Masterpieces of English Medieval Embroidery

Discover the beauty and craftmanship of 'opus anglicanum'

By The Victoria and Albert Museum

Chasuble with orphreys Chasuble with orphreys (1434/1446) by UnknownThe Victoria and Albert Museum

'Opus anglicanum'

Latin for 'English work', the phrase 'opus anglicanum' was first coined in the 13th century to describe the highly-prized and luxurious embroideries made in England of silk and gold and silver thread, teeming with elaborate imagery. The V&A holds the largest collection of these works in the world –­ incredible survivals from a celebrated period of English artistic production.

Butler-Bowdon CopeThe Victoria and Albert Museum

The Butler-Bowdon Cope

The Butler-Bowdon Cope is a stunning surviving example, made from some of the richest materials available to an embroiderer at the time. A semi-circular cloak, it was made to be worn during festive church ceremonies and processions, and depicts scenes celebrating the life of the Virgin Mary, which would have been visible down the wearer's back. 

Butler-Bowdon CopeThe Victoria and Albert Museum

Gold, silver and coloured silks were used to create the embroidery, and intricate details were marked out in tiny freshwater seed pearls – some of which can still be seen on the lions' heads, which have small glass beads for eyes.

Butler-Bowdon CopeThe Victoria and Albert Museum

Silk velvet had only been woven in Europe for a short time before this embroidery was made, and it would still have been seen as an amazing innovation, with the soft plushness of its pile.

Butler-Bowdon CopeThe Victoria and Albert Museum

St Edward the Confessor

The Anglo–Saxon king Edward the Confessor (reigned 1042-1066) was made a saint a century after his death because of his faith. Here he is holding a model of Westminster Abbey, which he founded as a royal burial church.

Butler-Bowdon CopeThe Victoria and Albert Museum

St Margaret of Antioch

St Margaret was a virgin martyr who was cruelly tortured because of her refusal to renounce her Christian faith. Here, she is overcoming a dragon, referring to the legend that she was swallowed by Satan in dragon’s form, but was able to escape because the beast could not stomach the cross she was carrying.

Butler-Bowdon CopeThe Victoria and Albert Museum

The Adoration of the Magi

Three magi, or wise men, travelled to Bethlehem to worship the Christ Child, and offer him the precious gifts of frankincense, myrrh and gold. Here, they are shown as kings – young, middle-aged and old – representing the three stages of life. One king points towards the star that had guided them to Bethlehem.

Reconstructing the Steeple Aston CopeThe Victoria and Albert Museum

Dating to around the 1330s, the Steeple Aston Cope was originally made as a large semi-circular cloak, to be worn in church services. It exists today in an altered state, having been cut up and rearranged to make altar furnishings, probably at the time of the Reformation. This digital reconstruction demonstrates the cope's original shape and design, showing how it would have looked when worn.

The Syon CopeThe Victoria and Albert Museum

The Syon Cope

cope is unique among surviving examples of opus anglicanum. Its linen ground is
entirely covered in embroidery, but the background is worked in red and green
silk, instead of metal threads. Gilded thread has been used to pick out details on the figures, while the body
of the crucified Christ stands out in contrasting silver. The design of the cope has been carefully thought out, so that the figures and scenes which radiate out from the centre would appear upright when it was worn. The most important scenes – St Michael overcoming Satan, the Crucifixion and the Coronation of the Virgin – would have appeared on the wearer’s back.

Christ is shown nailed to a rough-hewn green cross which symbolises the Tree of Life. The Virgin Mary and St John the Evangelist are embroidered at his feet – their grief depicted through their expressive gestures. Uniquely within English medieval embroidery, here Christ’s body is embroidered in silver thread.

Coronation of the Virgin
Christ is holding up his right hand in a gesture of blessing, while Mary is raising hers in prayer. Christ is holding an orb divided into three parts, representing the three continents of Europe, Africa and Asia that were known in the medieval period.

