It’s been a long, long time since I’ve written anything about ecclesiastical embroidery here on Needle ‘n Thread.
Ecclesiastical embroidery is essentially church-related embroidery, and as a category of embroidery, it embraces several of the most exquisite embroidery techniques out there – especially goldwork and silk shading.
If you’re somewhat new to Needle ‘n Thread, you might not know that my real interest in embroidery sprang from art history studies in college, and specifically getting into the study of ecclesiastical embroidery when doing research for art history.
Since then, I’ve spent years collecting resources on ecclesiastical embroidery, along with old pieces of ecclesiastical embroidery. When traveling, I tend to seek out places where I can examine extant examples of historical pieces of ecclesiastical needlework. It fascinates me, and I eat the stuff up whenever I have a chance!
Lately, I’ve been pattern chasing – that is, trying the trace the origins of some ecclesiastical embroidery patterns (a very difficult thing to do!). This particular image that I’m going to share with you today has come up several times in my pattern-chasing endeavors.
This is a hand embroidered image of the Assumption of the Blessed Virgin. The techniques in the image include silk shading (specifically on the hair more than anywhere else) and goldwork.
The embroidery is mounted on the back of a vestment called a chasuble. I’m guessing the embroidery hails from somewhere between the very late 1800’s and early 1900’s. The surrounding embroidery decorating the rest of the cross form has an Arts & Crafts Movement flavor that’s pushing towards Art Nouveau.
Unfortunately, when I examined the piece, I didn’t get any good macro shots, but I did take notes. At first, the face looks embroidered, and in fact, there is embroidery on it, especially where you see the shaded areas on the right side of the face and on the neck.
But this embroidery is worked over the top of a painted face. So the face was first painted, and the majority of the detail you see in it, is from the painting. The stitching is added on top of the painting to give further definition to it, but the face is not solidly embroidered. There is some delicate stitching around the eyes, nose, and mouth as well.
The hands, too, are painted first, and then stitching is added at the wrists and the back of the hand, as well as along the outlines of the fingers. The stitching on the hands and face is long and short stitch, for the most part, though defining lines are worked in stem stitch and split stitch.
At a glance, the elaborately shaded robe might be mistaken for Or Nué. Or Nué is an embroidery technique where laid threads of gold (typically smooth passing thread, though sometimes Japanese gold is used) are stitched over with colored silk to create a picture, sometimes leaving the gold exposed (or “naked”) so that it shines through and adds to the whole impression of shading.
On the robe, you can definitely see gold lines. But if you look closely (see the lower right side of the photo), you can see that the gold lines are actually on top of the shading.
The shading on the robe is, in fact, accomplished by paint. Over the painted robe, gold lines are couched horizontally at even intervals, and between the gold lines, long straight stitches in twisted silk are worked to complement the shading.
The only solid silk shading on this piece is the hair, which is worked in split stitch in different shades of brown and tan.
The design here is very similar to the embroidered figure on these two miters that I wrote about a few years ago.
This is the first mitre, also embroidered with the image of the Assumption on it. This mitre was embroidered at a Benedictine convent in Clyde, Missouri, where it is on display in their museum. It was embroidered around the 1950’s.
This mitre has practically the same pattern on it. It belonged to Pope Pius IX, and was embroidered sometime between 1846 and 1878.
All three pieces feature a very similarly drawn embroidered figure. This particular pose is somewhat conventional and often found in Catholic iconography. For example, in Murillo’s painting, La Inmaculada de Soult (1678), the Virgin is depicted similarly, hands folded, bare headed, standing on a sliver of the moon. So it’s not unusual to find this image on various pieces of ecclesiastical embroidery, but to find images that are so very similar (especially in the case of the two mitres) implies access to a pattern.
In any case, I’ve been chasing patterns for figure embroidery, and this is one of the designs that recurs often in my forays into ecclesiastical embroidery, where examples of figure embroidery are abundant.
When I put together this Church Patterns e-book a couple years ago, my intention was to follow up with another pattern e-book focusing on figure embroidery. I don’t know if I’ll ever get that together, but I keep collecting and researching, nonetheless!