The Tree of Jesse 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 Tree of Jesse Cope has been looked after by the V&A for more than 120 years. It was made in London some 700 years ago, between about 1310 and 1325, and is one of the most striking examples of a medieval cope ­(a ceremonial cloak worn in church services and processions) to survive in the V&A’s collection of English medieval embroidery.

We don't know much about its provenance, though at some point over the centuries its fabric was altered – the original semi-circular object has been cut into smaller fragments for use in the church. Since arriving at the Museum, the pieces have been reassembled, to make sense of its original structure, clever design and beautiful imagery.

Its silk twill background was probably imported from Italy, and the embroidery work carried out in England with threads of gilded silver and different colours of silk. The silk used for the background was an expensive and precious fabric, and so the design allows space to appreciate its beautiful colour and lustrousness. It shows the tree of Jesse, a representation of Christ’s ancestry – much like an embroidered family tree – starting at the bottom of the design with the prophet Jesse, who the Bible explains was the father of King David.

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The Tree of Jesse Cope, 1310 — 25, England. Museum no. 175-1889. © Victoria and Albert Museum, London

At the cope’s lower edge, a golden vine grows out of the body of the sleeping Jesse. Climbing upwards, its two stems intertwine, forming curving frames for the figures of King David, King Solomon and the Virgin and Child. So Christ’s most important ancestors are depicted on the back of the cope – the most visible part of the garment when worn. From these stems, the vine spreads out in further curving branches that grow over the whole garment, enclosing more Old Testament prophets and kings, all holding scrolls with their names.