Opus Anglicanum

V&A, London, until February 5

Opus Anglicanum is a showcase of the Victoria & Albert Museum’s large collection of English medieval embroidery work, along with examples loaned from elsewhere, with some returning to Britain for the first time in more than half a millennium.

The exquisitely detailed and colourful embroidery was first called opus anglicanum (English work) as far back as the 13th century. Made of silk, with the use of gold and silver thread, these were splendid and expensive pieces at the time they were created. They were worn by kings, queens, cardinals and popes throughout Europe.

Most of the exhibition consists of beautiful copes and chasubles from the late 13th and early 14th centuries. It’s startling how large the copes are when spread out: huge semi-circles of cloth, some in gorgeously bright colours, still sparkling with silver thread 700 to 800 years after they were made. Other exhibits include orphreys (decorated bands attached to vestments) and burses, flat purses to contain the corporal (the linen cloth on which the chalice and paten rest).

Sometimes, the intricately embroidered scenes of Christ’s Passion, or the life of the Virgin, have been cut out from a cope and re-used as part of altar furnishings. The exhibition has a couple of copes that have been reconstructed, with gaps, and several orphreys with scenes that are likely to have originally come from copes.

​How to continue reading…

This article appears in the Catholic Herald magazine - to read it in full subscribe to our digital edition from just 30p a week

The Catholic Herald is your essential weekly guide to the Catholic world; latest news, incisive opinion, expert analysis and spiritual reflection