When we look at the Virgin and Child we are looking at the Mother Goddess and Son archetype as it developed over several thousands of years. I love the imagery of a mother and her child. Iconic in symbolism all around the globe, every country in antiquity had legends and images of a mother goddess with a child. Mother and child worship was the basis of ancient religions. In the various religions of the world, the same system of worship was perpetuated under different names. In Egypt , the mother and child were worshiped as Isis and Osiris or Horus, in India as Isi and Iswara, in China and Japan as the mother goddess Shing-moo with child, in Greece as Ceres or Irene and Plutus, in Rome as Fortuna and Jupiter-puer, or Venus and Aeneas, and in Scandinavia as Frigga and Balder. The mother and child were worshiped in Babylon as Ishtar and Tammuz, and in Phoenicia, as Ashtoreth and Baal. (Professor Walter J. Veith, 2009)
Thousands of years later she is still here, In the Newest Incarnation. Most images of the Virgin stress her role as Christ’s Mother, showing her standing and holding her son. The manner in which the Virgin holds Christ is very particular. Certain poses developed into “types” that became names of sanctuaries or poetic epithets. Hence, an icon of the Virgin was meant to represent her image and, at the same time, the replica of a famous icon original. For example, the Virgin Hodegetria is a popular representation of the Virgin in which she holds Christ on her left arm and gestures toward him with her right hand, showing that he is the way to salvation. The name Hodegetria comes from the Hodegon Monastery in Constantinople, in which the icon showing the Virgin in this particular stance resided from at least the twelfth century onward, acting to protect the city. A later type is that of the Virgin Eleousa, imagined having been derived from the Virgin Hodegetria. This type represents the compassionate side of the Virgin. She is shown bending to touch her cheek to the cheek of her child, who reciprocates this affection by placing his arm around her neck. (Cloisters, 2000-2001)
For the longest time, there were no examples to show that raised padded embroideries were made before the late 17th and 18th centuries, any examples were hidden away with such care that until found in a church’s treasury or the back closets of musty castles it was assumed that if they were not found, they never existed. Now, there are plenty of items to choose from, mainly because institutions are photographing and digitizing entire collections to their museum websites, more travelers are sharing their photographs to their blogs, and we have magnificent search engines to help us find what we are looking for. France has museums full of purses decorated with raised embroidery, Germany has Badges and wall hangings, Poland has Chasubles by the score with gorgeous raised figure embroideries, yet Until the advent of modern digital tourism, many of these pieces would never have been shared online. There are blogs by the score where people post pictures of their travels and give accounts of those pieces from the museums. I Love the internet.
Why oh Why do they call it Stumpwork?
Every embroidery book that I have in my library lists raised embroidery under one word. That word is “Stumpwork”.
The term “Stumpwork” may have its start in Victoria’s era, but it was first recorded in her son Edwards. (Dictionary, 2019) In the timeline of history, the English fad we call stumpwork lasted from 1650 to 1700. Fifty years is a rather long time for a fad, modernly most fads last for about half that, but stumpwork has returned with the interest of new generations. The detail that puts 17th-century stumpwork apart from earlier raised padded embroideries is the stitches used. Needle laces were used heavily in 17th-century stumpwork over the raised elements of figures, animals, and plants. Needle laces did not seem to be used in England in this manner before that time period. Those stitches were however, used on the Continent earlier in Germany, Austria, Italy and Poland, but not very often to cover raised figures. Needle laces were used to trim and adorn garments both ecclesiastical and eclectic. See Part Two: 1414 Coronation Robe.
For about two centuries before the emergence of domestic stumpwork in England, professional figurative work was being produced in Europe. Many examples of this earlier embroidery, which featured fine softly-sculpted detailing, with applied and padded fabrics and with additional laid threads, can be seen in the collections of churches, and museums from Krakow to Leipzig and Paris. (Hirst, 1993) Raised embroideries were always an integral part of the repertoire utilized in the workshops producing ecclesiastical embroideries of the middle ages, and became more prominent in the 15th and 16th centuries as it traveled north and east in Europe.
