Project Canterbury

The Ecclesiologist

Volume IV (New Series I). No. III. May, 1845.
Cambridge: Walters, pp. 97-103


An interesting paper in a recent number of the Archaeological Journal, on "English Mediaeval Embroidery," has superseded some of the remarks which we were ourselves proposing to offer. The writer describes several of the examples of ancient embroidery now known to exist, and explains, by the aid of illustrations, the method of working them. We shall avail ourselves, without further acknowledgment, of the assistance of this article in giving some account of the best way of executing church needlework; but we are in truth wholly indebted for whatever we know on the subject to a lady, whose diligence in examining ancient specimens, with a view to modern imitation, has been, crowned with deserved success, and whose efforts to revive this branch of church decoration deserve a higher reward than our humble expression of thanks.

The ground-work for frontals may be of velvet, of silk, or of a ground of gold diaper, which is worked by the needle. But as these materials are not convenient for being worked upon, the embroidery itself is done on another material, and then sewn on to the general groundwork.

The material upon which embroidery can be best worked is a stout linen, of very even make, soft, and sufficiently coarse to allow a thread of gold or silk to be passed through the interstices when required. The linen ought to be made of pure flax, without any mixture of cotton: both because the cotton is likely to work through in small tufts, and is "fluffy" to work upon, and because, if gold be used, cotton is said to be hurtful to it, from some acid used in its bleaching. Before using, the linen must be well washed in pure water, or boiled, to take out the dress. That called "4-quarter flax, at 14d,," to be procured at Wilson's, New Bond Street, is much recommended; but a much coarser linen than this is often used in old work. The linen is used doubled.

The materials with which embroidery is worked are gold thread, called passing, and gold twist; floss silk, and a kind of half-twisted silk. Jewels and spangles may be added if wanted.

First, as to gold thread. This is used doubled, in a needle, the threads being laid down on the work side by side. The threads only pass through the linen at the extremities to fasten them off; they are laid upon the linen, and fastened down at intervals with silk. This method is called cushion-work, from couchant, because the threads lie on the ground-work. This is the general way of working groundings, diapers, borders, &cc. It is capable of great variety, from the facility of following any pattern with the continuous threads of gold. Rich backgrounds are worked in diapered patterns, and when sewn with coloured silks present rich effects of colour. We must mention here a rich raised stitch in gold, resembling basket-work, which is used for borders, and is formed by sewing down gold thread in alternate rows over pack-thread. It is difficult to procure good gold thread in this country. Silver-gilt must be insisted upon, and not copper-gilt. Messrs. Kirby and Lonsdale, of Covent-Garden, profess to keep the best. Many may be able to procure it from M. Corsellini of the Loggia di Mercato Nuovo, Florence.

We cannot profess to describe all the numerous stitches allowable in silk. The moat common one is the old-fashioned embroidery, or "long and short" stitch. It is used for figures, parts of draperies, the under parts of flowers, &c. A very useful stitch is formed of floss-silk, laid down smooth and straight, and crossed over in squares or diamonds with a thin silk. Every intersection of this reticulation of silk is tied down with silk or gold. The tie may be single or double. This has the effect of fine quilting.

Figures executed, in the embroidery-stitch are worked on fine linen, also doubled. In this delicate work the high lights are produced, by leaving parts of the linen uncovered, just as in drawings the white paper is sometimes left to gain effect.

In using silk to sew down the gold threads, it is necessary to wax the silk, lest it should start from the work. This waxing destroys the elasticity of the silk, and, if yellow silk be used, gives the additional advantage of preventing the difference of colour being so perceptible when the gold begins to change.

Floss silk is the most useful, if not the only kind to be employed. Where the effect requires it, this floss-silk may be twisted by the hand in working. But some use mitorse silk.

The best place at which to procure silk is Mr. Pearsall's, 145, Cheapside. Foreign silks are superior to English in smoothness and brilliancy of colour. For a large work the silks may well be dyed on purpose.

The most useful needles are the small sharp "chenille needles," and the "sharp-pointed embroidery needles, Nos. 23 and 26." A larger size is sometimes required for running the gold thread through the linen ground-work. Also a few darning needles are necessary, and the sort of large round-eyed needles called "Betweens, No. 9."

