The Syon Cope is a stunning example of opus anglicanum ('English work'), a Latin term for the exquisite luxury embroideries hand-made in England in the 14th century. Hugely expensive, these embroideries were highly prized for their use of gold and silver thread, and a technique called underside couching, which allowed the metal threads to shimmer and glitter in movement.
This cope (a type of ceremonial cloak worn in church services and processions) is unique among surviving examples of opus anglicanum. Its linen ground is entirely covered in embroidery, but the background is worked of red and green silk, instead of metal threads. The metal thread was made by wrapping fine strips cut from wafer-thin sheets of silver around a silk core; the silver was often gilded to look like gold. In the Syon Cope, gilded silver thread has been used to pick out details on the figures, while the body of the crucified Christ stands out in contrasting silver – a detail unique to this cope.
The design of the cope has been carefully thought out, so that the figures and scenes which radiate out from the centre would appear upright when it was worn. The most important scenes – St Michael overcoming Satan, the crucifixion and the coronation of the Virgin – would have appeared on the wearer’s back. Other scenes from the Virgin Mary’s story would have been prominently visible across the wearer’s shoulders, while the scenes of Christ appearing to Mary Magdalene and the incredulity of Thomas would have been at the wearer’s breast. Below these two scenes, the two small male figures shown kneeling in prayer may well represent the monk, anonymous to us, who owned or commissioned the cope.
Explore the cope in more detail below.