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The Veglia Altar Frontal

  • Object:

    Altar frontal

  • Place of origin:

    Venice (designed)
    Venice (made)

  • Date:

    ca. 1330 (made)

  • Artist/Maker:

    Paolo Veneziano (designer)

  • Materials and Techniques:

    Red silk, in plain weave; with embroidery of gold and silver threads underside-couched, and with coloured silks, mainly in split stitch; interlined with paper and lined with linen.

  • Credit Line:

    Purchased with the assistance of The Art Fund, the Wolfson Foundation, the Worshipful Company of Broderers and the Worshipful Company of Weavers

  • Museum number:

    T.1-1965

  • Gallery location:

    In Storage

This altar frontal was made around 1330, and was probably designed by one of the foremost painters of the age, Paolo Veneziano, or his workshop. It was made for the Cathedral in Veglia, Croatia, and was probably commissioned by the Bishop there. It depicts Christ crowning the Virgin, surrounded by angels and saints. The saints depicted are Saint Querinus, the patron saint of Veglia, and Saint Gaudentius, the patron saint of neighbouring Ossero. It also shows Saints Peter and Paul, Saint John the Evangelist, and Saint John the Baptist.

The Veglia Coronation, with its crowned and sceptred Christ, belongs to the pictorial tradition of Venice. The two earliest representations of the subject in Venetian painting are almost identical with that of the embroidery. All three exist at a point between Gothic and Byzantine styles. The two paintings, though unsigned, are now universally attributed to Paolo Veneziano, the most distinguished Venetian painter of the first half of the 14th century. That a bishop of Veglia should commission a design from the leading painter of Venice is not surprising as Veglia and its surroundings were Venetian territory.

The frontal is of red silk, in a plain weave, and the design is executed mainly in gold and some silver thread, underside-couched. Details and outlines are worked with coloured silk, mainly in split stitch. Apart from the predominant red and gold, the principal notes of colour are provided by an elaborately patterned light green curtain held by angels behind the enthroned figures of Christ and the Virgin, and by the light blue starry vault above them. The design of the frontal was a pen and wash drawing in grisaille, executed directly on the red silk background material – details of it can be seen on some of the heads, where the embroidery has worn away.

Physical description

The frontal is of red silk, in a plain weave, and the design is executed mainly in gold and a little silver thread, underside-couched in such a way as to add different textures to the surface via small diagonal and lattice patterns. Details and outlines are worked with blue, green, yellow, cream, brown and red silk, mainly in split stitch. Apart from the predominant red and gold, the principal notes of colour are provided by an elaborately patterned pale green curtain held by angels behind the enthroned figures of Christ and the Virgin, and by the light blue starry vault above them.

Imagery
In the centre is the coronation of the Virgin: Christ and the Virgin are seated on a throne covered by a hanging of pale green patterned in gold which is held up behind them by two angels. On the throne is a gold cushion. Christ is crowned and holds a sceptre in his left hand.With his right he places on the Virgin’s head another crown. The Virgin’s hands are in an attitude of prayer.

Standing beneath Gothic arches to the left of the central group are St Querinus, St Peter and St. John the Evangelist, while to the right are St John the Baptist, St. Paul and St. Gaudentius; these standing figures are about 79 cm in height. St. Queriuns and St. Gaudentius are vested as bishops, with chasuble, mitre and crosier. St Peter holds a key (with a loop for suspension) and St Paul holds a sword and a book. St. John the Evangelist points to a book bearing the words IN P[R]INC[I]PO ER[AT] VER[BUM], while St. John the Baptist points towards Christ and holds a scroll inscribed ECCE AGNVS DEI ECCE QVI TOLIS PECATA MVNDI. To the right of the central group at the foot of the throne, kneels a small figure vested in chasuble and mitre, doubtless representing the bishop for whom the frontal was made. Beneath the arches the red silk background is powdered with trefoil leaves in gold; the space above the arches is occupied by representations of the sun (with a yellow face) and moon (with a blue face), and by vine scrolls, and circles containing interlace ornaments, all in gold.

The design of the frontal was a pen and wash drawing in grisaille, executed directly on the red silk background material – detail of it can be seen on some of the heads, where the embroidery has worn away.

State of preservation
The frontal has suffered extensive damage. Most of the fine silk stitching of the flesh parts has disappeared, exposing the red silk background; this is a fate which befell many medieval embroideries due to the extensive use of very thin bleached threads in minute split stitches in the details. The red silk background is itself worn away in many places, revealing firstly an interlining of white paper, and secondly a lining of undyed linen cloth. A number of holes have been patched with fragments from another, apparently contemporary, embroidery, also in gold on red silk. The top edge of the frontal has been made up with pieces of an orphrey of the 16th or 17th century, worked in gold and silk on crimson satin. During conservation of the altar frontal, some of the pieces of embroidery which had been used to patch it were removed. Some of these have been preserved (T.1A to G-1965).

