If you’re relatively new to Needle ‘n Thread, you might not know that my first forays into advanced embroidery techniques came about due to an interest in historical ecclesiastical embroidery. I was taking a history of art class in my early days in college, and one of the works of art I chose to research was a piece of ecclesiastical embroidery. I chose it not so much because it was embroidery – rather, I chose it because it was beautiful and because it was different from the more common artistic mediums my classmates were focusing on.
Over time, with a bit of study, a lot of experimentation, and making contacts in all kinds of interesting corners of the globe, I amassed an interesting collection of pieces, books, pattern portfolios and the like, along with many tidbits of information on the hows, whats, and whys of ecclesiastical embroidery.
From all that sprang a love and appreciation for hand embroidery, which I had dabbled in as a kid and through college, but never really saw as art until captivated by that first research project.
In ecclesiastical needlework, all the elements of the art of embroidery – and any art, really – come together. Purpose, technique, materials, thought, skill, symbolism, color, balance, beauty, proportion, order – you can find all these things in ecclesiastical needlework, whether you’re religiously minded or not. It is a fascinating medium to study, especially when it comes to the development and dissemination of historical needlework techniques.
Since it’s Good Friday, let’s take a close look at some pieces of Ecclesiastical (religious) figure embroidery that have crossed my path lately. The figures are somewhat similar in some ways, but vastly different in others. We’ll look at the differences and draw some conclusions.
Both pieces of figure embroidery that I’ll be showing you are from vestments, which are the garb worn by priests during the liturgy, or public prayers of the Church.
Now, you might wonder why these things are on vestments.
In traditional liturgies, the priest used to face the altar, leading the congregation in prayer and focusing the congregation towards God and away from self. Because the ornamentation inside a church was meant to lift the mind to God, the most embellished part of the priests’ garb was the back, since that was the part seen by the congregation.
Through ecclesiastical embroidery, just like through stained glass windows, stories could be told or a statement could be made that would help move the mind towards God in prayer.
The figure on the left in the photo above is from a cope, which is a large cape worn during specific liturgical functions. The cope has, on the back of it, an ornamental “hood.” It’s not a real hood (usually) – it’s kind of like a scooped flap of fabric. It’s the perfect “canvas” for ornamenting this particular vestment. The hood is somewhat large, so there’s lots of area to embellish.
The figure on the right is from the back of a chasuble, which is the outer garment the priest wears specifically during the Mass and not at any other time. You can see an example of chasubles – both modern and antique – here on Wikipedia, if you’re curious what a chasuble looks like.
Anyway, we’ll call the figure on the left the “Cope” Christ and the figure on the right the “Chasuble” Christ.
The Cope Christ is a fully embroidered piece of figure embroidery.
The shading is pretty magnificent on the face and in the details of the clothing.
You’ll also notice the use of semi-precious stones on the crown and the cope that Christ is wearing. These all bespeak a special vestment, made with some purpose in mind, commissioned specifically for an occasion or celebration, and most likely commissioned through a small workshop or even an individual.
The Chasuble Christ is a different kettle of fish.
The figure is not totally embroidered. It is painted on fabric (silk), and over the painting (which creates the shaded detail) stitches are worked to give the impression of shaded embroidery.
This latter approach to ecclesiastical figures – which developed in the 1800’s and was common through the first half of the 1900’s – was a less-expensive and quicker way to produce figure embroidery for vestments.
Though there is certainly more “shine” in the Chasuble Christ (with the use of synthetic gold threads), the piece does not bespeak a specific commission. Instead, it has the flavor of a larger workshop piece, made for general use – kind of like making “off the rack” clothing, when compared to the cope example above.
The face on the Cope Christ is slightly less than 4″ inches from the top of the head to the tip of the chin.
When considering the Cope Christ, it is amazing that, although solidly embroidered in a relatively small space with exquisite detail in shading and expression, the stitching doesn’t look thick, gloppy, or heavy. It’s smooth and precise.
You might notice that the eyes seem somewhat large in proportion to the face. Keeping in mind that these images were to be seen from a distance, the exaggerated size of the eyes helps to better convey expression.
Notice the solidly embroidered hair, too. These aren’t separated lines of split stitching or chain stitching, but rather solid long-and-short stitch shading. This speaks to a definite high level of skill on the part of the embroiderer.
On the Chasuble Christ, the face is approximately 2.5″ in length, from top of head to tip of chin, maybe slightly smaller.
It is painted first and then stitched over in a very sketchy way, to bring out details. This type of stitching does not quite require the same level of skill found in the facial embroidery on the Cope Christ.
Looking at the clothes on the figure, you can see that the Cope Christ is detailed, solid shaded embroidery, trimmed out with gold threads and semi-precious stones.
Relying completely on shades of thread and precise stitching, the embroiderer created realistic folds, shadows, and creases in Christ’s garb.
The garb on the Chasuble Christ is layered appliqué of colored fabrics, over which dark outlines are embroidered to indicate folds in the fabric, and straight lines of long split stitching are added to created the shaded effect. Synthetic gold threads are worked in a light filigree around the edges of the garb.
As you can imagine, this type of figure embroidery involving stitching over colored appliqués would progress much faster than the needlepainted garb on the Cope Christ.
I don’t have access to the Cope Christ, but I do have access to the Chasuble Christ. Most of that vestment is sitting in my workroom right now. The Chasuble Christ is the central medallion on a chasuble that involves an unfortunate and odd mix of elements.
I think the Chasuble Christ is probably older than the Cope Christ. The Chasuble Christ was probably made at the last part of the 1800’s to the first part of the 1900’s in a large workshop somewhere.
The Cope Christ could have been made any time, even up to today. The materials and techniques are certainly still available. The style is not as common today, but traditional liturgical garb is still made and used. I can’t even guess on that one, since I haven’t been able to handle it and see it up close. The photos were taken in a sacristy while it was being prepared for use.
What I do know is that each piece represents two extremes of the figure embroidery Scale of Skill. The Chasuble Christ is a relatively low-skill piece, probably worked in assembly-line fashion, by many different people familiar with the craft of wielding a needle, but not necessarily the art of embroidery.
The Cope Christ is a high-skill piece, probably worked by one or two very skilled embroiderers who had a sense of art – you can see this in the expression on the face, which is much more “alive” than the expression on the Chasuble Christ – and who had a real sense of embroidery as an artistic medium.
As far as expense goes, the Chasuble Christ would have been a relatively inexpensive embellishment. The Cope Christ, on the other hand, bespeaks a definite investment (no pun intended) in the garb for some special reason.
Both are beautiful in their own way.
But I’m personally keen on the Cope Christ. I prefer the expression in the eyes, the beautiful shading and details. I could take or leave the style of crown, but overall, it’s a really lovely piece!