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Chasuble

  • Place of origin:

    Italy (possibly, made)
    Spain (possibly, made)
    Bohemia (probably, made)
    Germany (probably, made)

  • Date:

    late 15th century (made)

  • Artist/Maker:

    Unknown

  • Materials and Techniques:

    Woven silk velvet ground, with orphrey of linen embroidered with silver, silver-gilt and silks (metal threads couched; silks in split stitch; glass)

  • Museum number:

    1375-1864

  • Gallery location:

    Medieval and Renaissance, Room 50d, case 1

This chasuble is the principal church vestment worn by a priest at the celebration of the Christian Mass. An image of the Crucifixion can be seen with the Virgin and St John at the foot of the Cross and angels holding chalices in which to catch the blood of Christ. The chasuble is made up of the favoured luxury materials of the time, having an embroidered orphrey (the decorative piece attached to the chasuble), which dates from the later part of the 15th century, applied to a sumptuous velvet ground dating to about 1430-1470. The orphrey was probably originally attached to another chasuble and was cut off and re-used here. It is likely that the orphrey, with its very distinctive style of bold images and figures with large heads, was worked in Bohemia. Embroidery was highly regarded in the medieval period in Europe and at its finest matched goldwork and painting.

The velvet was made in Italy or Spain, then the centres for velvet weaving in Europe, and provided an ideal foil for rich embroidery. The style of 'pomegranate' shaped motifs on the voided velvet (a technique whereby the design is produced by leaving areas free of velvet) came to typify Renaissance textile design.

Physical description

This chasuble is made of two different velvets (front and back), both probably dating from the fifteenth century, two different plain-weave linen linings (front and back), and column orphrey on the front, a Y-shaped cruciform (Gabelkreuz) orphrey on the back. The orphreys seem to match each other in style and technique, though they have been cut down from longer pieces at some point before being applied to these velvets. A pink linen is used to line the back and an undyed linen the front. There is some evidence of a red dye staining the back. (During conservation, blue linen was found stitched into the seams at the neck, possibly evidence of a previous lining, and some very hard linen crin.) Some wax adheres to the front (that on the back was removed during conservation).

The red cut velvet of the front has a less complex design than that on the back. The symmetrical pattern is built up around a simple pomegranate motif on the front, and a more complex composition comprising both pomegranate and flowers on the back. Both velvets belong to the type described as ferronerie because of the finely delineated motifs which look like ironwork. On the back it is clear that prior to the application of this particular orphrey, a simple Latin cross had been stitched to the velvet. The front of the chasuble is heavily pieced, so that no single repeat of the very long motif is present (no less than eleven pieces of velvet have been cobbled together to create the front).

The orphreys are made of linen, embroidered with silver, silver-gilt and polychromatic silks (shades of blue, green, red, yellow). They are very worn in areas, thus making visible the linen ground and the inked outline drawn for the embroiderer to follow. Some areas of the design have been built up into raised work, providing a three-dimensional effect. Couched work and split stitch are the main forms of stitching, though there is also evidence of knotting (possibly not original).

The front column orphrey is embroidered with two full-length figures under Gothic canopies: the Virgin and child at the top, a saint with a crown below, holding a chalice and wafer (the Host). The figures are mainly embroidered in colours, though their attributes, the edge of their garments and their haloes are in metal thread. The background is of metal thread couched down.

