Wednesday, 17 June 2009

The Golden Fleece

Amongst the treasures preserved at the Kunsthistorisches Museum in Vienna are vestments and paraments of the Order of the Golden Fleece. Amongst them is this chasuble, made in the 1st half of the 15th century.

This vestment shews the type of modifications which were made to the form of the chasuble in order for it to support lavish decoration. Gone are the steeply-sloping shoulders of the conical and semi-conical forms, modified to allow this vestment to sit on the wearer without much drapery. Even so, the opening for the head is identical with that of the more ancient form of the chasuble, typically made without shoulder seams.

Measuring approximately 125cm in width and 140cm in length, the chasuble would have extended beyond the elbows and almost to the ankles on a man of 5'8" height (173cm). Interestingly, this coincides with the specifications for the dimensions of the chasuble set down by Saint Charles Borromeo in the 16th century.

The website of the
Kunsthistorisches (from which the photograph is reproduced) gives this description of the embroidery work:

The chasuble of these liturgical vestments displays what appear to be three different layers, superimposed on top of each other and overlapping, but in fact this is all a single layer of precisely planned embroidery work. The basis is formed by a geometrical honeycomb structure with chapel-like compartments enclosing figures of angels, a device also found in the other garments of these vestments. The so-called chasuble cross appears to be superimposed on top of this, creating the impression of woven brocade. On top of these two planes is a third layer, consisting of appliquéd figures: on the front of the chasuble the Baptism of Christ is depicted, while the back shows the Transfiguration of Christ. The process of interconnecting these three planes, with their different illusory effects, is a remarkable achievement on the part of the embroiderers: they understood how to resolve the conflict between the chasuble's function as a liturgical garment and its role as a vehicle for a pictorial scheme. The masterful exploitation of all the possibilities afforded by the art of embroidery is particularly evident in the execution of the Transfiguration of Christ. In contrast to the needle painting used in the other vestments for depicting flesh tones, or nué embroidery is employed here for Christ's face, illuminating it in red and gold hues and perfectly expressing in visual terms the appearance of light described in the Bible ("[...] and his face did shine as the sun").

Thanks to The Lion and the Cardinal for the post on these vestments.