Opus Anglicanum. The Syon Cope. Ecclesiastical needlework.

Syon Cope, Opus Anglicanum, ecclesiastical, needlework, middle ages,
The Syon Cope made 1310-1320,



The Syon Cope ‘Work of the English’. A fine example of the ecclesiastical needlework for which England was noted in the thirteenth century; presented to the Duke of Northumberland by refugee nuns from Portugal, to whose convent it belonged, and whom he sheltered at Syon House during the Continental troubles of the early nineteenth century.

THE work which has come down to us under the name of Opus Anglicanum (being so set down in treasuries of kings and popes and in the wills of considerable persons) is represented to-day by some twenty or thirty pieces, principally copes richly patterned and figured with ‘personages.’

The general design of the copes offers two distinct types of network, and a third, less defined. In this network are set expressive and detailed figure-groups, the history of the Passion, the life of our Lady, the martyrdom of the Saints; and these histories are separated by grave rows of Patriarchs and Apostles and large-eyed Angels, the whole scheme knotted and enlaced about with a symbolism at once direct and full of mystic lore, that is characteristic of the century.

One type is based on the ancient square and-circle diaper variously developed: detached circles, or circles or quatrefoils knotted together, the whole vestment being so covered as though it were cut out of a piece of patterned stuff. Within these even spaces the little groups are set, however, with due relation to the shape of the garment itself. The semicircle of the cope and its adjustment to the figure being considered, it will at once be realized that the figures must be set so that, within the stately bounding of the orphreys, they stand in due order among the folds of the vestment as it clothes the body.

Within the set geometric pattern, therefore, the artist arranged his groups in relation to the centre of the half-circle, so that they radiated more or less. As a cope hangs spread out in the show-case of a museum this contradictory disposition of lines has a curious and not pleasing effect, but it is entirely practical and right for a garment that is to be observed and admired while worn.

The Syon cope is a notable and familiar example of this construction, while the magnificent Ascoli cope is another.
The second type is generally considered the finest, as it is certainly the most dexterous in dealing with a given space. But greatly as I admire the skill of it, to my mind this construction loses a little in simplicity what it gains in splendor and aplomb. Hand and brain have finally evolved the most right convention, and no more is to be said; it is the last word in this direction, the final development of pattern-work required to fill a certain shape without either violently contradicting the shape on the one hand, or offering a fade uniformity with it on the other.

The problem is, as before suggested, not merely to fill the half-circle agreeably, but to fill it with forms that look beautiful and harmonious when the half-circle becomes a garment, and hangs in great folds from the shoulders of the priest. Working on this semicircular basis, the groups are set in little niches or tabernacles of fancifully architectural form, which radiate from the centre in their increasing rows. Christ in His glory crowning the Blessed Virgin generally occupies the centre group; in the spaces between the arches sit musicking angels, kings with outstretched scrolls, the Prophets of the Ancient Law, the Apostles of the New; while the borders (of those precious pieces which remain unmutilated present a very Hymn of Praise in the ordered thronging of all living creatures, of beasts tame and wild, of ‘the little musicians of the world,’ of the fishes of the sea. It is the history of the World, the drama of the Religion, seen through the eyes of the thirteenth century: the eyes of mystic, child, and artist.

A third type of construction is less notable, consisting of beautiful scrollwork (stem and leafage), where the little figures are niched in the branches. See the Tree of Jesse cope, in the Victoria and Albert Museum, whose fragments have been so skillfully pieced together, while a charming water-color drawing shows the work in its entirety. In all the copes the decoration is divided into three parts, the body of the cope, the broad orphreys, and the narrow bordering round the hem. It is perhaps scarcely necessary to note that the vestment is usually a little less than the complete half-circle, its actual form being obviously better adapted for graceful adjustment.

Judging from detailed descriptions in inventories of church and other treasuries (where vestments are sometimes specified as Opus Anglicanum), this fine work must have been produced with great industry at the end of the thirteenth and beginning of the fourteenth centuries; and it is difficult to imagine a more splendid type of ecclesiastical decoration than these vestments present, with what one may call the arrogant reserve of their low-toned gold and wealth of minute labour. It is not without deliberate intention that I give for the first illustration of my notes the well-known Syon cope. Well-known or long-established works of art are apt to be taken for granted, and it is a pleasure to pay this characteristic piece of work the tribute of a somewhat closer attention than it has received of late years.

