Embroidered Antependia – A Further Approach (by Davis d'Ambly)

Shawn Tribe’s recent posts on the usefulness of altar frontals, or antependia, brought to mind the teaching aspects of liturgical colours and perhaps we can take it one step further: the richness of symbolism used on such frontals – in these cases, the embroidery.

Here are several examples from one (Episcopal/Anglican) church – Saint Mark’s Church, Locust Street, Philadelphia – produced during the first decade of the twentieth century by three different “schools” of embroidery. Each example was created for use in the new Lady Chapel added to the church by Rodman Wanamaker as a place for the tomb of his recently departed wife, Fernanda Henry Wanamaker.

Overwhelmed with grief at the sudden death of his wife, he commissioned the elaborate furnishings of the chapel in 1900. The first four examples were all designed by the noted church designer Charles Eamer Kempe and were produced by the Community of St John the Baptist (Anglican) in 1902-1904. The sisters kept careful notes of their projects, listing the number of yards of silk and skeins of embroidery threads for each piece they made -- including the number of hours of labour. The sisters produced embroidery as a way of supporting their mission of rescuing “fallen women” and they continued working for Kempe & Co from 1878-1920.

For a chapel dedicated to the BVM, the white frontal has fleurs de lys in profusion as well as crowned monogrammes of Our Lady. The red frontal has a superb standing figure of the Madonna and Child surrounded by demi-angels in adoration, scattered among them are numerous stars alluding to Mary’s Hebrew name – Miriam. The black frontal used for requiems and All Souls’ Day, even today, 113 years later, does not make reference to the BVM, but has inscriptions referring to the faithful departed. The last in this group is the curious “Passiontide” blue frontal – again here the references are to Passiontide, not the BVM – small shields with implements of the Passion are shown and a verse from a Passiontide hymn is on the superfrontal. Two hanging decorative panels, called apparels, overlay the antependium itself – an unusual treatment. The use of blue for Passiontide was unusual even in Anglican circles, but was probably a response to what is known humourously as the “British Museum School” of liturgical colours. The frontal has nonetheless a subtle beauty.

Another workshop utilized by Wanamaker was the Maison Henry of Lyon (Mrs. Wanamaker’s family owned this company). Little is known of the embroidery produced by (for?) Maison Henry, but their silk and cloth-of-gold fabrics and vestments are well known and in wide use and many examples are known today. We do not have a precise date but it was included in the inventory of 1906 so it must predate that year. It consists of cloth-of-silver with a cartouche in the centre depicting the Madonna and Child enthroned surrounded by cherubs; the cartouche itself surrounded by embroidered roses and lilies in bullion embroidery. Perhaps the most striking design element is the use of what were called blistre pearls that nearly cover the surface.

Our final example is perhaps the loveliest of all. This green frontal is so heavily embroidered that it is rather hard to identify the liturgical colour. The design is by the noted architect and designer Sir J. Ninian Comper and was produced by the workrooms of the Sisters of Bethany (Anglican) in 1904. These sisters also relied on the embroidery they produced to support their work and Comper, “a devoted young artist,” was to design for them from 1886 to circa 1950. The scene, and it is an almost theatrical scene, is of Our Lady holding the Divine Child under an arbor of “lily” vines above which are doves in flight. Behind the BVM, four angels hold a cloth-of-honour powdered with fleurs de lys while four attending angels play musical instruments. The Holy Child reaches playfully for a peach offered by one of the angels and scattered across the whole scene are rose blossoms. Comper was to re-use this design as a painted retablo in 1907 for a church in Kent, England, and is considered to be one of his finest works.

These are just a few examples of the art of embroidery at the service of liturgical design – beauty at the service of the Church.

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