The wear, however, allows the process of making to be detected. The design was drawn in pen and wash directly on to the red plain weave silk.

Place of Origin

Venice (designed)
Venice (made)

Date

ca. 1330 (made)

Artist/maker

Paolo Veneziano (designer)

Materials and Techniques

Red silk, in plain weave; with embroidery of gold and silver threads underside-couched, and with coloured silks, mainly in split stitch; interlined with paper and lined with linen.

Marks and inscriptions

IN P[R]INC[I]PO ER[AT] VER[BUM]
In the beginning was the Word
St. John the Evangelist points to a book bearing the words John 1:1

ECCE AGNVS DEI ECCE QVI TOLIS PECATA MVNDI
Behold the Lamb of God, behold Him who takes away the sins of the world.
while St. John the Baptist points towards Christ and holds a scroll inscribed with the words from John 1:29

Dimensions

Height: 107 cm, Length: 277 cm, Height: 79 cm standing figures

Object history note

Between 1882 and 1885 the architect T. G. Jackson made three visits to the eastern shores of the Adriatic in the course of which he visited the town of Veglia, on the island of the same name. There, in the treasury of the Romanesque Duomo he examined and published an account of the altar frontal. In 1921, Veglia, formerly part of the Austro-Hungarian empire, was incorporated into Yugoslavia and was subsequently known by its Croat name, Krk. During the 1920s the frontal was seen in the upper sacristy of the cathedral of Krk by Dragutin Kniewald, who published a detailed account of it. By 1931, however, it was in the art trade in Munich, where it was seen and described by Betty Kurth. It was purchased in Munich by the Victoria and Albert Museum in 1964.

The hypothesis that the frontal was intended from its conception for the Duomo of Veglia is supported by its iconography: the coronation theme is appropriate to a church which is dedicated to the Virgin; St. Querinus, Bishop of Siscia (Sisak) in Croatia, martyred under Diocletian, is the patron saint of Veglia; and St Gaudentius is the patron saint of neighbouring Ossero (Osor), where he was bishop 1030-42. The frontal is evidently of a size suitable to the high altar of the Duomo, since its dimensions are similar to those of a number of later frontals mentioned by Kniewald. Unfortunately Kniewald, who investigated the relevant documents, was unable to discover any specific reference to this frontal earlier than that in the inventory of 1872: 'Un antependio coll impronta degli apostoli di ricamo rosso. Valore d'estimo fior.30'. But the frontal may well have been among objects mentioned in earlier documents in general terms, without specific description. For example, a 17th century visitation recorded: 'Il detto Altare, come pure il Tabernacolo del Ssmo sono provisti mediocremente: di paliotti et panioni de quatro colori proportionali alli tempi, conforme il Rito della Chiesa'.

Historical significance: This is a very rare example of an embroidery that can be attributed to a particular designer, and traced to its church of origin with some certainty. It is an extremely fine piece of both draughtsmanship and embroidery, although much worn. It reveals the process of preparing an embroidery as described by Cennino Cennini, as the initial design drawn in pen and wash directly on to the red silk is visible.

Historical context note

Altar frontals were usually commissioned for a particular church by a particular patron, secular or ecclesiastical, and executed in professional or ecclesiastical workshops. In particularly prestigious surroundings or wealthy churches/cathedrals, in some cases they formed part of a suite of vestments and ornaments that included copes, chasubles and dalmatics as well as lectern or pulpit drops, burses, etc. They were often made of costly materials (silks in different types of weave) and decorated with embroidery which incorporated religious iconography appropriate to the church in question. They were usually attached to the wooden altar from hooks.