Nothing is known about the Syon cope until it is heard of as the property of the nuns of Syon House (Syon House of St. Bridget was founded in 1414 by Henry V). This quietly and broadly designed cope is typical of the school, but has been, I am inclined to think, designed in the ‘workshop, so to speak, not bearing the touch of the individual artist as some of these pieces do. It is a work of high merit and full of the charm of a delightful convention, although it lacks the freshness of the Daroca cope, for instance, and the drawing of the figures is more mannered. Interlaced quatrefoils enclose a pale tawny ground, the interspaces being of a full rich green.

The silk ground is all simply laid in a chevron pattern. It is remarkably fresh and sound, and therefore invaluable as a study of technique and colour. The vestment has been somewhat cut; very little, fortunately, down the orphreys, which fact preserves for us the interesting individual note of the kneeling donors with their cartouches. The orphreys and narrow borders are of different stitch but scarcely later in date. The broad orphrey is pieced out of two different sets, the narrow bordering which encloses the cope belonging to one of these. The borders are in pleasant and true proportion to the body of the cope and form an interesting study in coat-armor. Some of the families represented are from the neighborhood of Coventry, which gives rise to Dr. Rock’s surmise that the work was done by some religious house in or near Coventry.

The subjects are as follows:- In the top centre, the Coronation of our Lady. On the right, the Death of our Lady. She is surrounded by the Apostles, St. Peter holds her head, and St. Paul stands by, St. John below with clasped hands; from heaven two angels are beckoning. On the left, the Burial of our Lady. St. Peter and St. Paul head the procession; the Jews have laid their hands on the bier, to which they stick fast until St. John releases them. Above, two angels receive the soul of the Blessed Virgin, represented as a little figure with streaming hair; while her girdle descends in to the hands of ‘doubting’ Thomas. A great amount of significant detail is crowded into the little group.

On each side of a rather mannered Crucifixion are the sturdy figures of St. Peter and St. Paul; on the left our Lord, bearing the Cross of the Resurrection, appears to Mary Magdalen in the garden; on the right He shows His wound to St. Thomas.

A charming figure of St. Michael slaying the dragon completes the centre series. The lowest series of apostles are (beginning at the left):- St. Philip with the three breads; his hand is veiled with a silver cloth: St. Bartholomew with the butcher’s flaying-knife; St. Andrew with his cross: St. James ‘the More’ with staff and script, beyond St. Michael; a figure full of life and bustle: St. Thomas with his spear; this is often realistically drawn as made of bamboo; lastly, St. James ‘the Less,’ a sweetly and simply drawn figure with an interesting disposition of drapery.

There has been another series (the rest of the apostles, doubtless) of which some fragments are traceable. They were possibly in half-quatrefoils, as we find them in other copes which have not been cut. The angels in this piece are all (except two) of the same order-the six-winged seraphim of Isaiah, poised on globes. They wear prettily-drawn stoles of the early type (some silver, some white silk). Down the front are two standing angels offering crowns, white-robed and eager. They are, unhappily, cut. Below each of them kneels a figure clad in gold. In one the gold is well preserved; in the other it is almost completely worn off. They are tonsured, and kneel in the attitude of donors. The legends above them, worked in handsome gold letters, have not yet been deciphered satisfactorily. It is tantalizing to think that these devout and sober figures hold the key to the unknown origin and early history of the Syon cope, could we but use it.

