In this post, we’ll take a brief but illuminating journey from the monochromatic embroidery of late Tudor England to Italy and the exquisite and vibrant embroidery of an earlier time. Or nué has always eluded my ability as an embroiderer but that just means I more deeply admire the skill and patience that it requires to produce an artwork as remarkable as the embroidered roundel or tondo in the collection of the Cleveland Museum of Art that is The Coronation of the Virgin (1953.129).
I didn’t get a good overall image so the one above is from the CMA’s online collection. The Cleveland Museum of Art’s mission is “to create transformative experiences through art, for the benefit of all the people, forever” and has provided open access to all images of works in their collection. That includes no restrictions on the use of the high-resolution images on the website. My images are not that great (through glass with a phone) so if you want to see more very detailed images that you can zoom in on, go to https://www.clevelandart.org/art/1953.129#.
The diameter of the embroidery is just less than 58 centimeters or 23 inches across. To provide a visual reference, the image below shows a ruler marked in 64s of an inch. The ruler was placed on the glass so it is not perfectly accurate but each stitch in Mary’s face is about 3/64 of an inch in length.
The embroidery is dated to the mid 15th century. It is reputed to have been embroidered by Margherita del Caccia, an elusive nun from the Vallombrosian convent near Florence. Unfortunately, there is no definitive documentation that would support this tradition and several other names have also been linked to the work including Paolo Schiavo, an Italian artist who has been named as the possible designer. Quoting from an article written by Maria Sframeli, in Arte Christiana, 770, vol. LXXXIII: storia singolare, in cui si intrecciano fervore religioso e interesse artistico, richerche documentarie e forzature interpretative. According to Google, this translates as a: singular story, in which religious fervor and artistic interest, documentary research and interpretative strains intertwine. In other words, like so many other historic embroideries, it has a very complicated history. However, the embroidery has survived intact for us to admire and learn!
The central motif features the figures of the Virgin Mary and Jesus in robes that are far more vibrant and luminescent in real life than they appear to be in this image. Above and behind them, two angels hold aloft a figured velvet canopy of red and gold. In attendance are Santa Verdiana on the left and San Giovanni Gualberto on the right. Arranged on the floor around them are six angels playing a variety of musical instruments. All the individual figures are worked separately and added to the previously worked ground.
I have not had the good fortune to study many examples of or nué and those I have are of a later period and are not in as excellent condition. There is a little loss of silk on the womens’ head coverings and all the pearls have been removed. The silk is lustrous and the colour has not faded and the gold retains its original brilliance. I was captivated by the detail in every aspect of the embroidery. I was interested to note that, for the most part, the or nué technique is used for patterned textiles and plain textiles are rendered in split stitch, however there are exceptions.
The motifs appearing on the textiles that are worked in more traditional or nué are simply areas left void of silk stitches as on Jesus’ outer cloak, Mary’s gown, and those of the trumpeter, violinist and drummer. The areas on the larger pattern on the curtain have been couched with gold coloured silk to keep the long lengths of filé in place. Other garments worked in or nué include San Giovanni’s in traditional horizontal rows of filé for both his cloak and gown, as well as Santa Veridiana’s gown.
The clarinet player’s gown is worked in rows of heavily couched pairs of vertical filé which shift with the draping and follow the line of the arm bending with the elbow. The harpist’s gown is worked this way as well but it incorporates void areas to convey the pattern. For those who have studied or nué, does this then mean it should be termed Italian shading?
The halos are also worked in a curve around the head incorporating small triangular shapes of parchment (to denote rays) under the filé to help define the shape. Note that the filé between the rays is shaded darker towards the head. Mary’s halo has small floral shapes instead of rays and two of the angels have little circles instead of triangles, Jesus’ is more ornate.
The split stitch is used to convey a plain textile with the stitches following the flow of the drapery. There is no gold under the silk so these areas wouldn’t produce the overall twinkle of the or nué. Rather, filé is used on the surface of the split stitch to add a pattern as on Jesus’ gown and Santa Veridiana’s cloak. These areas are worked over parchment petal shapes around the centres of the flowers until the petals separate and then are worked back and forth to the tip of the petal. It would be logical to think that there may have been pearls or gems in the now empty centres of the flowers.
There are dozens more inventive ways to work with silk and filé on this spectacular work. I encourage you to go to the CMA website to search for them on the super detailed images. For a start, see how many different treatments you can identify on the angels’ wings…