The Y-shaped orphrey on the back has a ground of metal thread couched down. The dominant feature is the figure of Christ crucified on the cross (this figure is at least ten inches longer than any other on the band). At the foot of the cross stand the Virgin (hands in a gesture of prayer) and St John (a book in his hand). These figures have been cut down to fit the chasuble. The figure of Christ is long and emaciated, the original shading of the embroidery clearly showed the rib cage, and the contrast of the blood spouting from the wounds inflicted by the gruesomely large metal nails which pierce his feet and hands, and raised work emphasising his facial features and his halo. The halo is not only lavish in embroidery but also has three triplets (glass; see below) incorporated to highlight the cross embedded in the design (one triplet is now missing).* These must have caught the light. To the left and right of the cross, within the arms of the orphrey are small-scale, bust-length figures of angels, two on each side, all with haloes and wings. On the right, the figure with its head covered with its mantle, points to the cross (probably an older woman to go by the attire), while below the figure with long golden tresses, a diadem and peacock feather wings holds out a three-dimensional chalice to catch the blood of Christ. The chalice is formed in such a way that the blood can actually drip into it. On the left are two completely bare-headed angels, the lower one holding a chalice in the same way as his counterpart on the right hand side. Above the cross is a scroll containing the inscription INRI (the initials almost entirely worn away). A bird (eagle), wings spread, rests its claws on the scroll while behind him two peacock-winged angels swing hanging censers made of raised gold thread work The cross is very realistically depicted, some attempt at perspective being introduced through the use of plain versus 'grained' planes of the wood.

* Triplets are gems made from three different components which can be a broad spectrum of materials. In the case of the chasuble, the intention appears to have been to simulate cabochon rubies. The triplets here are made from two pieces of colourless transparent glass, each in cabochon form, the bases in contact, between the two is a transparent red cement. The joint is covered by the fabric 'setting'. As the red colour is reflected around the colourless glass the overall appearance is that of a gem with a red body colour. The cement has oxidised over time and so contracted and crizzled towards the edges and the colour is now largely lost. (Information provided by Joanna Whalley, Senior Metals Conservator)

Place of Origin

Italy (possibly, made)
Spain (possibly, made)
Bohemia (probably, made)
Germany (probably, made)

Date

late 15th century (made)

Artist/maker

Unknown

Materials and Techniques

Woven silk velvet ground, with orphrey of linen embroidered with silver, silver-gilt and silks (metal threads couched; silks in split stitch; glass)

Marks and inscriptions

INRI

Dimensions

Height: 1200 mm, Width: 865 mm, Height: 1500 mm Maximum display dimension, Width: 870 mm Maximum display dimension, Depth: 300 mm Maximum display dimension

Object history note

Purchased from Franz Bock in 1864.

In the service of the Catholic Church, the maker of this chasuble combined imported silks from one of the premier centres of European silk-weaving with the finest professional embroidery made locally. The characteristic form of the crucifix and the Y-shape of the orphreys locate it geographically and chronologically. The chasuble is significant as an example of the finest craftsmanship in textiles. It is also significant as example of recycling in an earlier age, when the value of luxury textiles was much greater than now and recognised as such.

Historical context note

Vestment.
This chasuble is the vestment (priestly garment) worn by a Catholic priest when celebrating the Mass. It was - and is - worn over the alb and stole.

Prior to the 1960s, the priest stood facing the altar with his back to the congregation, so the back of the chasuble was visible most of the time. The combination of secular and ecclesiastical textiles is not unusual in vestments, the silk being suitable for both secular and ecclesiastical use, the iconography of the embroidered orphreys being specifically ecclesiastical. This chasuble has been made of Italian (or Spanish) velvet, cut down from its original bell shape into the fiddle shape that became popular in the early seventeenth century. The use of two different velvets and the evidence of stitchmarks from previous incarnations do not allow exact identification of the time of making of the garment - but do indicate how highly valued such textiles were even after they had been used. The colour suggests this chasuble would have been worn on the feast days of martyrs.

The velvet on the back is identical to velvets in the Lehman collection at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York and a chasuble in the Schnutgen Museum. It is an elaboration of the basic pomegranate motif, with floral and foliage excretions growing out from the central motif contained within the framing compartments (Thurman, no. 104, p. 179; Museum Schnutgen, no. 27, pp. 142-3).

Orphreys.
The shape of the orphreys (column on the front, y-shaped cross on the back) was typical of the Netherlands till the mid sixteenth century and the Rhineland, according to Johnstone. She asserted that the orphrey was probably from Bohemia (the current Czech Republic, a geographical area encompassing Bohemia, Moravia and Silesia). 'Orphreys of this period frequently shared features of the Rhineland orphreys, the short-armed Gabelkreuz, the realistic wood of the cross, curving rays in the haloes, and so on. The crucifixion scene also shows strong likenesses with the wall paintings at Karlstejn [20 km south of Prague].'(Johnstone, col. pl. XVIII F and p. 42). The same combination of materials, imagery and form is found in the chasuble catalogued as Rhineland, late 15th century in the Schnutgen Museum (Museum Schnutgen, no. 63, pp. 240-1).

