A message in beauty from textiles

Angi Kennedy We can appreciate the beauty of the textiles that decorate our churches, but do we know what they actually stand for? As ANGI KENNEDY explains, a new exhibition is about to tell us.

Angi Kennedy

Textiles have always played an important part in the life of our churches, but over the centuries congregations and visitors have lost the deeper meaning behind many of the patterns, colours and decorations.

Now, thanks to a news exhibition that opens today, Norwich Cathedral will be helping to put that right. The magnificent Norman building will be playing host to Symbolism and Mythology in Ecclesiastical Textiles, an exhibition that will help visitors understand the hidden language of these important decorations.

The team behind the exhibition is the Norwich Cathedral Broderers' Guild, which was formed in 1997 to support the work on textiles in the cathedral as well as serve the textile needs of the diocese.

The 17 dedicated volunteers, who meet two days a week, are responsible for the design, making and repair of most of the textiles in the cathedral, as well as taking in extra work from parishes and private individuals.

Helen Jenkins has been workshop supervisor since the inception of the guild. After gaining a degree in constructed textiles at Birmingham University, Helen completed an MA in textiles at the Royal College of Art in London and then went on to teach art and textiles. Today she combines her guild work with teaching at Taverham High School.

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Helen explained: “Symbolism was a visual language developed in medieval times to enable biblical stories portrayed in stained glass, sculpture and painting to be understood by people who couldn't read.

“This exhibition brings together the best examples of ecclesiastical textiles from all over the county to help us illustrate the hidden meanings of these pieces as well as the importance and beauty they bring to our churches.

“We hope the exhibition will engage visitors on a variety of levels - the skill and craftsmanship that has been used to make the pieces, the aesthetics of them as works of art give an insight into this medieval language which will help visitors to read churches and cathedrals so much better as well as an introduction to the guild.”

Helen hopes that the exhibition may encourage more volunteers to join the guild. Skills and experience vary widely but good eyesight (with or without glasses) is important, as is dexterity. Volunteers are expected to commit themselves to working a half day or full day each week.

Even for those visitors with no skills in creating such beautiful pieces of work, the exhibition holds plenty of interest. The main pieces on display are the altar cloths - in particular the 'frontals' which cover the front of the altar - and vestments, which are the items of clothing worn by the clergy and lay members of the church.

The type of frontal depends on the size and position of the altar, the physical and visual space around the altar and whether the priest conducts the service with his back to the congregation or facing them. Frontal colours follow the church seasons so, for example, gold or white for Trinity, green for the Sundays following Trinity, red for Pentecost, some saints' days, Kingship Sundays and Good Friday and white and/or gold for Christmas, Easter and Ascension.

As well as the different colours used for liturgical seasons, symbols are also used to emphasise the messages being put across. So, for example, Lent would feature symbols of the Passion - crown of thorns, sponge, spear, vinegar, nails, five wounds or a ladder - while textiles at Pentecost feature flames or tongues of fire, representing the Holy Spirit.

“The cathedral's frontal collection is predominantly modern with a few earlier 20th century pieces,” explained Helen. “Particular treasures include a red framed frontal dating from circa 1750 and a red unframed 17th century frontal.

“The Broderers' Guild has made three frontals which I designed - the Lent Array in the nave, which dates back to 1998; the nave green frontal from 2002, and the Bauchon Chapel frontal given by the Friends of Norwich Cathedral in 2005, which has 15 roses in various states of bloom representing the 15 mysteries of the apostle.”

Vestment treasures include bishop's and dean's copes (the semi-circular cape worn over the black cassock and surplice for festival services, weddings and funerals) and the vice-dean's 16th century cloth-of-gold cope and the mitres. Also on display are the broderers' vestments, again designed by Helen, which include copes and gowns along with sets for high mass. She added: “Textiles don't necessarily get the attention afforded to ecclesiastical art, architecture or stained glass yet each piece tells a story - if we only know how to read it.”

The exhibition starts today, July 25, and runs to August 2, from 10am to 4pm on weekdays and 12 to 3pm on Sundays. Cathedral trail sheets will also be available highlighting examples of symbolism and mythology.