Exploring Architectural Elements in Opus Anglicanum

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I decided last Spring that I wanted to do some sort of research and project around Opus Anglicanum; the fine needlework using gold and silver thread on ecclesiastical or secular clothing and other textiles in medieval England. My research has gone a couple different directions and my plans have changed. In 2020, I started cataloging images of Opus Anglicanum and shared in an Athenaeum exhibit my process using Airtable and my plans for continued research. My goal was to look for the patterns in subject, color, style, and decorative elements so I could create an original design that I could justify as historically accurate.

I still plan to continue that line of thought but I’ve learned so much more now about what work has already been done so I don’t have to recreate the wheel. (So often in this stage of my learning, my new knowledge is as much about the meta of research technique as it is about the research itself.)

My Problem and New Question

As I was poking around trying to get back into my research, I ran across a throw-away statement by Nigel Morgan in “Some Iconographic Aspects of Opus Anglicanum,”: “It is much to the shame of historians of English art in the seventy-five years since the book was published in 1938 that very little further interpretative iconographic study of opus anglicanum has been done.” (Michael 91)

I wanted to know more.

I wanted to know what work had been done and what else could be done. While I waited to maybe lay my hands on the book mentioned, I wanted to start looking into whether there was really a problem to be solved. I sought assistance from a Laurel and got the guidance that sometimes people say throw away things that aren’t necessarily accurate, I started looking at Google Scholar to see if others had actually done this work. I did in fact find that not a lot of work had been done. Through this process, I decided to focus on architectural images in pieces I had seen.

The Problem: Is there iconographic significance in the architectural elements of Opus Anglicanum?

I’m at the very beginning of this work but have gained some valuable insights already which is where this presentation is focused. First, I will discuss my initial research sources and what I learned about architectural images in Opus Anglicanum and about the iconography of architecture. With this, I will share how these sources addressed some of my questions. Finally, I will share images I came across that I want to know more about and that I think will guide my research moving forward.

Architectural Features in Opus Anglicanum

My journey to see if there is a journey led me to looking at architectural elements in framing scenes.

I encountered this in the book English Medieval Embroidery: A Brief Survey of English Embroidery Dating from the Beginning of the Tenth Century until the End of the Fourteenth by A.G.I. Christie. This 1938 book is a gold mine with a descriptive catalog of 107 pieces that existed at the time. It also includes two pull-out charts, including one that details the frequency of subjects in works and in which works they appear. The last half of the book is 159 plates with images of works.

Three styles of framing in Opus Anglicanum as described by A.G.I. Christie (8)

Framing Styles

In the introduction, Christie describes three styles of framing found in Opus Anglicanum with timelines for each. This framing is the decorative element that the iconographic images are in.

  • Late 12th century to early 13th century – Scrollwork was popular. While it continued, it became less popular as time went on.
  • Mid 13th century to early 14th century – Geometric shapes in rows. Some common shapes were circles, barbed quatrefoils, and eight-pointed stars. These also continued but became less common.
  • Late 13th century to end of the period – Architectural forms in arcades. The earliest example mentioned by Christie is a piece in the Metropolitan Museum. Christie dated it at 1290 but the Metropolitan Museum website dates it at ca 1270 at this point. (“Crucifixion Flanked by Saints | British”)
  • Late 13th century to end of the period – Mixed styles. (Christie 8)
Crucifixion Flanked by Saints, c 1270, Metropolitan Museum, New York. Image.

Analysis of Architectural Framing

One question I had when I began my research was whether the arches in these images were different with different themes. For instance, would you see a different arch in a piece about the saints than you would in a piece about the life of Christ?

Well, the answer is no. The types of arches were mostly consistent throughout. It was clear to me that they were a decorative element only. While there may be some symbolism in the type of arch (for example, trefoil elements may represent the trinity or the church), there was no pattern that assigned a particular symbolism to a particular theme.

In my processing, I cataloged the types of arches I found. Here is a table of a selection of them. When multiple arch types are referenced, they are not distinct, they are an arch style within another arch style. I have listed them from the lower to the higher. The subject references the primary type of image framed in the arches:

Opus Anglicanum Piece (Plate references location in Christie book)Types of ArchesSubject
Fragment of cope, Third quarter of 13th century, Musee historique des tisus, Lyons (Plate 38)trefoil, triangleapostles and crucifixion
Panel (pictured above), c 1270, Metropolitan Museum, New York (Plate 50)cinquefoilcrucifixion and apostles
Panel, c 1300, British Museum (Plate 85)multifoil, ogeeChrist charging the apostles, the betrayal
Panels from an Orphrey, Early 14th century, Victoria and Albert Museum (Plate 101)trefoil, ogeeSt. James, St. Andrew, St. Thomas, and St. Paul
Toledo Cope, Early 14th century, Toledo Cathedral (Plate 109)trefoil, pointed, triangleLife of Christ and the Virgin, Saints
Butler-Bowden Cope, End of first quarter of 14th century (Plate 125)cinquefoil, ogeeLife of Christ, Saints
Chasuble, End of first quarter of 14th century, Metropolitan Museum, New York (Plate 172)trefoil, cinquefoil, ogeeLife of Christ and the Virgin, Saints
Lost cope (watercolor), Second quarter of 14th century, Bebington, Original vestment formerly in Vatican Treasury (Plate 144)multifoil, ogee (highly stylized)Life of Christ and the Virgin, Book of Genesis
Comparison of Arch Types and Subjects in a Selection of Opus Anglicanum Pieces

