The Christmas story in opus anglicanum

Nativity scenes, shepherds, elaborate angels and other Christmas motifs are found across medieval art, from stained glass windows to manuscript pages and in beautifully embroidered English textiles, known as opus anglicanum.

The Christmas season was a high-point of the medieval English calendar. Celebrations in medieval England took place over 12 days, from Christmas Eve (24 December) to Twelfth Night (5 January), and incorporated church rites (our word for Christmas comes from the Middle English 'Christ's Mass') and pagan winter solstice rituals. Houses were decorated with evergreens like ivy, mistletoe and holly, sumptuous banquets were held, and singing and dancing were important parts of the Christmas season.

Christmas imagery appears throughout medieval art, and particularly on richly-worked and intricate opus anglicanum (Latin for 'English work'), one of the most important art forms of the period. These embroideries were often used to decorate church vestments (garments worn by the priest) and altar furnishings, and were important vehicles for storytelling.

Musical angels

Left to right: The Bologna Cope (detail), 1310 – 20, England. © Museo Civico Medievale, Bologna. The Steeple Aston Cope (detail), 1330 – 1340, England. Loan: Steeple Aston.2. © Victoria and Albert Museum, London

Angels, which were believed to be spiritual heavenly beings, neither male nor female, are omnipresent in medieval art. They were a popular choice to adorn embroideries, especially copes – large semi-circular cloaks worn during church services – with ample space for decorative details. They are often found alongside stories from the Life of the Virgin and Christ, or figures of saints, posed with musical instruments, as on the Bologna, Madrid and Vic copes. With their lutes, hymn books, bells and violas, they represent angelic choirs making music in praise of God.

The Annunciation to the Shepherds

Panel depicting the Life of the Virgin, 1335 – 45, England. Museum nos 8128 to 8128b-1863. © Victoria and Albert Museum, London

This exquisitely embroidered panel depicting the Life of the Virgin may have originally been used as an altar decoration. It shows the Annunciation to the Shepherds, an episode from the Gospel of Luke (2, 8 – 20), which tells how, on Christmas Eve, a group of shepherds was suddenly visited by an angel while tending their flock in the countryside outside Bethlehem. Accompanied by wonderful heavenly sounds, the angel proclaimed that the Saviour had been born, and that the Shepherds should go to Bethlehem to adore the new-born King, who lay in a manger.

Panel depicting the Life of the Virgin (detail), 1335 – 45, England. Museum nos 8128 to 8128b-1863. © Victoria and Albert Museum, London.

In this embroidered version, the angel emerges from a wavy band of cloud, carrying a scroll emblazoned with the first line of the Latin hymn 'Gloria in Excelsis Deo' (Glory to God in the Highest) – a direct reference to the heavenly tunes described in the gospel. He is turned towards a bearded shepherd who looks up with a startled expression, while his dog howls at the mysterious presence. The Shepherd's heavy hooded cloak, boots and mittens immediately place the scene in the cold English winter, a familiar setting for the medieval viewer. His companion, meanwhile, seems to be unaware of the heavenly appearance, immersed in making music by playing the bagpipes and ringing a bell.

The Nativity of Christ

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

The miraculous birth of Christ, who according to Christian belief was born to the Virgin Mary through divine intervention, is a common scene in English medieval embroidery. On the Toledo Cope this scene is positioned prominently on the back of the garment, where it would be most visible to churchgoers. Wrapped in a large blanket, the Virgin Mary is shown reclining on a bed, resting her head on her arm and looking up to her new-born baby, who is lovingly cradled by a midwife. The intimate scene is attentively observed by an ox and an donkey who peer over their manger, while Joseph dozes off at the foot of the bed.

The Toledo Cope (detail), 1320 – 30, England. © Toledo, Tesoro de la Catedral, Museo de Tapices y Textiles de la Catedral

The artists who designed this embroidery departed from the original biblical tale, which describes the setting of the Nativity as a poor and desolate stable. Here, the scene is placed under elaborate Gothic architecture (part of the cope's overall design), and has the new mother on a comfortable bed with cushions and luxurious covers, more suited to an English medieval princess or queen. Several versions of the story speak of a great light illuminating the scene, sometimes interpreted as the star or comet which guided three Wise Men to the place of Christ's birth. On the Toledo Cope, this light is represented by a large star radiating above the scene, which would have once been embellished with shimmering pearls.

The three Magi's journey

The three Magi, also known as the three Wise Men or three Kings, are among the most well-known characters of the Christmas story. The Gospel of Matthew (2, 1 – 12) is the only book of the Bible to reference them, telling of their journey from distant lands to Bethlehem, guided by a star. An embroidered cope now in the Museo Civico Medieval in Bologna contains a rich and colourful rendition of their journey.

Details from the Bologna Cope showing the Journey of the Magi, 1310 – 20, England. © Museo Civico Medievale, Bologna

As in other examples of medieval art, the three Magi are represented as a young, a middle-aged and an old king, representing the three ages of man. Elsewhere they are sometime shown riding exotic animals, like camels or elephants, but here the embroiderers have chosen to place them closer to home, in a recognisably English setting – they are dressed as English kings following the 14-century fashion for fur-lined cloaks, and ride three horses – one of which appears to be misbehaving. The oldest king's hand points upwards, perhaps towards the star they are following.

Chichester-Constable Chasuble, about 1335 – 45, England. Courtesy of the Metropolitan Museum of Art. Fletcher Fund, 1927.

When the three Magi had found the stable with the help of the star, they worshipped the Christ child and adored him as the new King. According to some legends, they brought him exotic and costly gifts of gold, incense and myrrh, as shown on a detail from the Chichester-Constable Chasuble (a garment worn by the priest during mass). The Virgin Mary is depicted as an enthroned queen with crown and sceptre, who is balancing Jesus, already a toddler, on her lap. The Feast of the Three Magi was celebrated in England on 6 January, the day when gifts would traditionally be exchanged, in reference to the royal presents brought by the Magi. This day also marked the end of the Christmas season.

Chichester-Constable Chasuble (detail), about 1335 – 45, England. Courtesy of the Metropolitan Museum of Art. Fletcher Fund, 1927.