There are picturesque little villages dotted all through the Cotswolds. Each one has a beautiful late medieval church and many of them have embroidered treasures. St. Michael’s Buckland is in one of the most beautiful settings but I’m always so focused on the embroidery I forget to take pictures of the outside of the church!
Preserved under glass and behind a curtain to prevent further light damage, is this remarkable patchwork of late 15th century English ecclesiastical embroidery. The Buckland Pall is a combination of fragments from several individual vestments. It consists of a large blue velvet panel bordered top and bottom with narrower strips of velvet in two shades of red and one of gold. Although I didn’t get very many good photos, I thought you still may be interested to know about it just in case you were in the vicinity and wanted to see the unusual selection of motifs in person.
The large blue rectangle consists of a large panel with two smaller pieces combined to fill a triangular shape in the lower right corner. The large piece of blue velvet is itself fashioned from three lengths sewn together vertically along the selvedges which was common practice to create a ground large enough to become a cope, a semi-circular cloak worn by an officer of the church. Embroidered motifs are “powdered” across the surface.
The motifs are all alike, a stylized flower, one of may variations of flowers that commonly appear on vestments of this period. They are made individually on a linen ground and applied to the surface of the cope. The embroidery on these motifs is well executed differing only slightly from flower to flower. Embroidery techniques include padded pattern couched file, shaded silk adding colour and outlined with couched filé twist. Additional decoration is stitched directly on the blue velvet ground with what could be identified as sprigs of couched filé coming from four segments at the top of the flower and further garnished with gold spangles. The angles at which they are placed support the theory that the original use was a cope. They would have fanned out from the centre point of the straight edge so that when worn, the flowers would be in a vertical position around the wearer, falling from the shoulders to the floor.
The upper band of red velvet is embroidered with an assortment of applied motifs including stylized flowers in a more elaborate design, saints, an angel, two architectural fragments and a series of letters. The flowers have two pairs of leaves and the top portion has three segments, each one edged with a fleur-de-lys. The main part of the flower is worked in couched file and it is more circular resembling a split pomegranate with raised seeds above and below the opening which is stitched with green silk.
The lower panel features three figures, and several flowers. The left side is a fragment of figured gold velvet and the right side is red velvet. The two flowers on the lower panel are similar to the ones on the top panel but they are a little more damaged. The variety in the design of these flowers has been investigated in an article by Frank and Peter Rhodes published in Textile History in 2020 however the individual approach taken by the embroiderers to execute each design was not explored. Individually, these “conventional” flowers can be quite unique. The variety of flowers raises several questions: who selected the type of flower; was it from a selection of sample designs, or did the embroiderer(s) specialize in a single flower design; was the choice of threads stitches and colour left to the embroiderer or was it dictated by the commissioner or the designer; was the designer the embroiderer? No answers, but these are things to think about as we explore further.
In between the flowers are three figures, Mary, John and a crucifix but it is difficult to know where they were originally placed. The figure of Mary has likely been re applied as there is a very distinct stitch line on the ground velvet outside of her halo that was clearly from a larger figure. It is possible that others are not in their original locations, but I didn’t take nearly enough photographs to do an in-depth study, and it would be very worthwhile to go back and take detailed notes and images. It may be that none of the motifs in the upper and lower panels are in their original positions and even whether they are on the original ground.
Determining the lifecycle of a vestment can potentially reveal trends in religion and material culture. For now, I just marvel at the variety of motifs that appear on surviving embroideries. I have seen many embroidered crucifixes and they all have similarities but each is unique and, although the Christ figure on the Buckland Pall is very damaged, it is one of the most appealing. The archangel Michael wrestling with the devil may be a unique survivor, as well as the two architectural motifs on the top panel. When I look at these ancient and well loved embroideries, I find myself thinking about how splendid they looked at the moment they were finished and wondering how the embroiderers felt in the completion of their work and if they had any idea that we would be looking at them with respect and admiration over 500 years later.