A Festal Altar Frontal from the Workshop of the Ursulines of Quebec

Returning to our considerations of the exquisite embroidery work of the Ursulines of New France (i.e. modern day Quebec, Canada), while we have already shown you two quite impressive frontals form this atelier, perhaps none is more impressive than this particular offering which is dated to the first quarter of the eighteenth century. 

The directory of the cultural heritage of Quebec (Répertoire du patrimoine culturel du Québec) gives us the provenance of this particular frontal:

This frontal was ordered from the Ursuline workshop of Quebec by the Jesuits, and the payment appears in the Recettes of January 1724 specifying that it would have been received "[...] in previous years for an altar ornament entirely complete set that we made for them with gold and silver embroidery [...]” (Archives of the Ursulines of Quebec, book of “Receipt & Expenditure from 1715 to 1746”).  Several Ursuline embroiderers worked in the embroidery workshop at the time of the execution of this facing, notably Anne-Marguerite Gauthier de Varenne de la Presentation (1684-1726), Angélique Poisson de Saint-Jean l'Évangéliste (1651- 1732), Marie-Madeleine Amiot de la Conception (1662-1747), Angélique Roberge de Sainte-Marie (1684-1750), Renée Dumesnil de Sainte-Gertrude (1699-1752). These nuns perpetuate the teaching of Marie Lemaire des Anges (1641-1717), who left the Ursuline monastery of Paris in 1671 for that of Quebec, and revolutionized the art of embroidery among the Ursulines of New France.

It was bequeathed by Herman Witsius Ryland (around 1759-1838), Lieutenant Governor of Lower Canada, to the Augustines of the Hôtel-Dieu in Quebec on April 14, 1800 during the distribution of the Jesuit property, following the death of the last representative of this order in Canada, Jean-Joseph Casot (1728-1800).
Comprised of silk, metallic gold and silver thread as well as red, pink, green, blue and yellow, it prominently contains a rather more rare image: that of the Child Jesus holding the Cross, all set within a raised cartouche (and for the really curious, horse hair was used as the filler to created the embossed effects on this frontal).  I suspect that this frontal was used for both the solemnities of Christmas and Easter as the symbolism could work aptly for either. 

Surrounding the Christ child are floriated designs typical to the period and one will take note that the leaf work is also embossed while the flowers themselves use the needle painting technique which this Ursuline workshop was renowned for. 

As we commented in our last feature on the liturgical work of the Ursulines of Quebec, they were producing works of liturgical art that rivalled anything being produced in Europe at the time. 

Images: Catherine Levesque 2021, © Le Monastère des Augustines

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