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Birkbeck Medieval Seminar - Medieval Textiles: Meaning and Materiality

Venue: Birkbeck 30 Russell Square

On the occasion of the V&A Museum’s unprecedented exhibition of opus anglicanum, this one-day interdisciplinary conference brings together leading and emerging scholars working on questions of meaning and materiality in medieval textiles, both real and imaginary.

10am Introduction

10.10am-11.25am Session I. Clothing power

  • Clare Vernon: The Mantle of King Roger II of Sicily: The amazingly opulent and well-preserved mantle of King Roger II was made in the royal palace in Palermo in the early 1130s and later became part of the coronation regalia of the Holy Roman Emperors. It is decorated with gold, pearls and enamels and features an enigmatic depiction of lions standing upon vanquished camels, flanking the tree of life. Scholars have surmised that the mantle was worn, by King Roger, during court rituals and that the iconography symbolises the victory of the Christian king over his Muslim subjects in the multicultural society of Norman Sicily. In this paper I will re-examine the origins of the mantle, exploring the possibility that it was manufactured for use at the investiture of King Roger’s sons. In the early 1130s Roger invested his three sons with important principalities within the kingdom, during ceremonies that took place outside Palermo. I will discuss how we might re-interpret the iconography of the mantle in light of this proposed function what it might tell us about the relationship between the royal art created within the palace in Palermo and the artistic culture of the mainland regions of the kingdom.
  • Pippa Salonius: Gifts of Silk and Gold: Finance, Diplomacy and Fashion at the Courts of England and Rome in the Thirteenth Century: Gifts of opus anglicanum were the height of fashion among the prelates of the papal court during the reign of King Edward I (1272-1307). My paper considers the iconography of the Ascoli Piceno cope, an early commission of the English king, reading its distinctive narrative as an expression of silken diplomacy. A gift for pope Gregory X, the shimmering silk figures worked into the gold and pearl ground illustrate the ancient and continuous history of the papacy. Edward’s earnest support of the Second Council of Lyons tinges its narrative. A truly sumptuous garment, it betrays the crucial role English silk workshops briefly played in Edward’s State finances.
  • Julian Gardner: Moving pictures: cardinals in copes: The scapular found in Gregory X's tomb at Arezzo reveals aspects of the pope's personal taste. Gregory X (1272 - 1276) received textile gifts from the Byzantine emperor Michael Palaeologus, and the English crown. Mendicant cardinals also received embroidered vestments from the English kings. The iconography of mendicant vestments strikingly lacks "modern" saints, a lacuna which contrasts markedly with contemporary Florentine embroidery. Compositional aspects of fourteenth century opus anglicanum are also discussed.

11.10 Discussion

11.25am-11.45am Tea and coffee

11.45am-1pm Session II. Unravelling meaning

  • Lisa Monnas: Textiles in the paintings of Rogier van der Weyden: The Flemish artist Rogier van der Weyden (ca 1399-1464)’s paintings are distinguished by an underlying intelligence and sureness of purpose: his figure poses, the distribution of colours and the abstract rhythms of his compositions all enhance the subject of his narrative. These elements are underscored by his careful choice and representation of fabrics, an observation that is equally true of his work in miniature or in panel painting. He introduced decorative elements sparingly, and placed them judiciously. His choice and treatment of fabrics changed according to the type of commission, and with regard to the intended size and purpose of each painting. This paper aims to demonstrate that he was a master of narrative who was willing to bend and shape ‘reality’ in order to convey his intended message, with particular reference to his depiction of textiles.
  • Joanne Anderson: Unfinished threads and ragged edges in medieval art: Unfinished threads and ragged edges are metaphors for things and lives in the making. This paper focuses on the crafting of identity through cloth depicted in late medieval artworks. It begins its work on a fourteenth-century painted loom, in the South Tyrolean town of Bozen, and how the fabric being woven speaks to the social mobility of an émigré family of Florence, from burgher to nobility. This case study will be contextualised by reference to other examples of cloth production in the vicinity, and more broadly in western Europe, to help us to think through the historical and theoretical dimensions of the socio-cultural formation of the body and identity; the very threads of life as woven by art.
  • Katherine Harvey: The Man Behind the Mitre: Textiles and the Episcopal Body in Medieval England: This paper will look at the interactions between textiles and the body, using English bishops (c. 1100-1400) as a case study. Ideas about medicine and health will be a key theme (e.g. clothes and bedding as a source of protection from bad air/ cold; the impact of coloured cloth and embroidered images linked to ideas about vision). I will also talk about the ways in which textiles can do harm (including penitential garments and magical stockings). Finally, I will examine the ways in which interactions between textiles and episcopal bodies distinguished the bishop's body from that of normal man, thinking about the ways in which his clothed body appeared to onlookers and conveyed office, a position in the episcopal lineage, and even sanctity.

12.45 Discussion

1pm-2.30pm LUNCH (attendees to make own arrangements)

2.30pm-3.45pm Session III. The long lives of clothes

  • Gale Owen-Crocker: Clothing the Past I: recycling, refitting, repairing: The production of textiles was so labour intensive, and in some cases so expensive (especially silk, gold thread, kermes dye) it is not surprising that steps were taken to prolong their lives as much as possible. Although some textiles were consigned to the graves of distinguished persons in practically pristine condition, others were recycled for new wearers, being let out or let in as required or with parts added from other sources. Sometimes the alterations to recovered objects tell a story, like the sumptuous golden gown that was fashionably over-long, causing its wearer to tread on it and tear it; or garment described in an integral inscription as a chasuble, made in 1031, which is now manifestly no longer a chasuble, having been altered to become the coronation mantle of the kings of Hungary in the thirteenth century, a function that continued until 1916.
  • Elizabeth Coatsworth: Clothing the Past II: circumstances of survival; sets and collections: The circumstances which have permitted the survival of recognisable examples of medieval dress are varied, from chance finds, in peat bogs for example, or in certain archaeological conditions such as those prevailing in Greenland – which can be of relatively humble original wearers - or in re-opened burials usually of royal or other high-ranking seculars, or major ecclesiastical figures (part of the attraction of these being that the names of the original wearers were either definitely known or presumed). As interesting however, are the relatively few surviving examples of deliberate medieval collections, of which as we know from inventories there were once very many. Both of these broad types – those never intended to see the light of day, and these always and meant to be kept above ground – reveal examples of sets of clothing designed to be worn at the same time (as in one of the Spanish royal graves) or used together on the same occasion (as in a set of vestments made for an Imperial Abbey), or were kept together because of their perceived historic and ceremonial importance (such as the various garments associated with the Emperor of the Holy Roman Emperor).
  • Laura Jacobus: The Marchesa and the Madonna: costume and continuity in sacred performance: Very little is known about the practical production of sacre rappresentazione, dramatic performances of sacred events, in fourteenth-century Italy. Using a combination of newly-discovered documentary and material evidence it is possible to reconstruct aspects of one such performance, which took place on the Feast of the Annunciation in Padua. This paper reveals how the drama benefitted from the loan of dresses and jewels by the Marquesa Jacopina d’Este, who bequeathed them to the performance after her death. It tracks changes in the spectacular staging of the event, concentrating on the costume worn by the Madonna, and it considers the personal, political and religious meanings woven into (and embroidered onto) the fabric of her dress. It suggests how, over the course of nearly three hundred years, the association between the Marquesa and the Madonna of the echoed on, its significance changing as the years passed.

3.30 Discussion

3.45pm-4.05 pm tea and coffee

4.05 Glyn Davies: An introduction to the ‘Opus anglicanum’ exhibition at the V&A

4.35 Plenary and refreshments.

5pm end 

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