The Steeple Aston Cope

Produced as part of Opus Anglicanum: Masterpieces of English Medieval Embroidery

Ran from 1 October 2016 to 5 February 2017

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The Steeple Aston Cope is one of the most incredible surviving examples of English medieval embroidery.

Dating to around the 1330s, it was originally made as a large semi-circular garment, known as a cope, to be worn in church services. It exists today in an altered state, having been cut up and rearranged to make altar furnishings, probably at the time of the Reformation. Fortunately, very little of the cope’s fabric was lost, and it remains a magnificent example of opus anglicanum (Latin for 'English work').

The cope belongs to the Church of St Peter and St Paul in Steeple Aston, Oxfordshire, and has been on loan to the V&A since 1905. The earliest recorded reference to it, in 1844, reveals that it was kept in the church’s medieval parish chest, already in the form of separate altar furnishings, "a very valuable relic of the olden time". However the cope's original design is still clear and it has been possible to digitally reconstruct the object. Watch the animation to discover how it would have looked when worn:

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The Steeple Aston Cope (detail), 1330 – 1340, England. Loan: Steeple Aston.2. © Victoria and Albert Museum, London

The woven silk twill on which the embroidery was worked was so fine that much of it has become worn. It's possible that the creamy-white colour may have originally been a shade of red. But the dramatic figures still stand out, embroidered using the characteristic English stitches of underside couching and split stitch, in gilded silver thread and multi-coloured silks. The original design is based around a framework of oak and ivy branches, with leaf-mask faces peering out, and lions, their tails in the air, tongues protruding and teeth bared, prowling in between.

The spaces are filled with scenes from the Life of Christ and the Virgin, together with twenty saints. Twelve of the saints are depicted immediately before or during their martyrdoms, mostly accompanied by one or two executioners raising weapons or fists. Many are shown holding the instruments of their torture. The saints all wear long golden robes lined with brightly coloured silks while their tormentors wear knee-length tunics and a variety of different types of headwear; among the most striking elements of the cope in its current condition are the striped stockings of the executioners which have retained the bright blues and greens of the silks used to embroider them.

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The Steeple Aston Cope (detail), 1330 – 1340, England. Loan: Steeple Aston.2. © Victoria and Albert Museum, London
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The Steeple Aston Cope (detail showing St Margaret and the dragon), 1330 – 1340, England. Loan: Steeple Aston.2. © Victoria and Albert Museum, London

Saint Margaret and the dragon

The popular female martyr saint and patron of childbirth is depicted in one of the most creative scenes on the Steeple Aston Cope. According to one of the legends of St Margaret’s martyrdom, the saint was swallowed by a dragon; however when Margaret made the sign of the cross the dragon burst open and the pious virgin emerged unharmed from the creature’s body. On the Steeple Aston Cope the saint is shown emerging from the dragon’s body, holding a crucifix to represent her method of escape. The dragon is beautifully embroidered, with coloured stripes originally of green and red with blue and gold embellishments. He also has a long sweeping tail and large white teeth which are on display as he pulls a face, either smiling or grimacing. An angel appears standing beside the saint to help St Margaret’s escape from the beast.

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The Steeple Aston Cope (detail showing St Thomas the Apostle), 1330 – 1340, England. Loan: Steeple Aston.2. © Victoria and Albert Museum, London

Saint Thomas the apostle

St Thomas is the only saint on the cope shown at the actual moment of his death. His executioner is lunging forwards and impaling Thomas on a bamboo spear which enters Thomas’s chest, the sharp tip appearing from the back of the saint’s body and blood issuing from the wound. Despite the gruesome ordeal, St Thomas is depicted with a serene look on his face like the other martyred saints on the cope, which is typical in medieval works of art.

Musical angels on horseback

The two panels on either side of the altar frontal were originally part of the orphrey (decorative strip that ran along the straight edge of the cope). The main subject on each of them is an angel seated on a horse playing a musical instrument, a unique motif among embroideries and other medieval artwork. One angel, sitting on a yellow horse and wearing a blue robe, leans his head to the right to play a fiddle, a popular instrument of the 14th century. The other angel, wearing green, plays a lute – probably the earliest depiction of this instrument in English art.

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The Steeple Aston Cope (details from altar dossal and frontal), 1330 – 1340, England. Loan: Steeple Aston.2. © Victoria and Albert Museum, London.

This lute is incredibly detailed with a flower-shaped fret in the centre and three strings attached to pegs; the angel plays it with a quill. Although the fine silk that was used to embroider the angel’s hands has now completely worn away, it is possible to see how delicate these features were from the original design, which is drawn out on the linen background. This angel’s dappled white horse is a fine example of the way in which medieval embroiderers brought figures to life, as the horse peers back at his rider with an expression of curiosity or amusement.