The Syon CopeThe Victoria and Albert Museum

St Michael killing Satan
The Archangel Michael is represented as a warrior saint, thrusting his spear into the throat of a dragon, symbol for the devil. The Book of Revelation describes Michael as the commander of the Army of God, who, come the end of the world, will lead the other angels in the fight against evil.

The Syon CopeThe Victoria and Albert Museum

Quatrefoil design
A symmetrical form made up of four lobes, usually semi-circular, arranged like the petals of a flower. Designs of this sort became popular as a framing device in the late 13th and early 14th centuries and were used in several different media – from illuminated manuscripts to panel paintings.

Medieval embroidery was a painstaking and precise art form, performed by skilled embroiderers – both men and women – mostly based in the City of London. Here contemporary embroiderer Rosie Taylor-Davies recreates a detail from a 700-year-old fragment of English embroidery. Working entirely by hand, she demonstrates the intricate process and skill of 14th-century embroiderers, who created some of England’s most beautiful and elaborate textile art.

Cope Cope (1310/1325) by UnknownThe Victoria and Albert Museum

The Tree of Jesse Cope

The Tree of Jesse Cope was made in London some 700 years ago. It shows the Tree of Jesse, a representation of Christ’s ancestry – much like an embroidered family tree – starting at the bottom of the design with the prophet Jesse, who the Bible explains was the father of King David. Its silk twill background was probably imported from Italy, and the embroidery work carried out in England with threads of gilded silver and different colours of silk. The silk used for the background was an expensive and precious fabric, and so the design allows space to appreciate its beautiful colour and lustrousness.

CopeThe Victoria and Albert Museum

The Prophet Jesse and King David
Jesse, King David’s father, is shown asleep at the base of the design. The golden vine growing from his side refers to a prophecy in the Old Testament: “And there shall come forth a rod out of the stem of Jesse, and a branch shall grow out of his roots.“ (Isaiah 11.1). King David was the youngest of Jesse’s eight sons. Described as a courageous warrior and as a gifted poet and musician, he is often shown playing the harp.

CopeThe Victoria and Albert Museum

King Solomon
At the centre of the Tree of Jesse is Solomon, son of King David and Bathsheba, one of Christ’s most important ancestors. He is the biblical king most renowned for his wisdom and wealth. One legend tells that the Queen of Sheba, a distant land, came to visit him in Jerusalem to challenge him with riddles, all of which King Solomon was able to answer.

CopeThe Victoria and Albert Museum

The Virgin and Child
The Virgin Mary and the infant Christ appear on the most prominent position on the cope. They symbolise the fulfilled prophecy of the Tree of Jesse. Mary is wearing a crown, showing both her royal descent and her role as Queen of Heaven.

Prophet from a Tree of Jesse Prophet from a Tree of Jesse, Unknown, 1205/1245, From the collection of: The Victoria and Albert Museum
Show lessRead more

Tree of Jesse imagery was a popular visual representation of Christ's genealogy, and was common throughout medieval art. This example formed part of a French 'Jesse Tree' window of painted glass.

Orphrey, From the collection of: The Victoria and Albert Museum
Show lessRead more

Another embroidered example of Jesse Tree imagery is found in this orphrey (a decorative band). The background is embroidered in underside-couched silver-gilt thread, while the figures are embroidered with coloured silks in split stitch – two characteristic techniques of opus anglicanum. Gaps in the design are filled with beautiful vine leaves and grapes.

Credits: Story

The Victoria and Albert Museum is the world’s leading museum of art and design, housing a permanent collection of over 2.3 million objects that span over 5,000 years of human creativity.

Find out more about our collections

Admission to the V&A is free – plan a visit

Credits: All media
The story featured may in some cases have been created by an independent third party and may not always represent the views of the institutions, listed below, who have supplied the content.
Explore more
Related theme
We Wear Culture
The stories behind what we wear
View theme
Google apps