In cataloging these, it became clear to me that there’s no clear pattern. For instance, we see any combination of trefoil, cinquefoil, ogee, pointed, and triangle just with the saints. I have come to theorize that there is no iconographic significance in the type of arch represented. I think there may be merit in exploring the architectural embellishments of the arches, but it’s probably not something I will pursue.

Iconography of Architecture

I also wondered if the study of iconography in architecture could be applied to architectural images in Opus Anglicanum.

My search led me to Richard Krautheimer and the article “Introduction to an ‘Iconography of Mediaeval Architecture’.” This article explores what was at the time a new way of looking at medieval architecture – through symbolism instead of through function, construction, and design. He makes the argument that medieval thought emphasized meaning over function and makes his argument by looking at how buildings copied others using the example of the Anastasis in Jerusalem.

Images taken from the Krautheimer article of the Anastasis in Jerusalem and churches that were intended and referred to as faithful copies of the Anastasis.

In discussing copies of the Anastasis of the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, Krautheimer states, “Evidently the mediaeval beholder expected to find in a copy only some parts of the prototype but not by any means all of them.” (13)

Comparing four churches to the Anastasis, Krautheimer highlights elements they have in common despite not matching exactly.

  1. Circles – these are not limited to what we think of as a circle. In medieval thought, circles could be octagons, decagons, dodecagons, etc. They symbolize virtue, the Church for never ending and containing the sacraments, and the reign of eternal majesty and hope of future life.
  2. Numbers – Eight (8) represents Sunday and Easter, resurrection and new life. It’s the perfect number, symbolizing Christ. Twelve (12) represents the apostles. It also represents the four regions of the world times three for the trinity.
  3. Measurements – these were copied selectively. for example to match the size of the tomb in Jerusalem.

Krautheimer pulled it all together in this statement:

“…visual elements are intended to be an echo of the original capable of reminding the faithful of the venerated site, of evoking his devotion and of giving him a share at least in the reflections of the blessings which he would have enjoyed if he had been able to visit the Holy Site in reality.”

Richard Krautheimer (16)

With this in mind, I started exploring if there were symbolic elements present that might echo elements of architecture that were prized.

Some themes were clear but they are more about general symbolism in the Middle Ages – for instance, the trefoil representing the Trinity as mentioned above. Even when I found symbolism like that, I could not match it to a particular image or theme.

I focused on the number of arches in copes. I did this because there are several copes available for study and they all have similar designs for comparison. In this analysis, I did find a potential pattern, but it was not consistent enough to be called a “rule”.

Diagram of the Toledo Cope (Christie 157)

This table details the copes I looked at and the numbers of arches:

Piece (Plate references location in Christie book)Lowest ArcadeMiddle ArcadeTop Arcade
Cope, c 1300, Basilica of St. John Lateran, Rome (Plate 102)1395
Toledo Cope (diagram above), Early 14th century, Toledo Cathedral (Plate 109)18106
Bologna Cope, Early 14th century, Museo Civico, Bologna (Plate 112)127none
Butler-Bowden Cope, End of first quarter of 14th century (Plate 125)14106
Pienza Cope, Second quarter of the 14th century, Museo Civico, Pienza (Plate 139)1395
Lost cope (watercolor), Second quarter of 14th century, Bebington, Original vestment formerly in Vatican Treasury (Plate 144)1395
Number of Arches per Arcade in a Selection of Opus Anglicanum Copes

Looking at the table, the only repetition is the 13/9/5 pattern, but it’s only in half of the copes. My theory is that it’s just what fits well in the design and has no iconographic significance.

Other Architectural Examples

One advantage to looking through all of the images in the Christie book is that I found multiple images that show elements or in scenes, as opposed to framing. They intrigue me because they aren’t frequent. The following are some examples I want to explore.

Stole, Early 13th Century

Stole, Early 13th Century (Christie, Plate 17)

This stole is part of a set of vestments that as of 1938 were part of the Sens Cathedral Treasury. They are said to have been taken in 1749 from the tomb of St. Edmund at Pontigny. At the time of Christie’s writing, these were thought to be English embroidery because of Edmund being Archbishop of Canterbury (1234-40). (Christie 63)

Christie describes the structures as castles. That’s what I’ve been calling them because of the battlements you can see. I am curious to know more about whether the structures are in fact castles or are something else. And if they are castles, do they reference a particular castle?

Cope, Third Quarter of the 13th Century

The image to the right of the beheading of John the Baptist appears on the “martyr cope” at the Uppsala Cathedral Museum. This cope has images from the martyrdom of multiple saints.