The colour of this piece is full and rich; it is safe to infer that it is not much faded, there being scarcely any difference between the back and the front, though the fawnred of the ground has been perhaps somewhat fuller in tone. The ground of the orphreys must have been dyed in a different process, as it is faded to fawn from a full pink-red of a rather sugary quality. The angels sparkle like jewels on the solid green, and all the saints wear golden mantles over their coloured gowns, which are lined with vair. It is to be noted that while the palette itself is very simple, the colours are so manipulated as to present a crisp and lively variety. Take St. Michael, for instance: his face is one shade of flesh-buff with a brown outline, the hair done in two browns; he has a gold mantle with purple lining, and wings of silver and gold. The shield is purple. The dragon is a striped beast of cheerful blue and pink. The whole picture is finely simple and low in tone, but has nothing fade or monotonous about it. In the Crucifixion group the colouring is sombrely suggestive-the body of our Lord worked in silver (grey but not black-tarnished), with loin-cloth of gold yellow-lined. In the Coronation the Blessed Virgin has purple shoes and jewels in her crown. In all the draperies two shades and white (or a pale colour that tells as light) are used. The flesh is worked in a uniform shade of buff, except that now and then execration of a Jew is expressed by making his face a central blue.

I have noted two greens, a bright yellow, two blues, grey-purple, buff (for flesh), a fawn, and a greyish pink, two pure central browns and a copper-brown, also a very beautiful clear red, tending to purple. With this somewhat restricted selection and the tendency that runs through early mediaeval embroidery of reducing all difficulties to their simplest elements, a colour convention becomes necessary; for instance, a young man’s hair is worked in two browns, or in brown and yellow, that of an old man in white and blue; while one head is done with purple and blue in the hair, to express a black-haired type.

The curious convention of the flesh once accepted (see below), it is to be noted that the simplicity of treatment and absence of any definite colour in the flesh adds enormously to the dignity of these pieces of work. Indeed, it is unthinkable that the artist of the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries should give his saints and apostles the red lips and liquid eyes with which they are portrayed in modern embroideries.

The type of face in the Syon cope is not so sweet and refined as in some of these pieces, but it is solemn and composed, while the convention of large wide-open eyes and the compressed mouth gives a certain intensity of expression. As in all this work, the scoffing Jews, gaolers, and executioners are of a vulgar hob-nosed type; in some pieces they have dark complexions.

A few words about the technique of the Opus Anglicanum. The English school had certain tricks and traditions of its own, distinguishing its handiwork from that of German or Italian provenance. The treatment of the flesh is notable. Here are an enlargement of a head from the Syon cope (Fig. I), and one from a Floren tine piece of very nearly the same date (Fig. 2). In both the idea of indicating the curves of the face has been carried out, but on a different plan. In the English school the curves start from the cheek-bone and thence round off as they may and as the worker thinks best suggests the moulding of the features, horizontal on the forehead, vertical on nose and above the lip, while on the neck of a man the same circling lines show the ball of the throat.

The naiveté of the convention being accepted, the carrying out of it is sure and skillful. The Italian treatment of flesh is less violent (Fig. 2); it takes the eye-socket as the centre, and thence works round in lines expressing the moulding of the face. It is beyond my limits here to go into the flesh treatment in the foreign schools further, but it is a matter of some interest.

In work of such laboriousness, where the ground is often entirely covered, the question of texture becomes important. In the finest English work of this date monotony is avoided without the harmony of the ensemble being in any way disturbed; backgrounds are subtly patterned with clouds or chevrons or scrollwork, and the draperies, when they are a mass of gold, are curiously patterned and shaded.

The Syon cope is the simplest in point of texture of any of the copes. I am acquainted with, the silk ground and the gold being laid in a plain chevron and the threads lying all one way. Early mediaeval work compares favorably with that of later times with respect to this question of texture. In the fifteenth century and onwards gold and silver are laid quite plainly, variety of texture being obtained by high relief. The effect aimed at here is a certain splendor of color and sparkle of light and shade, whereas the earlier work depends upon the charm of its low grey tones and the changing texture on an entirely flat surface.

M. de Farcy gives some valuable notes on the treatment of gold in the Opus Anglicanum point couché rentré or retiré, as he calls this laid work in his history of embroidery. As he has treated of this matter at some length (and, as far as I know, is the first to point out with any exactitude this particular method of laying gold in connexion with the Opus Anglicanum), I need only refer the reader to his work, merely confirming his observations by my own experiment. I am obliged to leave my notes on the treatment of gold and silk draperies for another paper.

Source: Social England: a record of the progress of the people in religion, laws, learning, arts, industry, commerce, science, literature and manners, from the earliest times to the present day by Henry Duff Traill. London: Cassel 1902.


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