A number of objects in the Schnutgen Museum in Cologne conform to this format and style. They are dated to the end of the fifteenth century.(Museum Schnutgen, nos. 9, pp.80-1, 27, pp. 142-3, 30, pp. 151-3.)

Symbolism.
The birds and feathers within the imagery are probably as symbolic as the direct Christian messages from the crucifixion scene. Such associations came from Bestiaries which originated in England in the 11th century, containing tales around real and fantastic animals, often with a moral content.

It seems likely that the bird above the cross is an eagle rather than a cock (as suggested in the original entry in the Accessions Register) because the eagle is specifically associated with St John the Evangelist and the Gospels in general, is the highest flier, and may represent Christ or the human spirit aspiring to God. The cock, in contrast, is sometimes a symbol of vigilance, but is usually associated with St Peter's denial of Christ. This bird lacks the crest of a cock and has a decidedly rapacious appearance, very similar to the outstretched form found on lecterns in churches.

The peacock feathers used for the wings of three of the angels are a common device. Peacocks were symbols of immortality, as the ancients believed that the flesh of the peacock was incorruptible. They appear frequently in Early Christian mosaics.

The significance of Christ's blood in late-medieval Christianity and in depictions of the Crucifixion in different media has been explored recently in the context of Germany and would illuminate the graphic references in the (now faded) blood spurting from Christ's wounds and its collection into chalices by angels. (Caroline Walker Bynum. Wonderful Blood. Theology and practice in late medieval Northern Germany and beyond. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2007).

The colour of the triplets may also be significant. In 'The Curious Law of Precious Stones' George Frederick Kuntz quotes from 'Speculum lapidum', Leonardi, 1502, that rubies 'removed evil thoughts, controlled amorous desires, dissipated pestilential vapours, and reconciled disputes'. So quite apt for a liturgical vestment.

Bibliographic references.
Johnstone, Pauline. High Fashion in the Church. Leeds: Maney, 2002.
Murray, Peter and Linda. Oxford Dictionary of Christian Art. Oxford: OUP, 1996 (for bird symbolism).
Museum Schnutgen, Die Liturgischen Gewander 11. bis 19. Jahrhundert, 2003.
Thurman, Christa C. Mayer. European Textiles in the Robert Lehman Collection. The Metropolitan Museum of Art and Princeton University Press, 2001.

Descriptive line

red velvet with pomegranate pattern, embroidered orphreys with crucifixion, 1375-1500, Italian or Spanish velvet; German/Bohemian embroidery

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

Johnstone, Pauline. High Fashion in the Church. Leeds: Maney, 2002, Plate VIII E.
Wetter, Evelin. 'Die Stiftungen im Vergleich, Rückblick auf das Zentrum Prag, Ausblick', Böhmische Bildstickerei um 1400. Die Stiftungen in Trient, Brandenburg und Danzig. Berlin: Gebr. Mann Verlag, pp. 118-120, 131-2, and 172.

Production Note

Originally described on acquisition as Italian velvet, Cologne work orphreys. In Dr Bock's Revise of 1888 recorded as '? English. 15th centy.' Recent research suggests the embroidery is from the Rhineland, though the silk velvet is probably Italian or Spanish, as these were the main centres of silk weaving at the time, and that it dates to the third quarter of the fifteenth century. (See Johnstone and Museum Schnutgen in bibliography). The date of 1375 is proposed by Evelin Wetter on the basis of a comparison of the style of figures with a painted altarpiece in Brandenburg.

Materials

Silk velvet; Linen; Silver thread; Silver-gilt thread; Silk thread; Glass

Techniques

Woven; Embroidered

Categories

Christianity; Ecclesiastical textiles; Europeana Fashion Project

Collection

Textiles and Fashion Collection

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