Raised figure embroideries were not just the delight of the church, military banners and insignia were also made to stand out from their background and catch the eyes. My favorites of the military banners and insignia are the Golden Dragon of the Order of the Dragon and the Quarter banner of Pope Julius given in victory to the army of Basil. Military banners showed the pride of the country or city they fought for, often embroidered with the victories on the standard.
For the most part, embroideries were made to order and took far longer to manufacture then one would expect in our modern age. If it was a large Item such as a Cope, more people had to work on it and be paid for that work. A workshop might employ different teams of men and women to have larger pieces finished faster because as we all know, many hands make short work. Large pieces could include household items; wall hangings, fireplace hangings, bed curtains, etc.
The Cult of Mary, the mother of Jesus was popular in the middle ages, so popular that many artists painted a portrait of her with her infant son in her lap. As I am not a painter, I created this raised figure embroidery in the classic iconography of the Virgin with Child based on three pieces of Marion iconography; the Portrait of the Virgin with Child in Blue by Dieric Bouts the Elder painted around 1455-1460 AD, Madonna of the Rose Bower (or Virgin in the Rose Bower) is a panel painting by the German artist Stefan Lochner, usually dated c 1440-42, and the Madonna of the Rose Arbour by Martin Schonagaur in 1473. In no way am I re-creating any of these paintings, rather I am using them to guide me in making my own iconic piece of art.
All of the embroidery stitching for this project is stitches that were used in the fourteenth, fifteenth and sixteenth centuries; Stem stitch, back stitch, knot stitches, couching stitches, whip stitch, running stitch.
Dieric Bouts has based this small, exquisite image on the ancient Byzantine formula for the affectionate Virgin (glykophilousa)—a type popular in the Netherlands. However, he has dispensed with the gold background and halo of Byzantine practice and has endowed the painting with a human tenderness and simplicity not found in icons. With his subtle and tactile modeling of the flesh, the artist heightened the illusion of living, breathing beings. Focusing on the loving relationship of a mother and her son, his portrayal emphasized human emotions and enhanced the intense inner experience of private devotion. (Metropolitan Museum of Art)
Madonna of the Rose Bower (or Virgin in the Rose Bower) is a panel painting by the German artist Stefan Lochner, usually dated c 1440-42, it is usually seen as one of his finest and most closely detailed works.
The Virgin is presented as “Queen of Heaven”, and is seated under a canopy with red curtains held apart by angels. She sits on a red cut velvet bolster, holding the Christ child in her lap. Her crown and medallion are symbols of her virginity. She wears a minutely detailed brooch, which contains a representation of a seated maiden holding a unicorn (Which the printer cannot seam to capture).
Christ holds an apple while hovering and seated angels offer gifts or play music. Five kneel in the grass before her, with instruments including a portable organ, others bear fruit.
The painting is heavily infused with symbols of innocence and purity, including the red and white roses. Mary sits before a curved stone bench, on a red velvet cushion, around which grow lilies, daisies, and strawberries, with an acanthus flower blooming to her left. Mary herself is presented on a monumental scale (as a larger central figure), underscoring her regal status. (Lochner, 1440-1442)
Martin Schongauer painted around 1473 a ‘Madonna in the Rose Garden’ for the Saint Martin church of Colmar. Martin Schongauer’s picture is a ‘Throning Madonna’ since two angels hold an enormous crown symbolically over Mary’s head. The painting is unconventional in various ways. The hair of the Madonna is flowing freely over her shoulders, which is unusual as it was a sign of sensuality that was rarely associated with Mary. Jesus and Mary are looking in different directions, whereas Mary usually only has eyes for her son. Mary is painted as a melancholic young lady. She holds her head inclined; she smiles affably, secretly and contentedly. But Jesus already tries to escape from her. We mentioned that the colours of Mary’s robe are not conventional. Martin Schongauer must have been one of the first painters to emphasize the strong pyramidal composition, which is obtained by the red cloaks of Mary. Schongauer certainly was a highly skilled colorist and he knew very well how to paint with realism the smallest detail, as seen in the various tones of the folds of the red cloak of Mary (The Art of Painting and a Visual Journey into the Bible)
In the Workshops of the middle ages, embroiderers used passing threads that were surface couched to add glints of light or whole swathes of brilliance to their embroideries. The earliest of extant examples of goldwork embroidery is the fragments of the Cuthbert maniple and stole, excavated from his grave. Embroidered in 902-906 AD it’s goldwork of surface couching made of passing threads of pure gold wrapped around a silk core stitched down to the surface with silk thread. (A Brief History of Goldwork)
The passing threads are of gilded mylar wrapped around a cotton/polyester core. It is sold at Joanne Fabric and Crafts as single strand or as cable cords. As the “real thing” can be costly and I would need several yards to create this piece, I chose to go with the mylar gilt rather than the 24carat gilt passing thread.
