The subject of ecclesiastical embroidery is so large, and covers so vast an area, that the term must be limited here to work done for Christian churches.
It is curious to note that, although Greek art did not entirely disappear from Europe until the eighth century, figure drawing in early Christian times was both barbarous and irrartistic, with very few exceptions, one of these being the dalmatic of Charlemagne in the Vatican treasury.
This has been often described as Gothic, of the date of Pope Boniface VIII., but it certainly shows traces of Greek and not Gothic design, and is of much earlier execution.
This marvellous vestment is full of symbolism, and its pale blue ground is so thickly powdered with crosses of various kinds as to make it a real "Stauracin." It is embroidered for the most part in gold, the draperies are in basket-work and laid stitches, the faces in white silk, flat split stitch, with finely drawn outlines in black silk. The hair, the shadowy part of the draperies and the clouds are worked in fine gold and silver thread with dark outlines. The hands, feet, and draperies have a fine bas-relief effect.
About the eighth century there was a very remarkable revival in ecclesiastical art in England. She then took a foremost position in the arts of embroidering and illuminating, which she retained until the end of the fifteenth century.
The principal style of art in vogue in Europe, after the decline of the Greek, was the Romanesque (a conglomeration of Oriental, Byzantine, and Graeco-roman with the native variations of the countries using it). There were also the Scandinavian, Runic, and Celtic styles from the North, the Lombardic from Central Italy, the Ostro-gothic from Ravenna, the Byzantine from Venice. All these prepared the way for the Arabic influence imported at the end of the eleventh century by the Crusaders, which developed into that perfect and wonderful style known to us as Gothic.
The dalmatic of Charlemagne in the Vatican treasury. This ancient vestment is one of the most marvellous pieces of needlework which has survived from early ages, and shows traces of Creek design
A leaf worked in purl. The leaf is first padded with thread or pieces of cloth cut to shape. The purl is cut in lengths to lie crossways on the leaf, neither too long nor too short. A needle threaded with waxed silk is brought up on the outside edge of the leaf, and each piece of purl is threaded like a bead upon it. By putting the needle through on the opposite side, the stitch is fastened
This style, equally with others, flowed towards Rome, as the centre of the Christian Church, and was, in the time of Michael Angelo and his fellow giants in art, reborn in the form of the Renaissance, which flourished until the time of Louis XIV., when France gave a totally different style to the world, and finally broke away entirely from mediaeval tradition.
So far as England is concerned, her ecclesiastical work came to an end at the Reformation, and nothing of historical or artistic value was done in ecclesiastical embroidery until our own time, when, fortunately, a reaction has set in, and there is every promise that in years to come needlework worthy to be placed with the best mediaeval pieces will mark the spiritual revival of our own day.
In Roman Catholic countries the art of ecclesiastical embroidery has never died out, and churches continued to be adorned with beautiful work used for altars, priests' vestments, or the dresses clothing the figures of saints, etc. This, although it accorded with the tastes of its day, being light, frivolous, and elegant in the time of Louis XVI., and pseudo-classical in the days of the Empire, and always more "social" than religious in tone, helped nevertheless, to keep up a traditional school of needlework throughout the Continent.
Symbolism is one branch of ecclesiastical embroidery which is commonly ignored, or so misunderstood that the symbols are used wrongly.
Correctly used, symbolism is able to convey religious truth to simple folk in a more easily understood form than can words, and yet at the same time stand for the highest conception of that truth which the mind of man can grasp.
Take, for example, one of the oldest and certainly the best-known of the great world-symbols - the Cross. Translated into our Christian religion, it may merely signify the sign or banner of the Divine Leader of the great army of the Church, or it may mean the cosmic cross; the tremendous truths it typifies are but dimly perceived by the holiest of God's saints.
So, too, Christian symbols are the links in the chain of man's spiritual evolution, and connect us with the so-called heathen of old time, for the early Christians took the religious symbols of their age and read into them new meanings from the faith of Christ, thus not destroying them, but raising them to a higher power.
The ancients understood, too, the use of symbolic colours in proper sequence and combination, also of fabrics and materials for the embroidery. Indeed, the subject of symbolism was considered of sufficient importance for a book to be written thereon as early as a.d. 170, and two more in the fourth century, all by canonised saints of the Christian Church.
Linen played a most important part in all embroideries. Even if work was executed on a ground of silk Or metal, it was always backed with linen to make it firm, while the greater number of the earlier embroideries, at any rate, were worked upon a flax ground, covered entirely with stitches of silk and metal, and often sewn with jewels and discs of goldsmith's work.
Split stitch resembles chain stitch, and is usually worked from top to bottom of the material. Each stitch is about 1/8 in. in length, and the needle is put into the centre of the previous stitch; hence the name "split stitch"
A leaf raised and worked in silk with edge couched with thick silk or fine cord. The leaf is padded with thread, worked over in silk with satin stitch, and the edge finished with silk or cord, sewn down at intervals
The material next in importance was silk, of which there were many varieties, all imported into Europe from the East. One of the best-known and most precious in the age of chivalry was samit, a silken material woven with a gold thread. Satin is mentioned in the fourteenth century. Other well-known names are "cendal silk," cicla-toun, or siglatoun, De Fundata (a kind of gold net), fustian, buckram, taffeta, camocea, and sarcenet.
Velvet is not mentioned till the end of the thirteenth century, and diaper seemed to be the name of patterned silks which we call brocades and damasks. Cloth of gold was frequently used, woven in various patterns, and with many different coloured silk warps, which would have the effect of a shot material.
Worsted, originally produced in the town of that name in Norfolk, was much used in England, owing to the laws passed to protect the woollen industry.
All these different materials are suited to the ecclesiastical embroidery of the present day, in addition to many others of which our ancestors had no knowledge, but great care and experience are required to choose the very best of its kind for embroidery. The threads used for embroidery are principally of silk and various metals. Among the first the most beautiful and lasting is an untwisted thread of varying thicknesses called floss silk. It is best bought on reels or bobbins, as it is very apt to get out of order, and so requires careful handling. Another silk used for couchings of various sorts is purse-twist, which is sold in skeins, and is of several thicknesses. A very fine but strong twisted silk, called "horse-tail," or Persian silk, is used for sewing down metal threads. Flax and cotton threads are used for padding.
Many kinds of metal threads are used, generally sewn down with the silk mentioned above. The following are some of those most frequently used: purl (rough, smooth, or check), pearl purl, plate, tambour, passing, and many varieties of twist; also a thread called Japanese gold, which comes from China and Japan, and is made by twisting a narrow strip of gold-burnished rice-paper round a strand of floss silk.
The needles used in modern ecclesiastical embroidery are crewel needles, sewing needles, and chenille needles. Sometimes for mounting work curved needles are required. The thimble should be perfectly smooth, as a rough surface may spoil much silk; some prefer an ivory thimble.
Scissors should be pointed, and, for the gold work, very strong so as to cut the metal. A stiletto, or steel point, and a small tray lined with cloth to hold purl and spangles are also required.
An embroidery frame is absolutely essential for the proper working of ecclesiastical embroidery. These are of many kinds, but the best such as is shown in the illustration, either with or without a stand. The linen backing should be firmly sewn in first (see illustration), and then the silk or gold stretched very firmly on to the backing and herring boned all round the edge. It is best to trace the design on to the material after it has been stretched in the frame.
The best form of frame for ecclesiastical embroidery. It can be used with or without a stand