Tradition in design
The frontal follows a tradition of design which was current in western Europe for objects of this class with divine figures enthroned in the centre and standing saints on either side. A frontal of this kind, made about the middle of the 13th century for the convent of Heiningen, in Lower Saxony, foreshadows the Veglia frontal in having three figures on either side under Gothic arches, the figures at each end being vested as bishops. In the later 13th and 14th centuries the usual central subject of Christ in Majesty was replaced by the Coronation of the Virgin; the principal examples, apart from the Veglia frontal, are a Lower Saxon frontal of the late 13th century at Halberstadt cathedral, a Swedish frontal of about 1300 from Eskilstuna church, a frontal of 1325 from the Duomo of Pisa, a frontal of 1336 from S. Maria Novella in Florence, a Bohemian frontal of about 1360 from the Marienhirche in Pirna, and a Rhineland frontal of the later 14th century at Kloster Kamp. The Veglia frontal is related in some degree to all of these, but stands closest to the Italian and Bohemian frontals of 1325, 1336 and about 1360. In short, the design of the Veglia frontal was not an isolated invention, but rather belonged to a well marked line of tradition. This indicates that the patron followed established precedents when giving the orders for his frontal, but it does not, of course, imply that the designer was a mere copyist; on the contrary, it is obvious from the quality of his work that he was an artist of considerable stature.

Authorship/attribution
The Veglia Coronation with its crowned and sceptred Christ belongs to the pictorial tradition of Venice. The two earliest representations of the subject in Venetian painting - that of 1324 in Washington and the later, undated example in the Accademia, Venice - are in many respects almost identical with that of the embroidery. All three stand in much the same intermediate position between Gothic and Byzantine pictorial styles. The two paintings, though unsigned, are now universally attributed to Paolo Veneziano, the most distinguished Venetian painter of the first half of the 14th century. In comparison with stylistic traits of his paintings it is reasonable to conclude that the Veglia frontal was designed by Paolo Veneziano around 1330, or by his workshop. Assuming that the frontal was commissioned by a bishop of Veglia for his cathedral, it is probably that the bishop in question was Boniohannes (in office 1326), Lompradius (1330) or Nicolaus (1332). It is tempting to suppose that the pre-eminence of the two Sts. John among the saints of the frontal was due to Bishop Boniohannes. That a bishop of Veglia should commission a design from the leading painter of Venice is not surprising, for Veglia and its surrounding area were Venetian territory. Nor was this the only work which Paolo supplied to patrons in the area.

Descriptive line

c.1330, Veneziano

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

T.G. Jackson, Dalmatia, the Quarnero and Istria, 1887, Vol. III, p. 150.
A. Venturi, Storia dell'arte italiano, V, 1907, p. 1057.
Dragutin Kniewald, "Antependij i Pala Stolne Crkve u Krku", in Godisnjak Sveucilista Kraljevine Jugoslavije u Zagrebu 1924/5 - 1928/29, 1929, pp.49-55.
Betty Kurth, "Ein gesticktes Venezianisches Antependium des 14. Jahrhunderts", in Belvedere, X, 1931, pp. 47-48.
M. Schuetee and S. Muller-Christensen, The Art of Embroidery, 1964
Evelyn Sandberg Vavala, "Maestro Paolo Veneziano", in Burlington Magazine, LVII, 1930, pp. 160-183.
Donald King, A Venetian embroidered altar frontal (London: Victoria & Albert Museum, 1970)
Lisa Monnas. Merchants, Princes and Painters. Silk Fabrics in Italian and Northern Paintings 1300-1500. New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 2008, p. 42, fig. 33 (detail of embroidered head of saint).
Silvija Banić, Zadarski gotički vezeni antependij u Budimpešti, Ars Adriatica (Zadar University, Art History Department, No. 4, 2014).

Labels and date

Altar frontal
Red silk, embroidered with silver-gilt and silver threads in underside couching, and with coloured silk in split stitch
Italian (Venice); about 1330
Acquired with the aid of contributions from the National Art Collections Fund, the Wolfson Company of Broderers and the Worshipful Company of Weavers
T.1-1965

From left to right: SS Querinus, Peter, John the Evangelist; the Coronation of the Virgin, with angels and a kneeling bishop; SS John the Baptist, Paul and Gaudentius

The frontal was made for the Cathedral of Veglia (or Krk), an island off the coast of Croatia which in the Middle Ages was Venetian territory. It was designed by Paolo Veneziano, the leading Venetian painter of the period, and is one of the most important examples of Venetian embroidery surviving from the middle ages. []

Production Note

Attribution note: Possibly commissioned by Boniohannes, Bishop of Veglia 1326-1330
Reason For Production: Commission

Materials

Silk; Gold thread; Silver thread; Silk thread; Paper; Linen

Techniques

Weaving; Embroidering; Couching

Subjects depicted

Arches; Cushion; Throne canopy; Key; Haloes; Crozier; Throne; Chasuble; Crowns; Angels; Foliage; Mitre; Book

Categories

Ecclesiastical textiles; Embroidery; Christianity; Religion; Ceremonial objects

Production Type

Unique

Collection

Textiles and Fashion Collection

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