The Opus Anglicanum exhibition at the Victoria & Albert Museum opens a window on to medieval English Catholicism and the splendour of Pre-Tridentine liturgy in this country.

Opus Anglicanum is the name given to a school of rich embroidery which flourished mainly in the 13th and 14th centuries and was principally used in the adornment of ecclesiastical vestments and furnishings. Its artisans were based in the City of London in an area near St Paul’s Cathedral, but so beautiful was its craft and colour that it was exported all over Europe. Most such work that remained in England was destroyed during the Reformation. (It’s ironic that a heresy which claimed the Bible as its only source could claim that the worship of God precludes finely adorned vestments.)

Many of the exhibits are loaned from abroad, but among the oldest items are an embroidered bag which contained the great seal of Westminster Abbey and a magnificent pair of buskins (padded knee-length socks) belonging to a 13th-century Archbishop of Canterbury.

It is, however, the vestments that steal the show. They are of a beauty and intricacy which speaks of amazing skill but also of a different vision of liturgy, a much less horizontal one. That such technos and effort would be harnessed to the celebration of sacred rites tells you quite how sacred they must have thought them. Sadly, the “blurb” tends towards the usual price-of-everything-value-of-nothing socio-political approach to these liturgical phenomenon: that people only endowed them out of a desire to assert prestige. This thesis doesn’t hold good.

One of the most beautiful vestments is a black chasuble with a crimson orphrey which is embroidered in gold with images of the Resurrection, the Last Judgment and angels blowing trumpets. This was commissioned by a Cistercian abbey. It is hard to imagine the congregation rushing out after funerals fired with the conviction that anyone who was anyone just had to have such a vestment if their obsequies were to be de rigueur. By the same logic Bill and Melinda Gates are giving money to charity merely to assert their social superiority. Could it be, however, that wealthy people, like poor ones, throw money at things which in some way accord with their values? Is the music in Carnegie Hall all tuneless and suspect by virtue of being played there?

The vestments themselves drown such cavils because they are so ravishingly beautiful. The use of a technique called nué, in which shaded gold thread is couched (secured) with coloured thread of varying shades, means that some of the pieces look every bit as full of colour and beauty as when they were first made centuries ago.

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