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Orphrey panel

  • Place of origin:

    England (made)

  • Date:

    1370-1390 (made)

  • Artist/Maker:

    Unknown

  • Materials and Techniques:

    Embroidered with silver-gilt and silver thread and coloured silks in underside couching, surface couching and split stitch, with raised work, on linen

  • Credit Line:

    Purchased with the assistance of the Horn Bequest

  • Museum number:

    T.5A-1988

  • Gallery location:

    In Storage

This embroidered panel is an example of opus anglicanum (the Latin for ‘English work’). It is not, though, the finest in quality. It was made between about 1380 and 1410, when the quality of English embroidery and design was starting to decline. The best work was done from about 1250 to 1350, and had been sought after throughout Europe.

An orphrey is a decorative band applied to a church vestment (a ceremonial garment worn for services). This embroidered panel shows the murder of the Archbishop of Canterbury, St Thomas Becket, in Canterbury Cathedral in 1170. A second panel shows an earlier scene, that of Thomas appearing before the pope at Sens in France, which suggests that the two once formed part of a series of panels depicting well-known episodes from Becket’s life.

The composition of the panel is rather confused. The fourth of the knights involved in Thomas's murder is difficult to make out. The altar before which the fallen figure prostrates himself, dedicated to the Virgin Mary, is crudely drawn.

It is possible that the orphreys were embroidered at a time when the cult of St Thomas Becket was being revived. For example, the year 1370, the 200th anniversary of his death, was notable for the offerings made in his memory. The year 1376 was also notable, when the funeral of the Black Prince, son and heir of King Edward III (ruled 1327–77), took place in Canterbury Cathedral. Since it is not possible to pin down precisely when this embroidery was done, these suggestions are only speculative.

The embroidery is worked in underside couching, split stitch and there is a little raised work.

Physical description

Orphrey panel, originally from a chasuble or a cope, is of linen embroidered in silver, silver-gilt and silks in underside couching, split stitch and with a little raised work. It depicts the martyrdom of Thomas Becket in Canterbury Cathedral (St Thomas) at the hands of three of the four knights. The gold background is worked with a lozenge diaper pattern. Details in metal purl.

Thomas is seen on the left with hands outstretched, kneeling before an altar above which is an altarpiece showing the Virgin and Child. Thomas's mitre is placed on the altar. He is shown receiving two blows on the head from behind by swords wielded by two armoured soldiers. A third figure of a soldier is shown behind the other two soldiers with sword held aloft ready to strike a further blow. A deacon holding a crozier hides behind the altar. The scene is beneath a cinquefoil ogee arch with twisted columns, large crockets and finials. In a niche at the top of each of the two columns is a haloed head.

Small areas have been re-embroidered in coarser embroidery thread and coarser stitches than the original.

Place of Origin

England (made)

Date

1370-1390 (made)

Artist/maker

Unknown

Materials and Techniques

Embroidered with silver-gilt and silver thread and coloured silks in underside couching, surface couching and split stitch, with raised work, on linen

Dimensions

Height: 29 cm maximum, Width: 22.5 cm maximum

Object history note

Purchased. Registered File number 1987/707. One of two parts with T.5-1988. The two panels were known to have been in Venice at one time, and as the cult of St Thomas was particularly important in Italy, the orphrey may have been exported there shortly after its production.

Works such as this one which depict Thomas Becket are rare, as many were destroyed during the Reformation.

Descriptive line

Orphrey panel of linen embroidered in silver, silver-gilt and silk threads, made in England, 1370-90.

Bibliographic References (Citation, Note/Abstract, NAL no)

Browne, Clare; Davies, Glyn; Michael, M.A., English Medieval Embroidery: Opus Anglicanum, exhibition catalogue, London, Victoria and Albert Museum (London, 2016), p. 245, cat. no. 68.

Borenius, Tancred, ‘Some Further Aspects of the Iconography of St Thomas of Canterbury’, Archaeologia 83 (1933), 171–86.

Kurth, Betty, ‘Zwei englische Stickereifragmente mit der Legende des Hl. Thomas Beckett’, Pantheon 15 (1935), 161–2

King, Donald, Opus Anglicanum: English Medieval Embroidery, exhibition catalogue, London, Victoria and Albert Museum (London, 1963), cat. no. 100

Woolley, Linda, ‘Two Panels from an Orphrey Showing Scenes from the Life of St Thomas of Canterbury’, in Monnas and Granger-Taylor 1989, pp. 265–73

Owen-Crocker, Gale R., The Bayeux Tapestry: Collected Papers. (Farnham, 2012), 64-8.

Materials

Linen (material); Silver thread; Silver-gilt thread; Silk thread

Techniques

Embroidered

Subjects depicted

Sword; Armour; Knights

Categories

Death; Ecclesiastical textiles; Embroidery; Religion; Europeana Fashion Project

Collection

Textiles and Fashion Collection

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