Length: 53.500 cm
Width: 24.000 cm
Bequeathed by the Condesa de Valencia de Don Juan
Britain, Europe and Prehistory
Panel of embroidery
Medieval, about AD
Scenes from the life of the Virgin Mary
The panel is an example of English embroidery known as opus anglicanum ('English work'), which provided the country with one of its most prolific artistic exports in the medieval period. Papal accounts alone are full of references to English needlework - Pope Innocent IV (1243-54) was so impressed by the vestments worn by English priests at the papal court that he ordered the same for himself. Consequently highly prized examples of English medieval embroidery survive in major museum collections worldwide.
This piece was produced in a typically opulent fashion using gold and silver threads and coloured silks on a linen base. Embroidery was not cheap to produce. It was more time- consuming than, for instance, panel painting or wall painting. This piece shows scenes from the life of the Virgin Mary set against a gold ground which contains a network of circles showing rampant lions amidst vine scrolls. The narrative is delivered within architectural canopies and relates the Annunciation, the Visitation and the Nativity.
What purpose did this panel serve when it was first produced? It is likely to have been part of an alb - an undergarment worn by a priest when celebrating mass. They typically have decorative panels attached to the cuff or hems. It is possible that this panel was part of a larger scheme, depicting as many as five scenes from the Life of the Virgin.
K. Staniland, Medieval craftsmen: embroidere (London, The British Museum Press, 1991)
A.G.I. Christie, English Medieval embroideries (Oxford, Clarendon Press, 1935)