ANNE WANNER'S Textiles in History   /  publications

An English Medieval Cope in the Textile Museum St.Gallen
english text by Peneolpe Wallis
german translation by Anne Wanner, for publication in:
in: Textilkunst, 12. Jahrgang, Heft 1/84, S. 19-21

  "England is for us surely a garden of delights" said Pope Innocent IV, according to the English chronicler, Matthew Paris, when in 1246 he saw some splendid gold-embroidered vestments worn by English priests in Rome.

England was indeed a garden of delights when it came to the production of embroidered ecclesiastical vestments. That these were in great demand all over Europe is attested to by the Vatican inventory of 1295 which listed more pieces of English embroidery, or Opus Anglicanum, than from any other country. Even though by c. 1350 the period of magnificient work had passed and English embroidery had suffered a decline, very high quality vestments were still being produced in England.

In the Textilemuseum at St. Gallen is a splendid example of an English embroidered cope from the latter part of the Middle-ages. Dating from c.1500, the St. Gallen cope shows several motifs, embroidered in silver-gilt and coloured silks, applied to a rich purple velvet background. Although the hool and orphreys are lacking and some of the motifs have been restored (in different coloured silk) the condition of the vestmetn is generally good.

  A cope is a liturgical vestment worn for processions. When worn it gives the appearance of a cloak, but when opened out it forms a semi-circle. The most important scenes iconographically were always placed in the centre back of the vestment. The orphrey (lacking on the St. Gallen cope) was a band of decoration running down the fronts of the cope and across the back of the neck. In the period of Opus Anglicanum we find series of saints, angels or decorative ornament on cope orphreys, but in the later period often narrative scenes, for example, the Passion of Christ, saints' lives or the Tree of Jesse are seen. Doubtless this was to complement the smaller amount of Christological or Mariological scenes on the main part of the vestment.

The main iconographical theme of the St. Gallen cope is that of the Virgin Mary's part in Christ's sacrifice for the Redemption of Mankind's original sin, and is summed up by the scene placed in the centre back of the vestment which shows the Assuption of the Virgin. This was the most popular scene to appear on copes of this date, although other scenes do appear such as the Crucifixion, the Annunciation to the Virgin and, occasionally, a rebus. At St.Gallen she is depicted, surrounded by a mandorla, being borne aloft by five demi-angels who rise from clouds.
  The motifs, which powder the field of the cope, are three types of conventional flowers, fleur-de-lys and angels. The overall design is similar to that of other English copes of this date; for example, that from Norrköping, now in Stockholm, that at Oscott College, and another in the Victoria and Albert Museum in London.

The conventional flowers are so stylized that they do not resemble any known flora but, they can be seen to have Christian allegoral interpretations. It is likely that the scattering of the flowers over the cope may represent the flos campi, the flowers of the field, from the Old Testament book of the 'Song of Songs', chapter 2 verse 1. The fleur-de lys may be stylized representations of the lilium convallium, the lilies of the vallies, and as such may be taken together with the flowers of the field and thus would allude to the Virgin. The 'Song of Songs' contains many verses which, in the medieval period, were seen to allude to Mary. However, often the flos was taken to represent Christ, and could, therefore, here refer to the part played by the Virgin in the Incarnation, and so in the ultimate sacrifice of Christ for the Redemption of Mankind.

The fleur-de-lys, the stylized lily, is an attribute of the Virgin. Often dhe device was used as a royal emblem, for example, by the kings of France, and also as a symbol of sovereignity on the sceptres of kings; on the St. Gallen cope it can be seen to refer to the Virgin as Queen of Heaven.
  The angels which appear on the cope continue a tradition which was seen on the vestments of the great period of Opus Anglicanum, where angels of various kinds proliferated - angels with thuribles, crowns, stars and musical instruments, cherubim and seraphim standing on wheels and others. Apart from the five demi-angels bearing Mary to Heaven, twelve demi-angels are depicted on th St. Gallen cope, all emanating from clouds and surrounded by rays of light. Those angels closest to mary - the three on either side and two below all have four wings. Of those to the side and the lowest one are in the orans attitude (the early Christian stance of prayer with arms outstretched), whilst that immediately below the Assumption scene holds a crown of thorns, a symbol of the Passion and another reference to Christ's Sacrifice.

