zondag 24 september 2017
The Maaseik Embroideries
by (Dr) Alexandra Makin (University of Manchester, England)
In 2015 I was granted permission to study the eight embroideries that were discovered sewn to two silk fabrics. Together these pieces made up a composite textile known as the casula of Sts Harlindis and Relindis, the sister saints who lived and founded an abbey church in Aldeneik, Belgium, in the early 8th century. The embroideries actually date to the late 8th to 9th centuries and were sewn onto the silks at a later point in their history. The composite textile was discovered in a reliquary on 2nd September 1867 and they are now housed in the treasury at St Catherine’s Church in Maaseik, Belgium. In the early 1980s the composite piece was the focus of an international investigation. Although the embroideries were part of that, they were not studied from a technical perspective. This is what I wanted to do.
The composite piece showing the embroideries along the two sides and middle, forming an ‘H’ shape.
These beautiful embroideries consist of two strips with roundel designs stitched in silk and gold thread; two strips, again sewn with silk and gold threads, in an arcade design; and four monograms. The embroidery on the monograms does not survive as well as that on the strips but there are traces of silk and gold threads worked on a painted blue linen ground fabric (a ground fabric is the fabric on which embroidery is stitched).
Top: one of the roundel strips, bottom left: a detail of one of the arcade strips, bottom right, one of the monograms.
In 2015 I was studying for my PhD at the University of Manchester, England. My research was titled, ‘Embroidery and its context in the British Isles and Ireland during the early medieval period (AD 450-1100)’. As part of this research I was analysing as many of the surviving embroideries known, or thought, to have been made in the early medieval British Isles and Ireland, that I could gain access to. To do this I took microscopic images of the embroideries so that I could see how they were made: how the design was transferred onto the ground fabric; what order the embroidery was worked; how the stitches, threads and materials were used and how this interacted with the design. I measured, amongst other things, the length of stitches; and looked at how the gold thread was held in place; and the angles of different stitches for comparison between areas on each embroidery, between the eight Maaseik embroideries, and between these and other surviving examples. From this evidence I wanted to tell the story of each embroidery - was it made by an amateur or professional embroiderer or group of embroiderers, was it made in a workshop, in one go or in stages, were all the materials from one batch or different sources etc. I used this data to contextualise the embroideries with other surviving pieces, documentary evidence and archaeological data. I could then use all of this evidence to situate each embroidery within the material culture of Anglo-Saxon England.
Microscopic images: first: arcade, middle: roundel, last: monogram. Zoom x410
As part of the research visit I was able to analyse the embroideries outside of their special climate controlled display case. This meant that a team of conservators from the Royal Institute for Cultural Heritage in Brussels (KIK-IRPA), led by Fanny van Cleven, had to come to Maaseik to make sure the case was opened and the embroideries were removed and handled correctly. The conservators took the opportunity to photograph the embroideries for a digital project they were undertaking at the time. Fanny also brought with her the archive documents from the earlier international project, so I was able to see and collect data from the fibre, dye and other analyses that had taken place as part of that work. Although my interest was not with the textiles as such, this information enabled me to understand in more detail the story of the fibres and dye used to create the embroideries.
The embroideries and silks in the display case.
On the morning of my visit Anja, of the Maaseik Museum’s Department, picked me up from my hotel. I was very excited about the day ahead. We drove to St Catherine’s Church and met Fanny and her team there. I was then given my first chance of seeing the embroideries in their display case in the treasury. It was an atmospheric moment, to be able to go down the steps at the side of the sanctuary, pass the statues of the sister saints and into the dimly lit room to see not only the textiles but other important religious objects housed in their cases. As the conservators unlocked the case and took out the embroideries I took the opportunity to look round the church, which is lovely and full of history. A must see for visitors.
Once the embroideries were set out I got my first proper glimpse of these beautiful pieces. I had read so much about them but could now see them properly for the first time. Published photographs did not do the embroideries justice! Once I had got over my giddy excitement, I got to work. I took photographs of each piece as a whole and then as close-ups. I then spent the rest of the day taking microscopic images using a USB microscope that enabled me to take photographs that could be saved directly on my laptop. I also took measurements of the embroideries and their component parts, and photographs of the archival material. During lunch I met another scholar who was looking at one of the bibles, also housed in the treasury. We chatted a lot about English and German Universities, research and work opportunities.
Once the day was over, and it went so quickly, Anja took me back to my hotel. Back in my room I began to study the images I had taken and organise the data I had collected. This was just as exciting as the visit itself because I was able to see clearly the different stitches, how they had been worked and the patterns they created within each motif. I could also see how the gold thread had been stitched in place and manipulated around corners to create different shapes. All this detailed information really helped me understand how the embroideries were stitched and put together which, in turn, has enabled me to write at least part of their life story, or object biography to use the technical term.
Once I got back home to Manchester I continued the analysis. I then used the data to place the Maaseik embroideries within Anglo-Saxon material culture. In the end this became an integrated part of my PhD thesis. After passing my viva I have begun to turn the thesis into a book, which I hope to get published soon. There may also be the opportunity to put some of my results on display within the new museum that has been proposed for, amongst other objects, the embroideries. The story therefore continues and I hope that in the near future many more people will learn about and be able to see these special objects.
My warmest thanks go to everyone who helped organised the visit, looked after me whilst I was there and have helped me since.