ODILIA MADE ME: A Whodunit in the Victoria and Albert Museum
Author: Jitske Jasperse, Humboldt-University (Berlin)
I became interested in medieval tablet woven fabrics (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Tablet_weaving) after having encountered a silk stole (a vestment worn around the neck by deacons and priests during Mass) and maniple (a vestment worn over the left arm) decorated with red, blue and silver castles in the Museum of San Isidoro in León (Spain) (figs. 1 and 2).
Their inscriptions reveal that they were ‘made’ by one of the daughters of King Henry II of England and Eleanor of Aquitaine: Leonor, who was sent to Castile in 1170 to marry King Alfonso VIII of Castile. Clearly, these were highly prized items because of the materials used (silk and silver thread) and the labour invested in them (together the stole and maniple measure over 3 metres in length). Ana Cabrera Lafuente, suggested that it would be a good idea to compare the Spanish textiles with the impressive collection of tablet weaves stored at the V&A’s Clothworkers’ Centre for the Study and Conservation of Textiles and Fashion (https://www.vam.ac.uk/info/the-clothworkers-centre-for-the-study-and-conservation-of-textiles-and-fashion).
Ana and I planned several days of photographing and describing medieval textiles woven on tablets or cards (rather than on looms) that are used to create the shed through which the weft is passed. We encountered fragments of silk and gilded silver tablet weaves (1256-1864, http://collections.vam.ac.uk/item/O358027/orphrey/) as well as complete high-quality pieces, such as a stole (8588-1863, http://collections.vam.ac.uk/item/O166709/stole-unknown/). Browsing through the drawers where these textiles are stored, Ana’s eye was caught by a wide band that seemed to be decorated with narrative scenes rather than with the animals, scrolls, and geometrical motifs we had studied thus far. Without knowing, we had saved the best, for last!
The tablet woven textile is 18 cm wide and 125 long (V&A1250-1864, https://collections.vam.ac.uk/item/O354086/orphrey/, and fig. 3). On unfolding the fabric, we also unravelled the Life of Christ, although not all scenes are easily identified as time and wear have left their mark. And then a hidden gem appeared: the almost invisible text on the right border, close to the Annunciation: “ODILIA ME FECIT,” meaning “Odilia made me” (figs. 4 and 5).
Here we had another example of a woman who, like Queen Leonor of Castile, had been involved in the making of this textile. In the Middle Ages “me fecit” (made me), did not necessarily refer to the artist. Odilia, could have commissioned the textile or may have woven it herself and then given it to a clergyman as a gift. Whatever her exact role was, it is clear that without Odilia as its ‘maker’ this textile wouldn’t have existed. The presence of her name in the vicinity of the Annunciation is hardly a coincidence. Clearly, Odilia had an affinity with the Virgin Mary, who was about to become a mother. But can we identify this Odilia?
Our investigations continued and we found out that discoveries can be … somewhat less spectacular. The object number “1250-1864” written on a small piece of paper attached to the textile reveals that it arrived in the V&A in 1864 (fig. 4). The Museum bought it from Canon Franz Joseph Bock (http://www.vam.ac.uk/content/articles/d/dr-franz-johann-joseph-bock/), who was an avid textile collector (https://www.vam.ac.uk/blog/network/interwoven-project-collecting-textiles-at-the-victoria-and-albert-museum-first-insights-i). In the same year it was briefly described, but without addressing who Odilia might have been. However, only six years later the priest, ecclesiologist and antiquarian Daniel Rock, who lived around the corner from the South Kensington Museum (later V&A), identified Odilia as a noblewoman from southern France. Another six years later A.F. Kendrick proposed that because of the name Odilia “this sumptuous orphrey may have been produced in a monastery in the Rhineland, in the thirteenth century.” He thus suggested that Odilia would have been a nun. For the moment, we simply cannot say who Odilia was (a nun, a noblewoman?). But this is not to say that the piece is not important. This becomes clear when turning to the use of this luxury fabric.
The Christian scenes suggest that this tablet woven fabric was meant to be used in a church. Its width indicates that it was not a maniple or a stole (as is the case with Leonor), but rather an orphrey: an ornamental strip or border often sewed onto ecclesiastical vestments and onto the garments of kings and queens. In our case, it seems most likely that the orphrey was stitched onto the back of a chasuble, the outermost liturgical dress worn by ordained priests. The priest and his servants would celebrate Mass standing with their back towards the faithful, thus visually revealing the life and death of Christ through this colourful and glittering textile. Presenting the orphrey – perhaps together with a chasuble or other vestments – to a church or priest, cemented the ties between the donor (Odilia) and the religious community. The donor knew that her gift would be rewarded with prayers for the donor and her family. But the story doesn’t stop there. Since Odilia’s name was inscribed into the textile, she would always be present when the vestment decorated with the orphrey was worn during Mass. This made this woman – who could not perform Mass herself – a liturgical actor, bringing her closer to Christ, whose sacrifice was celebrated on the altar.
Unlike the maniple and stole connected with Queen Leonor, this tablet woven orphrey does not give away the exact identity of Odilia. Yet, this textile made of expensive silk and metal thread that once would have bedazzled its wearers and beholders does tell us that an Odilia had access to costly materials, was able to mark the textile with her name, gained access to the altar, and would remain present long after she had died. Odilia’s name has survived for about eight hundred years, of which she spent over a hundred fifty in the drawers of the Victoria & Albert Museum. Now, her name and the high-quality textile it was woven into are recorded in the Museum’s online catalogue, to be appreciated, remembered, and studied.
Acknowledgements: This research was made possible by a Research Project Grant awarded by The Pasold Research Fund. I would like to thank Ana Cabrera Lafuente for inviting me to the V&A and generously supporting my research.
Inventory of Objects forming the Art Collection of the Museum at South Kensington, 1864. Supplement no. 1 for the year 1864. London, p. 107.
Jasperse, J., 2017: “Matilda, Leonor and Joanna: The Plantagenet Sisters and the Display of Dynastic Connections through Material Culture,” Journal of Medieval History, vol. 43 no. 4, pp. 523-547.
Griffiths, F., 2011: ‘“Like the Sisters of Aaron:” Medieval Religious Women as Makers and Donors of Liturgical Textiles’, in Gert Melville and Anne Müller (eds.) Female Vita Religiosa between Late Antiquity and the High Middle Ages: Structures, Developments and Spatial Contexts. Berlin, pp. 343-374.
Kendrick, A.F., 1906: “Sicilian Woven Fabrics of the Twelfth and Thirteenth Centuries,” The Magazine of Fine Arts, vol. 1, pp. 124-230, at 128.
Martin, T., 2015: “Exceptions and Assumptions: Women in Medieval Art History,” in Therese Martin (ed.) Reassessing the Roles of Women as ‘Makers’ of Medieval Art and Architecture. Leiden, pp. 1-33.
Rock, D., 1870: Textile fabrics; a descriptive catalogue of the collection of church-vestments, dresses, silk stuffs, needle-work and tapestries, forming that section of the Museum. London, no. 1250, pp. 29-30
Weyl Carr, A., 2001: “Women as Artists in the Middle Ages: “The Dark is Light Enough”,” in Delia Gaze (ed.) Concise Dictionary of Women Artists. New York, pp. 3-20, at 7.