The four angels placed outside the central group have each two wings and hold a scroll with the inscription "DA GLORIAM DE0", give Glory to God. Angels, the messengers of God, formed part of the Heavenly Host and as seen here extent the idea of the Assumption of the Virgin into Heaven by placing her in the midst of the angelic host. On the overall design of the cope the earthly flowers of the filed are in the outer parts, whilst the heavenly aspect is in the centre.
  In Christian number symbolism twelve was seen to represent the Twelve Apostles, the twelve tribes of Israel, or, in a more extended meaning, the whole of the Christian church. Here they may well represent the whole of the Christian church which was to be saved by the Redemption.

In the central scene Mary's body is being carried into Paradise; she is shown crowned as Queen of Heaven, for which there is no actual Canonical or Apocryphal Gospel source. According to Emile Male it seems likely that the idea of Mary as Queen of Heaven comes from the 12th century 'Golden Legend' of Jacobus de Voragine where, in the account of the Assupmption, there is the sentance "Come from Lebanon, my spouse, come thou shalt be crowned" said to have been intoned by Christ. We also have the words of Psalm 45 verse 10 "Astitit regina a dextris tuis in vestitu deaurato" (upon thy right hand did stand the queen in vesture of gold).

The source for the Assumption of the Virgin Mary is told in various Apocryphal accounts, but that of the 'Pseudo-Melito' is the most detailed and the best known. The text tells us that after she had died Mary's body shone with such brightness that the appearance could not be looked upon for the
  exceeding flashing of light. This is indicated on the cope not only by the gold mandorla surrounding the body, but also the rays and spangles emanating from it. Further on the account says that Christ delivered her to the angels to be borne into Paradise - again depicted on the vestment. Mary is clothed in gold and blue and, altough crowned as Queen of Heaven, she still wears her hair loose as a symbol of her perpetual virginity.

Although the central scene on the St. Gallen cope shows the Assumption of the Virgin, the overall theme of the vestment is that of the Sacrifice of Christ for the Redemption of Mankind - alluded to by the Crown of thorns and the "flowers of the field". Mara's part in the Incarnation - the word of God made flesh, the beginning of Christ's life on earth which was to end in the Crucifixion, the Ultimate Sacrifice - is here strongly emphasized by the depiction of one of the most popular scenes of the later Middle-Ages, illustrating the most siginifcant of the legendry events of her life.

The idea of the main theme of an English embroidered vestment representing the Sacrifice of the Redemption of Mankind continues a tradition seen in the iconography of such vestments from the third quarter of the 13th century onwards.
  As mentioned above, in the Middle-Ages, England was famous for its production of high quality embroidery, for both secular and ecclesiastical use, although it is mainly the latter which has survived. Known as Opus anglicanum, this embroidery reached its apogee c. 1250 - c. 1350 when kings, emperors and popes were its patrons.

Indeed, the production of fine embroidery was known in England before the Norman conquest - the 'Stole and Maniple of St. Cuthbert', of the 12th century, preserved at Durham cathedral testify to this. From the great period of Opus Anglicanum survive such fine copes as those in the Vatican and at Ascoli Piceno - probably both Papal commissions - those in Vich (in Catalonia), Pienza, and the Victoria and Albert Museum in London, this last once belonging to the Butler Bowden family.

It is noticeable that more of these vestments survived in Catholic Europe rather than in Protestant England; doubtless a large number of vestments were destroyed at the Reformation and indeed, during times of strife when the vestments would be burnt to reclaim the gold which was used in abundance.
  The vestments from c. 1250 - c. 1350 differed from those of the later period (c. 1350 - c. 1530) in style and iconography. It was usual for the earlier vestments to be covered with scenes showing events in the life of Christ, of the Virgin or of the saints. However, by c. 1350 when the Black Death had causend great loss of life in Europe the high quality of embroidery and the totally individual design of the vestments declined and finally disappeared. Thus by c. 1500 - the date of the St. Gallen cope - the highly individual vestments were replaced with those showing little variety of applied embroidered motifs against a plain of brocade background. However, some individual vestments still showed work of high quality as can be seen in the St. Gallen cope.

- P. Joseph Braun, Eine Kasel des 16. Jahrhunderts und verwandte Paramente, in: Die christliche Kunst, 10, S. 44, ff., 1913/1914
- Françoise Pirenne-Hulin, Une chasuble, travail anglais du 15e siècle, conservée au Trésor de la Cathédrale de Liège, Extrait du Bulletin de la Société des Bibliophiles Liègois, Tome XXIV, 2001

content  Last revised 15 December, 2005