Several years ago, the following piece of old ecclesiastical goldwork embroidery was handed over to me. It is beyond use as far as an ecclesiastical piece is concerned, and rather than leaving it in some storage cupboard somewhere, the general consensus was that I could take it apart, save some hard-to-find materials on it, and learn something in the process.
Overall, though the piece is attractive in parts and might look ok from afar, it is not really a well-designed ecclesiastical piece. Still, I like certain individual elements of the design.
This is an excellent piece for learning. Although I would never consider taking certain embroideries apart, this one is perfect for “deconstructing” in order to learn from it. Since I’m photographing the process and discoveries, I thought I would share them with you.
Don’t be too deceived by the photos. In the photos, the gold tends to look exceptionally bright and in good repair. Up close, the gold is tarnished and in bad repair. The ground fabric held up pretty well, but that’s essentially because of the way the piece was constructed, which we’ll look at in a minute.
When laid out, the piece is in the shape of a cross. It comes from the back of a chasuble, which is a vestment worn by a priest during Mass. Directly above is the lower column of the cross, with the first picture above being the top part of the cross.
The design features the Agnus Dei symbol in the center of the cross. The lamb is resting on a cross on top of a book with seven seals, a Biblical symbol from the book of the Apocalypse (or Revelation), Chapter 5.
Around the Agnus Dei radiates lines made of spangles, sewn on with gold purl.
On the vine that surrounds the Angus Dei on the top part of the cross, we find some smaller leaves and some very large, heavy, high-relief roses.
There are also a few heads of wheat on the vine.
On the lower column of the cross, there’s a lily with few long, slender, folded lily leaves. There’s also a very large grape leaf towards the top of the column, with an acanthus-like leaf at the very top of the column, and …
… somewhere in the middle of the column, hanging off to the left, there’s a small, awkward-looking, stiff, grape-like bunch that is considerably disproportioned, when viewing the whole design.
It’s an odd conglomeration of elements in one piece of embroidery for one vestment. Symbolically, the Agnus Dei and lilies go well together (think Easter). The Agnus Dei and wheat and grapes go together. But all of them, and roses, in one piece tends to crowd up the symbolism a bit.
In addition to this rather haphazard collection of elements, the embroidered pieces taken individually are very heavy. They are joined by a very light and scraggly vine-like line. The lightness of the joining vine makes each embroidered element seem even heavier.
The embroidery, taken by itself, is well done. But overall, the design lacks a certain balance, coherence, and unity.
The heaviness of the individual pieces would normally have worn out that red silk (the ground fabric) a little more. So why is the ground fabric in such good shape?
If you look at the back of the whole piece, the answer is evident. The embroidery was not done directly on the red silk, which is backed by linen. The skinny little vine that runs through the piece is couched directly on the ground fabric, and the rest of the elements are embroidered slips.
What’s a slip? A slip is a piece of embroidery done on another piece of fabric, cut out from that fabric, and then tacked onto another ground fabric. At the top of the photo directly above, you can see a shield-shaped sewn area. That’s where the grapes are sewn onto the fabric.
So there’s no real embroidery going into the ground fabric at all, except for an occasional plunged thread from the vine. All those heavy elements on this piece were actually embroidered on separate fabric first, cut out, and applied to ground fabric for the vestment.
That’s the piece overall. Next, I’ll tell you why I have no qualms about taking the piece apart, and we’ll start deconstructing the individual elements to see what they are and how they were made.
Any questions? Comments? Suggestions? Constructive Criticism? Feel free to have your say below!