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Friday, 21 October 2016

When England led the world in vestment making

The Butler-Bowdon Chasuble, 1398 – 1420
Before Henry VIII, England was known as one of the most devoutly Catholic countries of the world where the people's devotion to the Holy Mass, to Our Lady and the Saints, and to the Church was legendary. One spin-off from this culture was a standard of vestment making admired throughout the world.

Yesterday I had intended to visit the British Library at St Pancras, but a friend at the Keys convinced me to take the Piccadilly line in the other direction to one of my favourite places, and view an exhibition which is on at the Victoria and Albert Museum until 5 February 2017: Opus Anglicanum: Masterpieces of English Medieval Embroidery.

Over 100 pieces are gathered for the exhibition, most of them ecclesiastical vestments. The earliest are from the early 12th century, but the period of greatest popularity represented is the first half of the 14th century. Thus the growth of world-renowned expertise and enthusiasm for fine liturgical decoration coincided with the flowering of scholastic culture at, for example, places like Oxford and Cambridge. The overturning of that culture at the English reformation coincided with the physical destruction of the beautiful work that grew alongside it. The exhibition has one or two pitiful examples of work that was preserved by virtue of being disguised for secular use.

The splendid collection includes a rare High Mass set and some interesting chasubles like the Butler-Bowden chasuble above. From a modern bias towards a binary distinction between Roman and Gothic chasubles, they might seem hybrid, but I suppose they were simply a stage in the developing shape.

It is great that the V&A has put on another exhibition which draws on Catholic culture in England, and that it seems to be attracting a healthy number of visitors. As a result of following the course carefully, I now know what underside couching is.

Image credit: Victoria & Albert Museum website

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