Embroidery in silk, gold and silver thread was one of the most highly valued and prestigious arts of the Middle Ages. And yet, today, these works are not at all well known. From 24 October 2019 to 20 January 2020, the Musée de Cluny, the National Museum of the Middle Ages, shines a light on the range of work produced in Europe in its "Embroidery in the Middle Ages" exhibition.
Embroidery is a luxury art using valuable materials, making it symbolic of a certain social status and a commodity used in trade and commerce. Clothing, caparisons, purses and altar frontals were adorned with coats of arms and religious and secular scenes by talented craftspeople whose expertise developed in accordance with the period and region in which they worked. In the Church and in the homes of rich and powerful families, embroidery adorned walls, furniture and clothing, in secular and holy designs of gold, silver and silk.
The exhibition takes you through the main embroidery production centres and areas, transporting you from the Germanic regions to Italy via the Meuse region, Flanders and the Low Countries, England and France. It also provides an overview of the role medieval embroidery played from an artistic and social point of view, covering techniques, manufacturing processes and the relationships between sponsors, embroiderers, painters and merchants.
The Musée de Cluny has one of the finest collections of 12th- to 16th-century embroidery, including the famous leopards tapestry, a royal caparison that was later made into a chasuble. These works, which have recently been restored, now have new lighting thanks to loans from major institutions such as the Victoria and Albert Museum in London and the Royal Museums of Art and History in Brussels. Four "Lives of saints" scenes, which are among the finest examples to come out of Florence, are beautifully displayed together. The Cluny's embroidered panel depicting "The miraculous healing at the tomb of Saint Martin" interrelates with one from the same collection at the Museum of Textiles in Lyon, produced by two artists working for King René of Anjou: the painter Barthélémy d’Eyck and the embroiderer Pierre du Billant.
The musée de Cluny – National Museum of the Middle Ages, continues its series of exhibitions around the iconic tapestry, following from a first part devoted to the unicorn, and a second, to the five senses.
From September 18, 2019, to January 6, 2020, the exhibition, “Mysterious Coffers. Woodcuts at the time of the Lady and the Unicorn” will take visitors on the footsteps of Jean d’Ypres, the painter behind preliminary drawings for the famous tapestry, inspiring prints for numerous woodcuts, some of which decorate intriguing coffers.
Jean d’Ypres was a major artist from the late 15th century. The woodcuts, tapestries, and stained-glass windows that were produced from his drawings are amongst the masterpieces of the last few decades of the Middle Ages.
The woodcut prints inspired by his compositions – such as the one of Saint Sebastian that is affixed inside a coffer acquired by the musée de Cluny in 2007 – reveal meticulous style and details and combine the realism of Flemish painters with Parisian art. Jean d’Ypres also drew stained-glass models for the town house chapel of the abbots of Cluny, which now houses the museum. A rare remnant of the ambitious glass series, Christ Carrying the Cross, is presented in the exhibition, not far from the Lady and the Unicorn tapestries.
Jean d’Ypres' style spread until the first quarter of the 16th century, thanks in particular to woodcutting, a technique which could produce many copies of an image from a single matrix. The prints could be printed alone, in sheets, or serve as illustrations inside printed books.
Many of the woodcuts printed from Jean d’Ypres' work was found pasted into boxes, known as print boxes (“coffrets à estampe” in French), sometimes called “messenger boxes” in English. These small chests are made of beech, a wood which is both light and solid, covered with leather, and laced with strips of iron. All feature a secret locking mechanism, and some integrated a secret compartment within their lid, which would have been undetectable to non-discerning eyes, and no doubt held very small valuables.
The images were hand-colored with stencils and sometimes form thematic series, such as the partially preserved one depicting the miracle of Notre-Dame-de-Lorette, or the more ambitious series illustrating the Passion of Christ. They are unfortunately extremely fragile in single sheets; the few sheets which have survived the passage of time are the ones which were pasted inside the coffers, which protected them from the ravages of time. Their religious content, together with whatever was hidden within the secret compartment, constitute a mysterious ensemble, which must have played a part in early 16th century Parisian and French devotional life.
Fewer than 140 “coffrets à estampe” have been identified in the world. The exhibition, “Mysterious Coffers. Woodcuts at the time of the Lady and the Unicorn,” will be presenting close to a quarter of them for the first time.
Thanks to numerous loans and to the exceptional participation of the Bibliothèque nationale de France, the exhibition brings together a hundred items, namely prints, coffers, printed books, stained-glass, and drawings evoking the style of Jean d’Ypres, and suggests lines of inquiry regarding the possible uses of a pairing that combines a small furnishing with a printed image.
The exhibition is curated by Michel Huynh (general curator, musée de Cluny), Séverine Lepape (curator in charge of the Edmond de Rothschild collection, Louvre Museum), and Caroline Vrand (curator in charge of 15th and 16th century prints, Bibliothèque nationale de France).
You can download here the press kit.