That in Christian worship embroidery was used from early times to ornament vestments, is confirmed by numerous notices, especially the statements of the "Liber Pontificalis". For the period before the tenth century no account, even partially satisfactory, has come down to us, either of the methods of producing the embroidery or of the manner and extent of its use. What is incidentally said is not sufficient to make the matter clear, and no embroidery of this period for ecclesiastical purposes has been preserved. The oldest extant examples are the remains of a maniple and of a stole dating from the beginning of the tenth century, in the museum of Durham cathedral, and fragments of an altar-cover of the same century in the National Museum at Ravenna. Vestments magnificently embroidered appeared at the beginning of the eleventh century, such as the chasuble completely covered with pictures embroidered in pure gold, which is preserved in the Bamberg cathedral ; the coronation mantle of Hungary, originally also a chasuble ; and other specimens of the highest importance not only on account of their costly material and the skill shown in their execution, but even more on account of the deep significance of the pictures. Up to the thirteenth century embroidery in gold thread was the ornamentation mainly used for ecclesiastical purposes. To a certain degree gold embroidery was intended to take the place of figured materials woven with gold thread. Consequently, this embroidery so closely resembles fabrics woven with gold that on superficial examination it could easily be taken for such. At the same time, however, embroidery with silk thread was also practised, as is shown by the splendid copes preserved at St. Paul in Corinthia.
Ecclesiastical embroidery reached its fullest development in the thirteenth, fourteenth, and the first half of the fifteenth centuries. In this period whatever bore the name of vestment, wherever means allowed, was more or less richly embroidered. The working materials were gold, silver, and silk threads, small disks and spangles cut with a stamp from silver, plain or gilded, spangles and small disks of enamel, real pearls, precious stones, paste diamonds, and coral. The embroidery of figures was the branch of the art most pursued, purely ornamental embroidery being regarded as of subordinate importance. The copes and chasubles covered with pictorial embroidery of a deeply religious character, the aurifrisia (bands) magnificently ornamented with embroidered figures, that were laid on the liturgical clothing and other vestments, the covers and wall-hangings embroidered in striking pictorial designs, the stoles covered with wonderful needlework, all these examples of the art of the needle of that era, still found in large numbers in the church treasures and museums, show that ecclesiastical embroidery then reached a height never since regained. In the eleventh and twelfth centuries Sicily was famous for its ecclesiastical embroidery; in the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries the workshops of England were more noted than all others. In this latter period mention of English embroidery, called opus anglicanum , is found in almost all inventories of the more important churches of the Continent, even in Italy. The vestment most frequently sent from England into other parts of Western Europe was a cope completely covered with a rich embroidery of figures on a background of vine arabesques or elaborate architecture, the background being worked in gold thread; examples of these copes are still preserved at St. John Lateran at Rome, at Pienza, Vich, and Daroca in Spain, Salzburg, Saint-Bertrand-de-Comminges in France, and elsewhere. A large amount of superb ecclesiastical needlework, splendid specimens of which still exist, was also produced in Germany, France, and Italy ; in the last-named country the work of Florence, Siena, Lucca, and Venice was especially noted. In the fifteenth century the finest ecclesiastical embroidery was done in Flanders, where the work most largely produced was of that kind in which couched gold thread was worked over with coloured silks. The best examples of this are the mass-vestments of the Order of the Golden Fleece preserved in the Hofburg at Vienna. With the close of the Middle Ages ecclesiastical embroidery began to decline. Instead of the flat stitch, use was now made of the more striking raised embroidery, which frequently degenerated into a purely formal high relief totally unsuited in character to ecclesiastical embroidery. There was a continually growing tendency to aim at brilliant effects and a stately magnificence. At the same time pictorial needlework was less and less in use, owing to the influence of secular embroidery. Needlework for church vestments was limited more and more to purely ornamental designs, taken chiefly from the plant world, and to certain symbolic designs. The art sank to its lowest depths both in design and technic at the commencement of the nineteenth century, during the so-called Biedermaier (honest citizen) period.
