Happy Easter! To celebrate the day, I want to share with you another piece of ecclesiastical embroidery – this time, an elaborate super frontal for an altar.
In Catholic and Anglican churches, the altar in the front of the church would sometimes be adorned with an antependium, or frontal. If made of cloth, the frontal was usually embellished, either embroidered or appliquéd. In some churches, especially larger churches, a super frontal would also be used (“super” actually from “supra,” meaning “above” the frontal) in addition to the frontal. The super frontal was a long decorated piece, not very high, but wide enough to span the width of the altar. Sometimes, it was “built into” the frontal (separated, for example, by trim, to mark off the super frontal area), but more often, especially in more elaborate churches and chapels, it was a separate piece. Think of it like a valance, almost, floating above the frontal.
This super frontal was embroidered by the Benedictines in Clyde, MO, before the 1950’s. If you’ve been reading Needle ‘n Thread for a while, you will probably recognize the look of it, as it was a source of inspiration for me when I embroidered an ecclesiastical piece a few years ago.
The piece is very long – I would guess at least 10 feet in length, perhaps longer. The center medallion is the Agnus Dei symbol. The Lamb with the banner is a representation of Christ, sacrificed and triumphantly risen from the dead. Around the central medallion are many colorful scroll designs featuring plenty of stylized pomegranates, which, in ecclesiastical embroidery, symbolize resurrection and new life.
The embroidery on the center medallion is worked on a dark gold-colored cloth. It’s not shiny silk, though it might be silk. It has a kind of noticeable weave to it. When I first saw it, I thought it was a strange color for the background – but, in relation to the colors in the rest of the super frontal, I think it works really well.
From this side view, you can also see that there are banners with text embroidered on them.
Here, you can get a better view of the scrolls, acanthus leaves, and stylized pomegranates. The leaves and vines are worked in chain stitch.
The stylized pomegranates are worked mostly in long and short stitch, although the undersides of the turned up leaves are worked in satin stitch.
Across the entire length of the top of the super frontal, there is a goldwork strip, punctuated by lettering satin stitched in red. The gold background threads are evenly couched in a pattern, and on top of the gold, inside and around the lettering, are scrolls worked with a wavy gold thread, like rococco. I have heard that the Sisters at this convent, and at the (no longer functioning) convent in O’Fallon, MO – where the Benedictines also made elaborate ecclesiastical pieces – had machines that couched the gold background threads two at a time. I’ve never seen a couching machine, but I’ve heard from someone who was fortunate to receive one of the machines from O’Fallon before they disbanded their embroidery workshop, that the machines do indeed couch two laid threads at a time with precision, without damaging the threads. It’d be interesting to see that in action!
At the base of the Lamb is a book with the Alph and Omega on each page. I really liked this symbolism, so I was sure to include it in my Agnus Dei.
Here’s the piece that I worked a few years ago, taking some inspiration from the super frontal featured above:
The lamb I drew is not as angular, and the banner is a bit less angular as well. The wool on the lamb on the super frontal above is what really caught my eye – it is the most realistic wool I had ever seen embroidered, so I wanted to imitate that. It was fun, figuring it out, and it turned out well. I’d love to do another piece like this – not the same piece, but similar – one day soon!
If you want to read about the progress of this piece from beginning to end, you can check out my gallery. It’s near the top of the list, under ecclesiastical embroidery. You can also see close-ups of different elements in it, including the wool.
I wish you all a very joyful Easter!