A pair of small flat pincers is needful, with which to bend the goldthread at the turnings. Such a pair will cost 9d. at Delolme's, Rathbone Place.

It is essential to be very exact in drawing the pattern. A good way is to tack upon the linen a drawing of the design on thin paper: next to run over the lines carefully with a fine black silk, and then to tear off the paper; so the pattern traced in black silk is left on the linen.

A most important rule is to define every outline in the embroidery very distinctly with black silk. This will greatly improve the effect of the colours, and will make the pattern visible at a considerable distance; For want of this, the new frontal at Christ church, S. Pancras, is very deficient in effect: in which the Evangelistick symbols and the Sacred Monogram cannot be distinguished, except by a close examination.

All the examples of ancient embroidery which remain seem to have been executed by more than one person. The designs are worked in many pieces, which are afterwards joined together. This plan must be adopted in new works. It must be remarked that all the ancient specimens which have been examined are worked after the same method, It is of extreme importance that ladies who propose to undertake church-needlework should examine for themselves some old example: such as the pall preserved in Fishmongers' Hall, which is easily accessible. One visit is worth much more than the fullest written description. Indeed the old work is so different from anything we are in the habit of seeing, that the most detailed explanation is scarcely able to inform any one what the old work really was.

The foregoing rules were deduced from a careful examination of part of a most beautiful chasuble, representing the Crucifixion with all the delicacy of a miniature (now in the possession of Mr. Butterfield), of the Fishmongers' pall, and of the cope in Ely Cathedral.

It is obvious that the flesh, where figures are represented, requires the greatest skill and taste to work satisfactorily. On the other hand, flowers, to be used in powderings or diapers, are not only comparatively easy of execution, but are generally for several reasons most to be recommended.

WE may be allowed to take this opportunity of saying a few words on the proper hangings for the altar. A few years ago the only covering ever thought of was a large pall of baize or velvet, which hung down over the sides like a table-cloth. But lately there have been many examples of more becoming adornment, though no fixed rule has been followed. In some cases the panelled front of the altar has been left exposed; which we must regard as quite wrong. In other cases a frontal stretched on a frame, or an antependium suspended over the face of the altar, (if we may so distinguish these two words), gave occasion, by their presenting a plane surface, for what was less suitable to a loose hanging, namely, a considerable display of embroidered ornament. The antependium (we may remark) seems to be the most fitting where the altar is of the form, of a table.

A great difficulty, however, has been found in procuring appropriate patterns for altar fronts, for want of precedents. The remains of really ancient work in our churches are very rare indeed: and what needlework there exists of the Caroline time, or of post-restoration date, is of design and character unsuitable for imitation. Mr. Pugin, in leading the revival of a better taste in church ornaments amongst the members of his own communion, seems to have experienced an equal difficulty in deciding what ought to be the nature of the patterns suitable for frontals. He seems to us to have, in this point, neglected precedent, and to have invented for himself the kind of design which is to be seen in most of his published views of altars; as, for example, in Nos. XX. and XXIII. of the Dublin Review, and in the patterns for frontals given in his Glossary of Ecclesiastical Ornament. This kind of design may be described as a large cross dividing the whole frontal into four parts, with an Agnus Dei at the intersection, and the four Evangelistick symbols. Now we do not remember to have seen a frontal of this sort in actual use in any diocese in Europe, or in any ancient drawing or illuminations. Unfortunately, in our own communion, this example has been very generally followed. This calls upon us to enter into some examination of this subject.

It is rather singular that the rubricks of the unreformed service books do not contain very minute directions for the external clothing of the altar: to which fact, we suppose, must be owing the extreme diversity of practice at present obtaining in different parts of the Latin Church. We are compelled therefore to look to ancient pictures and illuminations for guidance on this point. We shall trace historically from these sources the method of hanging the altar; and then briefly refer to the formal directions and to modern practice. As this article makes no profession of deep research, we shall only say that numerous illuminated manuscripts have been examined in the British Museum, the Cambridge University, and Trinity College Libraries, and shall not give minute references.