The woven ribbon of gold is Lurex ribbon which is also sold as “Christmas Ribbon” Also less expensive than the real cloth of gold ribbon and comes in a 3 yard spool in the craft section of many stores.
In a historical context, just as with other uses of gold, I would have seen it on display in churches, on the clothing and household furnishings of the Royalty and Nobility, Regalia, and later on in military uniform embellishment.
They started with the foundation, or background. Usually on an Orphrey, it was the elaborate goldwork that figures would be attached to. That goldwork itself would also be sewn onto a foundation. Much of the time the foundation was of linen because it would not be seen and was widely available.
My foundation is of bonded blue/green silk taffeta and cotton muslin, good and stiff, tacked to a fifteen by seventeen wood embroidery frame.
The technique for laying down the background was usually surface couching:
This simple stitch is used to place down everything embroidered on the background.
To Work Surface Couching – Lay down the thread to be couched, and with another thread catch it down with small stitches worked over the top. When laying down gold ribbon the same stitch is used to catch along the edges in neat well spaced stitches.
Looking at the background of the Stefan Lochner painting you can see that the upper half is mostly gold with a lovely rose arbor framing the upper body of the Virgin. Closer inspection shows that the figure of *God* is looking down giving the blessings of the Spirit. The texture of the gold is given lines that radiate like the rays of the sun downward to shine on the subjects.
For the upper half of my background I placed a heart, not *God* at the center of the Rays of golden ribbon. The heart is gilded snakeskin. Flanking the heart are two trees, each a contender for the Tree of Knowledge. An Apple with rosy pink silk apples and the Pomegranate with its ruby silk pomegranates. The trunks and branches of both trees are mylar wrapped passing thread, their branches arching out over the Blue silk and antique gold trim that frames the piece in imitation of the arched frame shown framing the Martin Schongauer painting. Their roots are woven into the background of gold ribbons upon which the wooden frames of the arbor are wrapped with gold threads to hold the bramble vines of the roses. I gladly followed the suggestion of a fellow embroiderer Carrie Hulsing who suggested to use of toothpicks for the wooden bower and wrapping them in gold thread.
The Roses rest on brown brambles of silk ribbon braided and bunched along the length of an inner core of more silk ribbon. Silk ribbon roses in pink and yellow fill the brambles with golden twisted knot stitches (french knots) at their centers. Generally in iconography, the roses are red and white. My roses are Pink and Yellow because they are the roses that grew in my mother’s garden. The wide golden trim cuts the background in to upper and lower halves as the garden walls and benches do.
The Lower Half
In Stefan Lockner’s Madonna in the Rose bower, the mother and child are seated on a scarlet pillow surrounded by angels. I swung on a pendulum as to whether or not to have her seated or to depict her as a standing Madonna, and I eventually went with her standing. My ground is stitched in with knot stitches in different thicknesses of cotton floss, wool yarns and craft yarns with different textures. All of the yarns and threads are shades of green so that when I use more knot stitches to show the flowers the bright colors of the strawberries, violets and clover will stand out. Though you cannot see them, I blocked out the lower half with a grid so that I would not get overwhelmed the the volume of knot stitches needed to cover it.
No, I did not bother to count the stitches per inch, sorry. I will, however bring a small clear plastic ruler so that any looking at the piece might try and count the number in a square inch space, if they are brave enough. But only if you wear gloves.
It has taken two years to get to this point, I have embroidered some, researched raise figural embroidery some. But it is slowly coming together. Stay tuned as I post part two of this article with the extant examples of Raised Figural Embroideries of the 14th, 15th and 16th Centuries.
