Ecclesiastical vestments in the V&A collections

The Victoria and Albert Museum holds an exceptional collection of ecclesiastical vestments dating from the early Middle Ages to the late 19th or even 20th centuries. In Interwoven I study those with a Spanish provenance; also I have worked with other researchers, Francisco García García and Jitske Jasperse, on different aspects of these vestments. Because of this collaboration, the next two blog entries are written by them and explore some aspects of ecclesiastical vestments such as the connections between the textiles and Gregorian reform in the late 11th and early 12th centuries and the links between textiles from a Spanish Royal Treasury and the V&A collections.

Fig. 1: Dalmatic, brocaded silk velvet, with embroidered apparels. Italian (velvet) and Spain (embroideries), about 1520 (T.372-1976)

First, let´s talk about the liturgical textiles in the V&A collection. The collection includes all those pieces worn by priests during the celebration of Mass, such as chasubles, dalmatics (fig. 1), copes and other accessories, such as stoles, maniples, and hoods. It also preserves textiles that furnished and decorated the Church, from altar frontals to book covers, hangings, chalice veils, etc. These types of vestments and textiles were known from the early Middle Ages onwards by the Latin words of vestimenta (vestments) and adormenta (textiles to furnish the Church). Sometimes vestments in museum collections have been recut or updated. The Clare Chasuble (673-1864) is a good example of reshaping (fig. 2). This vestment has been drastically cut down from its original voluminous shape to suit changing fashions in church ritual.

Fig. 2: The Clare Chasuble (back), English embroidery or Opus Anglicanum, 1272-1294. The chasuble was cut down from a bigger garment and re-shaped at a later date

On other occasions, the embroidered decoration on vestments (orphreys and apparels) has been replaced or removed from them (fig. 3). Finally, these pieces were sometimes modified when they came on the art market. All these different circumstances surrounding alterations to the textiles speak of heavy use, as well as of the importance and value these vestments and textiles hold in the History of Art and history of textiles.

Fig. 3: Orphrey from a cope embroidered with saints and martyrs, possibly Spain, mid-16th century (V&A 669-1896)

Ecclesiastical vestments were made in sets: a chasuble that the priest wears during Mass may be  complemented by a matching dalmatic. The dalmatic is as an outer vestment worn, especially,  by the deacons, the priest assistants. Finally, a cope is worn by the priest. Smaller vestments include the stole that is worn around the neck on top of the chasuble or dalmatic  and the maniple which is worn over the left arm.  Mitres and gloves are wore by the highest ranking priests, such as popes, archbishops, bishops, and abbots.

During the study of some of the ecclesiastical vestments, Francisco de Asís García García, V&A visiting scholar through the Erasmus + Fellow scheme, and I were able to trace the provenance of some of the vestments or connect them with other pieces from the same set now in other museums. This detective work involved surveying late 19th and early 20th-century publications and photographic archives in Spain (Fig. 4). For instance, the V&A has a remarkable embroidered altar frontal in silk velvet with gilt metal threads (fig. 5) and a dalmatic from the Monastery of Casbas in Huesca (near the Pyrenees in Aragon). This piece was acquired in 1976, though in past publications it was believed to have been lost. The V&A has one of a pair of dalmatics whose counterpart is at the Royal Museums of Brussels (see the previous blog entry).

Fig 4: Photo of an altar frontal from Casbas monastery (Huesca, Spain), around 1920 (CSIC, Instituto de Historia, Archivo Gómez-Moreno, CGD97 F13-14)

Fig. 5: Altar frontal, silk brocaded velvet, with embroidered apparels. Italian (velvet) and Spain (embroideries), c. 1520 (T.371-1976)

The V&A also has imposing examples of textile church furnishings, in term of both the range of typologies and their different uses. For example, the Spanish carpet that was possibly used during Holy Week or funerals (V&A 250-1906 and displayed at the Medieval and Renaissance galleries), or altar frontals from early medieval Catalonia (see next blog entry) and another one possibly from the embroidery workshop of the Covarrubias family (King, 2004, pp. 163-165) at Toledo (V&A T.141-1969).

One of the questions that I would like to explore is the reasons behind the V&A’s interest in these pieces, which are mostly from the Catholic Church. Many of them, especially the embroidered bands or orphreys and apparels, offer a rich decoration typical of the Gothic and Renaissance periods (fig. 2). Some are expressions of the English art known as Opus Anglicanum (fig. 1) and others were woven on historical looms, such as the tablet woven stoles (fig. 6). These pieces offer a unique insight into raw materials (from silk to metal threads), textile and embroidery techniques and rich and varied decoration. As such, these textiles fitted perfectly the aims of this Museum established from its foundation.

Fig. 6: Tablet woven stole or maniple, silk and gilt metal threads, tablet woven. Germany, 1250-1300 (V&A 8588-1863).

Fig. 6: Detail of the tablet woven (V&A 8588-1863), with the gilt metal thread wefts.

Fig. 6: Detail of the tablet woven (V&A 8588-1863), with the characteristic re-twisted of warps threads, in green and blue silk.

This early collecting was strongly connected to the interest in the Middle Ages that flourished in the 19th century. The study of early textiles influenced some textiles designed by A. Pugin ( /) (fig. 9 E.1162-2012 and T.303-1989) and William Morris ( The latter wrote several reports for the V&A on the importance of acquiring early example of textiles from the Medieval period, including ecclesiastical vestments (W. Morris, June 14, 1893, about this acquisition see:

“They are all of high excellence as works of art; the designs being very inventive, and of great beauty and thoroughly adapted to the material in which they are executed”


Browne, C., Davies, G. and Michael, A.C., 2016: English Medieval Embroidery. Opus Anglicanum, 2016, New Haven and London.

Errera, I., 1907: Catalogue d’étoffes anciennes et modernes décrites par madame Isabelle Errera, Brussels.

King, D., 2004: “Medieval and Renaissance Embroidery from Spain” in Collected textile studies. Donald King, edition by A. Muthesius and M. King, London , pp. 157-178.

Macalister, R. A. S., 1986: Ecclesiastical Vestments: Their Development and History, London.

Monnas, L., 2012: Renaissance Velvets, London: V&A Publising.

Spies, N., 2000: Ecclesiastical Pomp & Aristocratic Circumstance: A Thousand Years of Brocaded Tabletwoven Bands, Jarrettsville, 2000.

Acknowledgments: Dr Francisco de Asís García García, V&A Visiting Scholar under the Erasmus + programme.

Dr Jitske Jasperse, Humboldt University (Berlin).