The animals of the natural world were popular across all forms of medieval English art, and were often included in opus anglicanum (English medieval embroidery) alongside fantastical creatures drawn from mythology and the imagination. Peering out from the stitched designs are lifelike, realistically posed animals and birds embroidered with such accuracy that their species can still be identified to this day.
These creatures could act as large decorative motifs, or be subtly incorporated into the borders and framing structures of both ecclesiastical and secular embroideries. Sewn in glittering gold thread, encrusted with pearls or intricately made from coloured silks, they demonstrate the creativity, skill and humour of their medieval creators.
The lion was one of the most popular animal motifs in English embroidered textiles of this period. Symbolising courage and vigilance, the lion was introduced into the English royal arms during the late 12th century. The three lions are positioned 'passant guardant' (facing the viewer and walking forwards, usually signified by a raised right forepaw). This royal heraldic device is found on an embroidered seal bag which was created to protect a wax impression of the Great Seal attached to a royal charter issued by Edward I. The charter, endorsing the possessions and privileges of Westminster Abbey, dates from 1280. The three lions are an example of inlaid work, known as 'opus consutum' (sewn-together work), as the lions are attached to the red shield which is stitched to the green background of the bag.
On a larger scale, 14th-century fragments in the Musée de Cluny, Paris, are embroidered with ferocious golden lions on red velvet. The lions stare out of the fabric with shiny glass eyes, long protruding tongues and sharp teeth and claws. These fragments are considered to have originally been part of a horse trapper (protective covering for a horse in battle or tournament), possibly belonging to Edward III and dating between 1330 and 1340.
Lions also appear frequently in ecclesiastical embroideries: on the Steeple Aston Cope, lions stand prominently in the spaces between the religious scenes. Not purely decorative, in the Middle Ages lions could symbolise resurrection, as lion cubs were believed to be born dead and brought back to life by their parents’ breath. This echoed the resurrection of Christ by God the Father after three days in his tomb. The lion as a symbol of rebirth and resurrection is highly appropriate on the Steeple Aston Cope, standing alongside images of martyred saints and Christ’s Passion. Their faces are very similar to the royal lions of the horse trapper, with large eyes, wide mouths with sharp teeth and long pink tongues.
Lion heads were used frequently as a decorative motif throughout medieval art. The intertwining oak boughs which decorate the Butler-Bowdon Cope are decorated with lion heads. These were originally covered with tiny seed pearls – though only a few retain any pearls today – and small glass beads for eyes. The Chichester-Constable Chasuble, designed in a similar way, is decorated with pearl-encrusted lion heads adorning the framework.
The design of the Toledo Cope incorporates pairs of birds, distinctively embroidered on a large scale, which fill some of the spaces between the cope's architectural framework and the saintly figures. These birds belong to a wide range of species and had a decorative function: some were originally partly or wholly covered in pearls, apparent from the traces of thicker white thread with which the pearls would have been secured. Such an abundance of pearls would have added considerably to the cope's ornate appearance.
Embroidered birds could also hold a symbolic significance. The 'Pelican in her Piety' is usually depicted leaning forwards to pierce her breast with her beak, causing blood to flow in order to feed her young which sit in a nest at her feet. She was viewed as a representation of Christ, who gave his blood to save his people. This pelican image can be found at the apex of the scenes of Christ’s Passion on the orphreys now in the Statens Historiska Museum in Stockholm. Like the birds on the Toledo Cope, the Stockholm pelicans are worked in linen thread, suggesting that they were originally encrusted with small seed pearls.
Other popular emblematic birds were the phoenix, representing rebirth, and the peacock whose flesh never putrefied and so represented immortality. Peacocks appear on several copes, including the Toledo cope, and peacock feather eyes were also used to decorate the wings of angels, as found on the orphrey from the Steeple Aston Cope and on a panel from an altar furnishing in the British Museum.
The dove symbolised the Holy Spirit and often appeared in Annunciation scenes above the Virgin Mary, representing the conception of Christ – as in the Life of the Virgin Panels, embroidered on red velvet, and in the panel from a burse (a flat purse made of fabric and used during Mass), in the V&A's collection.
The dragon in medieval embroidery is usually connected with a specific figure. St Margaret of Antioch was a popular medieval saint, whose legend includes a story in which she is swallowed whole by a dragon, but miraculously escapes unharmed after making the sign of the cross. Her moment of escape is depicted vividly on the Steeple Aston Cope, where she emerges from the back of a striped dragon.
More often St Margaret is shown ‘transfixing’ the dragon – the saint stands holding a spear with which she stabs the dragon under her feet. Dragons which have been transfixed often curl up on either side of the saint, like the ones depicted on the Vatican Cope and V&A burse panel, as well as the beautiful blue and gold striped one on the Butler-Bowdon Cope.
A similar scene is found on the Syon Cope, where the archangel Michael, armed with a spear and shield, pierces a two-headed blue and gold striped dragon beneath his feet.
Unicorns and mermaids, griffins and grotesques
The unicorn is a rarer mythical beast in medieval embroidery, though it does make an appearance on the Madrid Cope – alongside a stag, an elephant, a lion and a squirrel – in a scene depicting God's creation of the animals of the earth.
A merman and mermaid, mythical creatures half human and half fish, appear on the incredible funeral pall (the cloth used to cover a coffin) made for the Worshipful Company of Fishmongers. The merman is dressed in armour above his fishy tail, holding a sword, while the mermaid holds a mirror as a symbol of her vanity, in which her reflection is delicately embroidered. These amazing mythical figures hold up the Company’s coat of arms on panels that repeat around the sides of the pall.
Among the scrolling gold foliage of the Clare Chasuble lurks the griffin – a legendary creature with the body, back legs and tail of a lion combined with the front legs, wings and head of an eagle. Griffins are often depicted as fierce beasts, but here, they appear elegant, thanks to the delicacy of their embroidery.
Flying above the scenes on two panels (now in Antwerp and Brussels) are hybrid creatures – a combination of human forms, animals and the artist’s imagination. These types of fantastical creatures are more common in contemporary manuscripts than embroideries. Their grotesqueness is in playful contrast to the central embroidered scenes – which depict the martyrdoms of saints – and hints at the humour and creativity of their medieval makers.