Monday, 17 October 2016
Opus Anglicanum - English work - is the name given to the extraordinarily high-quality embroidery that was produced in this country from the 12th to the 15th century and was in demand all over Europe and beyond. I wasn't expecting this exhibition to detain me long, but I thought I'd go along as there's not likely to be another on such a scale for many years - these pieces are extremely delicate and rare and seldom allowed to travel. As things turned out, I spent the best part of an hour and half exploring Opus Anglicanum.
The thing is, these pieces - especially the church vestments - are just so beautiful. In design, drawing, colour and composition they are way beyond anything being done in painting, at least in this country - and it is all achieved with fantastically delicate and intricate stitching of coloured silks and gold and silver thread. The first exhibit you see, the Bologna Cope, is an absolute stunner, and in a wonderful state of preservation, considering it's 700 years old. Each panel is a little masterpiece, every detail is full of life (that's an incidental angel below) - it's altogether astonishing. And there is more to come, of comparable quality - copes, chasubles, orphreys, dalmatics (it pays to increase your word power...). There's a cope from the Vatican, no less, another from Toledo, there's an extraordinarily beautiful Tree of Jesse from Lyon, there's even English work from as far afield as Iceland.
However closely I examined these glorious pieces I could hardly believe that such effects had been created with nothing more that stitches in cloth. The explanatory labels, with their talk of underside couching, split stitch and stem stitch, did little to enlighten me, and even a video installation showing the stitches being made was not much help. The whole thing seems all but miraculous. It's a wonderful exhibition.
When I eventually tottered out - through the gift shop, inevitably - I was immediately hit by a blast of Whiter Shade of Pale, a symptom of the V&A's concurrent Sixties exhibition, You Say You Want a Revolution? Not me, thanks.