Introducing Opus Anglicanum

This exhibition presented a rare opportunity to see outstanding survivals of English medieval embroidery gathered from across Europe and exhibited together for the first time in over half a century.

The Toledo Cope (detail), 1320-30, England. © Toledo, Tesoro de la Catedral, Museo de Tapices y Textiles de la Catedral
The Clare Chasuble, 1272-1294, England. Museum no. 673-1864. © Victoria and Albert Museum, London

Latin for 'English work', the phrase 'opus anglicanum' was first coined in the 13th century to describe the highly-prized and luxurious embroideries made in England of silk and gold and silver thread, teeming with elaborate imagery. The V&A holds the largest collection of these works in the world –­ incredible survivals from a celebrated period of English artistic production.

This exhibition presented over 100 of these sumptuous hand-made embroideries, celebrating their exquisite craftsmanship and shedding new light on the tools, materials and people who made them, many of whom were based in the City of London – medieval England's creative hub.

These incredible objects chart distinct phases in the technical, artistic and economic development of the medieval embroidery trade in England across three centuries. They were exhibited alongside related works in other media from the period, including panel paintings, manuscripts, metalwork and sculpture, to show connections in artistic production and further explore the world in which such embroideries were created.

The Jesse Cope (detail), around 1310-25, England. Museum no. 175-1889. © Victoria and Albert Museum, London

The earliest work on display was a seal-bag dated to 1100 – 1140, made to contain the seal from a foundation document of Westminster Abbey. Art produced at Westminster and the Royal Court between 1250 and 1325 was incredibly influential. Treasures from the V&A's collections, such as the Clare Chasuble, commissioned by Margaret de Clare, a member of one of England's most powerful families, showed that wealthy women were active patrons of work of this kind. The V&A's richly-worked Jesse Cope depicting the Tree of Jesse – a vine springing from the body of Jesse, and sheltering prophets and ancestors of Christ – joined an intricately-decorated cope adorned with statuesque saints and angels from the collections of the Vatican Museums in Rome.

This was a rare opportunity to see masterpieces from the V&A's collection exhibited alongside works returning to England for the first time since they were created. One of the most spectacular examples is the Toledo Cope, a ceremonial cloak which travelled from Toledo’s Catedral Primada de Santa Maria, back to England for the first time since the early 14th century. The piece is richly embroidered with foliage, masks and birds, as well as the Virgin Mary and saints, some of which are shown trampling their tormentors.

The Toledo Cope, 1320-30, England. © Toledo, Tesoro de la Catedral, Museo de Tapices y Textiles de la Catedral

The heart of the exhibition explored the monumental embroidery created in the first half of the 14th century, when English embroidery achieved its greatest popularity and status in Europe. On display were some of the most complex and ambitious ceremonial cloaks – known as copes – ever made for use in church services. The Daroca Cope, loaned from Madrid's Museo Arqueológico Nacional, which portrays scenes from the Creation of the World and Fall of Adam and Eve is one such unique survival, as Old Testament iconography was rarely depicted in English medieval embroidery.

The Steeple Aston Cope (detail), 1310-40. England. © The Rector and Churchwardens of St Peter and St Paul, Steeple Aston, Oxfordshire

The exhibition also explored the damaging impact of the Reformation on English embroidery, which led to the destruction of many precious embroidered church vestments such as the beautiful Steeple Aston cope, which is believed to have been cut up and reassembled as altar furnishings during or after the Reformation.

Finally, the exhibition looked at how the changing religious practice and growth of interest in medieval art during the 19th century eventually led to the rediscovery of opus anglicanum, a movement championed by the V&A.

The Syon Cope, 1310-1320, England. Museum no. 83-1864. © Victoria and Albert Museum, London