Friday, March 16, 2012

Rediscovering Britons: Demonstration of an Identity

As I mentioned in an earlier post, I've had reason of late to revisit events of British History. At a friend's request, I compiled an overview of British history from the Norman Invasion of 1066 to present day. This meant uncovering many aspects of British History and to do so I turned to an easy and comprehensive internet source: the BBC British History website. In stumbling around the BBC British History site for information, I came across an article about the Syon Cope. As a very amateur scholar of art history, I was immediately intrigued. What was this beautiful work of art? What did it mean for those who created it and who it was created for?

The Syon Cope and detail

Copes, a semi-circular cape, are outer garments worn by priests for the celebration of Mass. The Syon Cope was kept by nuns in the sixteenth century in the Syon Abbey in Middlesex, which was founded by King Henry V around 1414, and thus giving this Cope its name. The Syon Cope has embroidered on it scenes from the life of Christ and the Virgin Mary, with figures of the apostles. It is worked in silk, silver-gilt and silver thread, which entirely covers the linen background material. The figures are framed in overlapping units, based on the quatrefoil (a form with four lobes), which was a popular design in English architecture in the reigns of Edward I and his son Edward II.

The Syon Cope was acquired by the V&A. For additional details on the imagery in the Syon Cope, visit their site where you can find a comrphensive description and history of the Syon Cope.

The Syon Cope is an elaborate and elegant example of English embroidery, called Opus Anglicanum ('English work'). The English became famous for this particular kind of needlework that was done for ecclesiastical or secular use on clothing, hangings or other textiles, often using gold and silver threads on rich velvet or linen grounds.

As with any work of art, Opus Anglicanum represents many aspects of English history, from Church pomp and pageantry to the status of artists and the importance of culture. It also came to represent the English in the form of an artistic rendering of Englishness.  

Such English embroidery was in great demand across Europe, particularly from the late twelfth to the mid-fourteenth centuries and was a luxury product often used for diplomatic gifts. Princes and potentates of Church and State wanted English embroidery. Diplomatic gifts of ecclesiastical embroidery by an English king emphasize its significance as a representation of high, and specifically English, achievement. 


"The Nations of Britain: England - The Syon Cope",  Linda Wooley, BBC History website

"The Syon Cope", V&A website

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