Ecclesiastical embroidery flourished in the various provinces of the Byzantine Empire. While the costly needlework produced there was naturally used mainly in the services of the Greek Church, still many pieces were brought into Western Europe. This Byzantine needlework did not fail to influence Western ecclesiastical embroidery. One of the finest examples of art needlework of the Byzantine Empire of the Middle Ages is the imperial dalmatic in the treasury of St. Peter's at Rome, erroneously attributed to the eleventh century; it is, in reality, a Greek saccòs (vestment of a Greek bishop or patriarch) worked, probably, in the latter half of the fourteenth century.
At no period has ecclesiastical differed in its technic from secular embroidery. The same varieties of stitches and other art resources have been employed in both cases. No special ordinances have ever been issued by the Church in regard to embroidery for vestments, either as to material, colour, use, or design. Good taste, however, requires that the embroidery should harmonize with the character and colour-effect of the vestment, and that is should not be too heavy, too crowded, or too stiff.
It is probable that the Israelites learned the art of embroidery during their sojourn in Egypt. The ornamentation of woven fabrics, especially of linen, by needlework in threads of different colours, spun or drawn from various materials, such as wool, flax, or gold, was known to ancient nations. The Greek and Romans acquired the art from the East. The monuments of Assyria and Babylon represent the garments of kings and officials as highly ornamented with what are commonly regarded as embroideries, and specimens of embroidered work have been found in Egyptian tombs. In Ezech., xxvii, 7, mention is made of the "fine broidered linen" used for sails on the ship of Tyre. The first reference to embroidery in Scripture is found in the Book of Exodus (xxvi, 1, 31, 36) in the directions given to Moses concerning the curtains of the Tabernacle, the veil for the Ark, and the hanging in the entrance to the Holy of Holies. The Douay, following the Vulgate, does not distinguish between the two Hebrew expressions in Exodus 26:1, 31 and Exodus 26:36. The former is translated in the Revised Version by "the work of a cunning workman" and seems to refer to the weaving of figured designs from different coloured threads; the latter may have been real embroidery, or needlework.
Besides the hanging at the entrance of the Tabernacle ( Exodus 26:36 ), the hanging in the entrance of the court ( Exodus 26:16 ) and the girdle of the high-priest ( Exodus 28:39 ; 39:28 ) were the work of the "embroiderer", whereas in regard to the ephod ( Exodus 28:6 ; 39:3 ) and the rational ( Exodus 28:15 ; 39:8 ) another word is employed. Beseleel and Ooliab were endowed with skill in both kinds of work ( Exodus 35:35 ; 38:22,23 ). The word is used of the embroidered garments or scarfs mentioned in the Canticle of Debbora ( Judges 5:30 ), and of the bride's apparel in Ps. xliv (Heb., xlv), 15, where according to the Hebrew text she is said to be arrayed in embroiderings of gold and raiment of needlework. The garments of the faithless spouse, the figure of Israel ( Ezekiel 16:10, 13, 18 ), were likewise embroidered. In Ezech., xxvi, 16, it is foretold that the princes of the seas shall put off their broidered garments, and broidered stuffs are mentioned among the merchandise of Tyre ( Ezekiel 27:7, 16, 24 ).
In the Authorized or King James Version ( Exodus 28:4 ) one of the high-priest's garments is called "a broidered coat"; the Revised Version changed it to "a coat of chequer work". The Douay has "a strait linen garment" ( lineam strictam in the Vulgate ). The Hebrew used here is not found elsewhere in Scripture. It is believed by some to indicated "a surface device of lustre upon one colour", similar to work still done in Damascus. Even in regard to the nature of the word which is translated "embroidery", authorities are not agreed. Some regard it as painting on cloth, others as an ornamentation produced by sewing on to a stuff pieces of materials of other colours, other again as a fabric woven from threads of different colours.
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