It appears, then, that in very early manuscripts altars are usually represented as covered with a sort of pull hanging in thin folds all round, but not reaching the ground. Next a sort of fascia, on one or three sides, a few inches deep, and often (apparently) jewelled, confined the pall at the top, allowing it to How as before below it. After this we observe two types, which seem to have been used contemporaneously and indifferently. 1. Either the altar is vested entirely, as if it were a rectangular mass, the bounding line of the superficies of the mensa, or table of the altar, being taken as the measure of the side hangings, and not the smaller girth required by the body, or (as the case may be) by the legs of the altar. 2. Or, in the other method, the projecting mensa, or table, is vested in one plane, while the main hangings upon the body of the altar are on another plane. In the hitter, that is, the upper slab is shewn as projecting: in the former, the projection is concealed, a vacant space being left between the hangings themselves and the sides of the altar. The first method however is the most common, and that in the better examples; and is, further, more suited for our own wants. In both methods however it is an undeviating rule that the main frontal or antependium is overlapped at the top by a kind of veil or superfrontal, which hangs down from the pall or covering of the top of the altar, and vests, or indicates, the thickness of the mensa. So that it is essential that the front of every altar should exhibit a veil or superfrontal, from six to ten inches deep, overhanging the main vestment; viz., the frontal, or antependium, which varies with the canonical colours. So much fur the front of the altar. The sides, it would appear, may be either vested or not; but, as a general rule, (and particularly where the altar is of table-form), they ought to be vested. The superfrontal need not, but had better, be continued round the sides as well as the front. The sides then will exhibit precisely the same hangings as the front. They will however be generally covered by the fair linen cloth which, (as is now generally acknowledged) is a long strip covering the top only, and hanging down to a greater or less depth over the sides.

An altar then requires a frontal and two side hangings, and a pall which shall fall over the three sides for a few inches, forming a veil (as It were) to the table, or a superfrontal.

The most important direction about altar-fittings occurs in the Caerimonialis. Lib. I., cap. xii., 11 seq. (Venice edition, 1837, p. 44.) "Quod si [altare] a pariete disjunctum et separatum sit, apponentur, turn a parte anteriori quam posteriori illius, pallia aurea vel argentea aut serica, auro perpulchre contexta, coloris festivitati congruentis, eaque sectis quadratisque lignis munita, quae telaria vocant, ne rugosa aut sinuosa, sed extensa et explicata decentius conspiciantur. Tum in superna linea mappae mundae tres saltem explicentur, quae totam altaris planitiem et latera contegant. Nullae tamen coronides lignae (cornices of wood) circa altaris angulos ducantur, sed eorum loco apponi poterunt fasciae (see above) ex auro vel serico elaboratae ac variegate, quibus ipsa altaris fades apte redimita ornatiorque appareat." For further particulars we refer our readers to the original. These directions, so far as our experience goes, are very imperfectly obeyed abroad. However in actual use framed frontals appear to have quite superseded antependia. We take the fascia here mentioned to be represented by what we have called the superfrontal. It is remarkable that as a general rule, the horizontal line of this fascia, is still retained on modern frontals, although the frontal is made in one piece, and covers the whole front of the altar, Throughout Belgium and the north of Italy we have observed this. In Rhenish Prussia the rule is only partially followed: a very ugly form obtains there, in which the horizontal line in question does not extend to the ends of the frontal, but is returned vertically to the base, leaving (so to say) a veil to the ends of the frontal.

We conclude then that we ought to have hangings for the front and sides of our altars, either framed as frontals, or unframed as antependia; and that the top should be covered with a pall overhanging the three sides. We do not suppose it would be wrong either to attach, by lacings or otherwise, all these four hangings together so as to form a kind of case; or to keep them separate, fastening them as may be found most convenient. These questions need more deliberation. The latter plan seems the best; especially since the colour of the frontal only needs change, not necessarily that of the superfrontal.

