of delights, an inexhaustible well from whose plenty many things may be extorted.’
Matthew’s account continues: ‘Thus the same Pope, made greedy by this sight, sent sealed letters to all the Cistercian abbots in England that they should send him those gold embroideries… as if they were obtainable for nothing. The London merchants who dealt in these things were not displeased and sold them at whatever price they wished.’
Walking into this superbly installed exhibition, it’s immediately apparent, across nearly eight centuries, what made this discerning Pope stop, stare and desire these vestments so intensely. The colour and opulence of the displays is marvellous. Even the costumes of David Bowie—recently exhibited with such success at the V&a—would compete for attention in such company.
No less remarkable, however, is the artistic quality of the embroidery. At its finest, this is as notable for its bold conception as for its exquisite detail. To the bureaucrats charged with compiling inventories of personal effects across Europe in the 13th and 14th centuries, such magnificent embroidery appeared sufficiently distinctive to be referred to simply as ‘English work’ or opus Anglicanum.
The name has stuck, but it was not a term generally used in medieval England and—as is apparent from the exhibition—it’s not really a very satisfactory term of art. Presented here are three distinct bodies of material. We begin with a small group of surviving embroideries from the 12th century. These are beautiful, but it’s very hard to see in them the origins of the spectacular creations of the 13th and early 14th century that form the backbone of the show.
This superlative work, the second body of material, comprises dense embroidery worked into, and often completely overlaying, the supporting fabric. It was produced by a workforce