The noblest and most perfect examples of ecclesiastical needlework produced in olden times reveal the decorative value of gold and silver threads. In some instances the work is executed entirely in threads of precious metal, but mostly such threads are employed in conjunction with coloured silks. The earliest preserved specimens of Anglo-Saxon needlework of this kind are to be found in the library of Durham Cathedral. They consist of a stole and maniple which were taken from the tomb of St. Cuthbert in 1826-7. The embroidery is in blue, green, red, and purple silks, with gold threads on a linen ground. They bear inscriptions which dispel all doubt as to the date of the work, and definitely state that the order was given for Bishop Fridestan by Queen Aelfflaeda. Another and more important piece of embroidery is the dalmatic of Charlemagne, which is considered to come first and rank highest among ecclesiastical needlework - said to belong to the eighth century - and is wrought mostly in gold. Fragments of gold thread embroidery of historical interest were found in the coffin of William de Blois (1218-36), and some very elaborately executed gold work from a vestment - believed to have been worn by Bishop Walter de Cantelupe (1236-66) - belonging to the Dean and Chapter of Worcester, give further proof of the splendours and extravagance in ancient gold thread needlework, and of the skill bestowed upon this phase of the craft. There is no question of the ornamental value of gold and silver in ecclesiastical and heraldic work. The dalmatic, or vestment, can be ornamented entirely in gold on purple, scarlet, blue, and the richest coloured fabrics, without the slightest fear of gaudiness or vulgarity. As a medium for bringing strong contrasting colours into harmony, gold cannot be beaten. For domestic decoration it must be used with the greatest reticence.
The designer for church and heraldic work is called upon to treat his figures, animals, and symbolic ornament with severity. The objects must read clearly at once in a firm and graphic manner; frequently a rich, bold outline in necessary. To the practical artist in the different branches of ecclesiastical decoration, an acquaintance with Christian symbolism is all important.
In the most expressive periods of heraldic art gold thread was largely utilised in needlework. Without these precious fibres heraldic embroidery would lose much of its stately beauty, and fail in conveying its meaning so forcibly. Heraldic signs are often the only clue to authorship ; they may furnish the lost link in a broken pedigree, or unravel an entangled point in family history. The heraldic patterning on the orphrey of the Syon Cope (Plate No. 21) - independent of its ornamental beauty - throws some light upon the early history of this remarkable vestment.
We read that "Cromwell produced in the House of Lords, by way of evidence against the aged Countess of Salisbury, a vestment (probably a chasuble) of white silk that had been found in her wardrobe, embroidered in front with the arms of England, surrounded with a wreath of pansies and marigolds, and on the back the representation of the Host with five wounds of our Lord, and the name of Jesus written in the midst. The peers permitted the unprincipled minister to persuade them that it was a treasonable ensign; and as the countess had corresponded with her absent son (Cardinal Pole), she was for no other crime attainted for high treason, and condemned to death without the privilege of being heard in her own defence.*
The old heraldic designer emphasised the striking features of the objects he represented; nothing is left vague or indefinite. The bold characteristics of the creatures he pictured have become signs of great historical importance.
The modern embroideress approaches the subject of heraldry with doubt and misgivings, and unless she has acquired some knowledge of the work, there is very good reason for her moving cautiously. It is well to secure the services of a student in the art, if there is the slightest fear, for great care must be exercised in the using of these signs which convey so much meaning.
* Miss A. Strickland's "Queens of England," iii. p. 68.
The imaginative symbols of spiritual ideas, and the qualities assigned to some of them, are explained in the chapter commencing on page 36.