We will mention a few ways of treating an altar front, such as we have described, as to colour and ornament. The superfrontal (or the part of modern continental frontals which we suppose to represent it) is ordinarily red or blue: it may be plain, or powdered with flowers, or embroidered in a flowing pattern, or even charged with a legend: it must be fringed. Gold fringe is not so much to be recommended as silk fringe of two bright colours counterchanged, or of many colours following each other in a certain order. Red and white may be used; white and blue; green and white; or in succession green, red, white, blue, yellow; or we have even seen, also in succession, white, blue, yellow, pink and orange. Perhaps the simpler fringes are the better. Such fringes may be made at a small expense. [Mr. Crace of Wigmore Street may be recommended.]

The frontal itself is also fringed, generally in the same way as its super-frontal The frontal may be plain, or diapered, or of brocade: of one piece or colour; or divided into three compartments: which are either equal; or unequal, the middle being the broadest. Of these three compartments the middle only need be of the appointed colour: the sides may vary. Thus a white frontal, with the side compartments red, gives a beautiful effect; and not less so when the superfrontal also is red. A red frontal may appropriately have the side compartments and the super-frontal of cloth of gold, or of gold brocade. The vertical lines dividing these compartments admit of any extent of ornament in embroidery. The laces manufactured at Birmingham are also very suitable for these parts. Another advantage attending this triple division is that a cross, or a monogram may be--(we do not strongly recommend it)--worked in the middle one very conveniently, no border being necessary, because the space is nearly square, and not disproportionate in size to the inscribed figure.

By following out these hints an endless variety of designs may be obtained. Nothing need be more simple, nothing may be more elaborate, than altar-hangings. We regret to see much fondness displayed, as yet, for very ambitious and complicated efforts of needlework and embroidery: the revival of the ancient method of working is beginning, and may be brought to perfection: at present let us confine ourselves to more simple endeavours. Powderings of flowers, or other ornaments, diapers, wreaths (if good designs can be procured), perhaps legends, ought as yet to be more worked than figures and complicated emblems. Some good diapers are given in the VII. Part of the Instrumenta Ecclesiastica.

A few general points remain to be observed. 1. The hangings need not hang down quite to the ground: a plinth may well be shewn. 2. There is precedent for placing a hanging, which may be like the frontal, on the wall above the altar, where there is no other appropriate ornament. 3. The sides of the fair linen cloth ought not to be fringed or laced: but the ends may be to any extent of richness. 4. In cases where the frontal is of counterchanged colours, as described above, the side hangings will not follow the same rule. 5. The top of the footpace, or altar-platform, which ought never to be wanting, is the place for altar-carpets, which ought therefore to be of the size of the platform. 6. In all cases a superaltare, or altar-ledge--a raised step at the back of the table of the altar, or in the reredos,--is desirable, to hold the candlesticks. The front face of the super-altar may have a hanging.

The caution is important enough to deserve repetition that no richness of ornament on the face of the altar itself can justify the omission of a frontal. The temptation to display the beautiful marble fronts seen in Italy, has made many give up the use of hangings in that country. Of course however fronts of the precious metals, as at S. Mark's, Venice, the cathedral of Ratisbon, and San Ambrogio, Milan, do not violate the rule.

We shall abstain, for many reasons, from entering at any length into the solemn meaning and deep symbolism of altar-hangings. "The altar," says S. Bruno (II. 144, Ven. edition, 1651), "signifieth not only CHRIST, but the members of His Body." This will be the key to harmonize all the apparently conflicting symbolical meanings attached to the altar-hangings in ancient writers. On this subject however we may refer such of our readers as are interested, to Durandus (Rationale I., ii., 14), and Rupertus (De Div. offic. II., 722, 1. Ed. Paris, 1638): and it is not unimportant to remember that the altars are stripped in. the Western Church on the Coana Domini during the singing of the antiphon Diviserunt sibi vestimenta Mea: et super vestem Meam miserunt sortem.

We have not spoken of the stoles of the altar, because their use, although its great propriety and beauty will be seen upon a consideration of the last paragraph, was never general. We believe however that they ought, in strict propriety, to be used: they occur in what has always seemed to us the model altar, that, namely, depicted in Van Eyck's sublime picture of the Adoration of the LAMB.

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