It looks to me like John is in a tower of some sort. This may be relevant purely to the storytelling, as a symbol of his prison, but it piques my curiosity whether it resembles any specific medieval towers or has other stories behind it.

“Martyr cope”, Uppsala Cathedral Museum, Image
(The Cathedral Museum, Uppsala)

Band, 1335-45

Apparels of an Alb, Victoria & Albert Museum, Image

The band above represents the Life of the Virgin with the middle image being St. Anne and St. Joachim at the Golden Gates of Jerusalem. Anne and Joachim are the parents of Mary and in the story, they have met at the Golden Gates after learning of Anne’s pregnancy. (“Joachim and Anne Meeting at the Golden Gate.”)

This piece interests me because of the resemblance of the embroidered gate to the actual Golden Gates – specifically the battlements and the round arches. It implies to me that the artist had either seen the gates or copied from someone who had.

Golden Gates of Jerusalem. Image.

Monumental Brass of William de Ermine

Monumental Brass of William de Ermine (Christie, Plate 155)

This is a memorial brass of a rector of Castle Ashby, William de Ermine, who died in 1401. Per Christie, “He is represented wearing a cope of contemporary workmanship, enriched with an embroidered morse and orphrey; the latter is decorated with a series of named saints standing within niches arranged one above the other in traditional manner.” (17)

This image captivates me on a number of levels. First, if there is a representation of a potential Opus Anglicanum piece in memorial brasses, are there others to be found?

In direct relation to this project, I noticed that the “niches” that the saints are in have different architectural structure than the others I studied. Is it a rood screen? Why is this one different and are there others that are also different?

What Next?

The main thing I learned from this initial research is I have so much to learn. I’m just catching a glimpse of what I don’t know.

An obvious direction I’d like to go is learning what I can about the individual pieces I mentioned. I’d also like to learn more about iconography in general, architectural history, and the iconography of medieval architecture.

I do see myself going back to my original project but in addition to creating my own catalog, I will now study the catalog done by Christie and any others I can find.

Finally, from the standpoint of wanting to be a high level researcher, I learned that I still have so much more to learn about technique. I can get where I want to go but it takes me longer than it should and because I come to things from a roundabout way, I sometimes lose track of where I’ve been. This project has shown me that I want to focus more on how to research and how to be a solid academic researcher.

So, what’s next? So many options. And that’s what’s fun!


  • Christie, A. G. I. English Medieval Embroidery: A Brief Survey of English Embroidery Dating from the Beginning of the Tenth Century Until the End of the Fourteenth. Clarendon Press, 1938.
  • “Joachim and Anne Meeting at the Golden Gate.” Wikipedia, 26 Apr. 2021. Wikipedia, https://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?title=Joachim_and_Anne_Meeting_at_the_Golden_Gate&oldid=1020050913.
  • Krautheimer, Richard. “Introduction to an ‘Iconography of Mediaeval Architecture.’” Journal of the Warburg and Courtauld Institutes, vol. 5, 1942, pp. 1–33
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8 Replies to “Exploring Architectural Elements in Opus Anglicanum”

  1. Great direction to delve into for Opus Anglicanum.
    re: Copes I think if you can connect with any of the Victoria and Albert museum staff for any further information and discussions it could prove most beneficial.

    1. That’s a great idea about connecting with V&A staff. I’m so intrigued if there’s any significance in the architectural design elements. My instinct tells me they are secondary and incidental to other elements, but I also don’t feel like I’ve completely ruled out enough options.

  2. This is all really interesting – I like seeing someone at the beginning(s) of their research journey and the questions asked. I’m very much the same in that I sometimes get lost and unfocused in my own research and it’s good to figure out how you want to boil things down and what, precisely, you want to focus on or what question you want to answer. I don’t know much about iconography or architecture, but your display was presented in an easy to understand way – great job!

  3. “Is there iconographic significance in the architectural elements of Opus Anglicanum?” That’s the prime statement, and you follow up with supporting examination and further questions. Excellent. We in the 21st century are accustomed to living in a far more varied world than the artists who drew the designs and produced these works. What do the design elements of these works show about how the point of view, knowledge, and milieu affected the art being produced. The works produced are sumptuous and also functional as messengers. An intriguing examination.

    1. Thank you! The idea of what people of that time would have seen in these works is really driving me. The article about the Iconography of Architecture really introduced me to the thought that their idea of symbolism and what was important is very different from our. It’s a lens I really look forward to exploring through.

  4. This is just fascinating, and I definitely want to know more. The Monumental Brass of William de Ermine also reminds me of the carved saints in niches under arches you see inside actual churches like the Salisbury Cathedral. It would be so interesting to be able to relate some of that artwork to a particular place that influenced it.

    1. I love that one too! It has so many levels that intrigue me. My husband also said they look like rood screens, so do they match anything in that cathedral or another? Does the stole still exist or can I find evidence of it? What can I find about the life of William de Ermine? Are there other ceremonial brasses with potential references to Opus Anglicanum? Inquiring minds have so many questions.

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