The Mother Figure
The two figures of this raised figural embroidery are a Mother holding her child. As we cannot see the actual sex of the child it remains in that ambiguous area between boy and girl and can therefore be called simply a Child. Therefore no true religious label can be applied. In saying this I allow those that look at the embroidery to make up their own minds as to who this pair are. Earlier in this text I gave examples of the Iconography of the mother and child imagry to show that many different peoples can lay claim to them. Not just one religion raised the mother and child to a pedestal in art. My inspiration comes from christian iconography tis true, but only in the beauty of the artists skill giving me the imagry to imagine in thread instead of paint.
Of Course you can see that my figures are NOT dressed in highly ornamented gold shaded embroidery. My mother figure is wearing scraps of very expensive garments found at thrift shops and up-cycled. Her cloak is a lovely silk taffeta that changes from red to orange and trimmed with gold and white holiday yarn to simulate the fur trim in the paintings. You can see that I surged all of the edges to keep the fraying down to a minimum. Her dress is also from a satin blouse from the thrift shop. Her belt a lovely scrap of pink velvet ribbon from the satin blouse. Her long hair is braided up at both sides and a long braided tail hangs off to the side. The Nice thing about this project is that the figures are merely slip stitched to the background and can be removed for repair.
Creating the Raised Figures is done pretty much the same way they were done in the 15th and 16th centuries. The figures of saints were raised with a padding of spun wool and other textile yarns, their fingers highlighted under the delicate silk stitching with twisted wire. (Damboiu, 2013) The saints faces and hands were skillfully stitched in silks of many hues by those whose skill with thread and needle made them as highly valued as those who made pictures with brush and pigment.
The saints vestments were stitched in a spectacular fashion, usually in the renowned technique of “Or Nue” by gilded threads being couched down in colored silk threads. The saints garments were laid out on a piece of linen and the threads were couched down over the tiny garments pattern. Once finished the garment was then draped over the figure and sewn down. Sleeves would have the hands added before themselves being sewn to the figures separately. Faces were embroidered and then added to the padded form.
Upon finishing, the figure was then added to the Liturgical Vestment, in my case the figure has been added to the embroidered background.
The Child Figure!
The child was a bit difficult to create owing to it’s tiny size. The pattern for such a small figure did not exist for purchase online, I had to draft it out on scraps of paper until I got the correct size in relation to the mother. Once that was done I carefully traced the pattern pieces onto a doubled over piece of white cotton and put it into a hoop to keep down the fraying. Once sewn it was a matter only of cutting, turning and stuffing.
Once the body was turned it was a matter of stuffing it. I stuffed it with snips of white yarn using a small bamboo skewer. after closing the feet at the end of the legs I stitched them to the stuffed and closed body that I had done a bit of sculpting for shape, not that anyone was going to see it once the tiny child was dressed, but I did it anyways.
Next came the head and arms of the child. I folded the white cotton back together and traced the head for the underpinnings of the face, unfortunately I did not remember to run upstairs for the camera to get a few pictures. (Don’t worry, I did a second child for a how to, kindly go to Part three.) The head was sewn, cut out and stuffed. and sculpted in a technique similar to soft sculptured dolls. then it was sewn onto the neck of the body. The back of the head was padded with scraps of white linen and felt. The face was a circle of white cotton embroidered with eyes, eyebrows and tiny lips. two little pencil marks for the nostrils were my guide in sewing the face to the head. Once that was done, the excess was gathered to the back of the head and whip-stitched in place. I then added long satin stitches for hair in a matching dmc floss.
Now out of gate 5 we see our artist checking to see if the hands off of the hand jig were the right size. Humans feature hands that fit our face from chin to eyebrow and this tiny figure is no different. Once that check was done I attached the hands to the arms the same way I did for the mother figure. And then I attached the arms to the child. I used a basic romper style dressing for the child using the same scraps of red that had been used earlier for the mother. I was not going to reinvent the wheel.
Attaching the child to the mother was just a matter of bending arms and fingers around the Childs chest and leg. Like any child being picked up during play, this child has a ball of bright blue in their hands. Almost done.
The stars in the heavens.
You remember earlier that I mentioned my choices of fabric? well not wanting to embroider the dark blue of the vaults of the sky was part of it. the second part was the joyous sprinkling of golden sparkly spangles as the stars.
Now I am done.