Exploring Ecclesiastical Textiles

“Three items at Gawthorpe Hall connect the remarkable textile collections there to what were once the rich devotional cultures and tourist trades of eighteenth-century Europe. Three textile objects, which depict the head of Christ, the saint Aloysius Gonzaga, and an intricate floral garden housing the face of Jesus ‘Dolorosa’ [the sorrowful], were produced during the eighteenth century as object of devotion and were made for display in the home.”
– Esther Rollinson

In this research paper, Esther Rollinson explores three 18th century religious textiles from Gawthorpe Textiles Collection in detail using a digital microscope to reveal the variety of materials and techniques used to create them. Such close analysis shows the extent of the technical skill required to work at this scale and with such luxurious materials.

As well as detailing the objects themselves, Esther also explains the historical context and significance of these pieces as well as where and why objects like these were created.

Use the button below to view the research paper and browse more images of the three textiles below.

View a PDF version of Esther’s research paper
Silk ribbon work picture of a flower garden with the head of Jesus Dolorosa (the Sorrowful).

Date: c.1708
Origin: Italy
Dimensions: H 21 x W 17cm

Colifichet embroideries are a rare type of double-sided embroidery that are stitched meticulously so that each side appears the same. As shown in this example, they were usually specially framed so that both sides of the work could be seen. They were often produced in convents and the majority of surviving colifichets depict religious images. This one portrays the 16th century Jesuit Saint Aloysius Gonzaga.

The founder of Gawthorpe Textiles Collection; Rachel Kay Shuttleworth, was particularly fond of this piece and often had it on display on the mantelpiece in her sitting room. It was one of the few objects that she purchased for the collection, having spotted it in an antique shop during a trip to Italy around 1910 and recognised what it was despite its grimy appearance. Whilst travelling home she took a feather from her hat and carefully brushed away years of dust and dirt from the frame and glass to reveal the beautiful embroidery underneath.

“To make the colifichet, the embroiderer would have first pierced the design onto the paper, and we can still see these original holes in the design. Silk and metal threads would then have been passed, sometimes by two individuals working together, from one side of the design through to the other. Aside from St Aloysius’ eyes, which have been painted onto both sides of the design, the entirety of the piece has been worked in this way.”

Esther Rollinson, Exploring Ecclesiastical Textiles in the Collections of Gawthorpe Hall
Lancashire Textile Gallery 2023

This close up image shows the metal threads used in the crown at St Aloysius’ feet. The crown and sceptre seen here are perhaps included as symbols of Aloysius’ rejection of his noble status and wealth when he joined the Jesuit Order.

The construction of the threads can be clearly seen, with a flat metal strip having been wound around a thread core. The use of metal threads further enhance the rest of the embroidery, which is worked in lustrous silk floss. Although light damage has faded the silks and the metal has tarnished over time, the piece would once have been a vibrant, glimmering picture that almost glowed in both daylight and candlelight.

“These fine metal threads would have interacted with candlelight used to illuminate the colifichet after dark and these threads would have given the object an evening time brilliance. The threads ensured that whilst the lustre of the silk made this object stunning during the day, it was still extraordinary to see at night.”

Esther Rollinson, Exploring Ecclesiastical Textiles in the Collections of Gawthorpe Hall
Lancashire Textile Gallery 2023

Date: c.1793
Origin: Spain
Dimensions: H 17.5 x W 15cm

This embroidery is worked on a fine silk ground which has then been stretched over a small wooden frame and the back covered with paper. It depicts the head and shoulders of Jesus Christ and was probably intended as a small devotional piece to hang on the wall or decorate a personal altar at home. Embroideries like this were often made by nuns and could be sold to wealthy visitors and tourists to raise funds for the Church. The reverse has a written inscription with the initials L. P. and the date 1793.

In this detail the effects of different stitches can be seen with the majority of the silk embroidery being carried out in either long and short shading, satin stitch or seeding. The combination of these two techniques has created an effect that closely resembles the appearance of an engraving, with lines and tiny dots creating subtle and finely detailed shading. Fine stippling has been created with seeding stitches for the shading of the skin and robes, whilst long and short combined with satin stitch is used to accurately create the texture and shading of the hair as well as the dramatic halo of light that forms the background of the image.

In this extreme close up from the digital microscope the heavy contrast between the light and dark silks can be seen. The darkest threads have been used to create heavy areas of shade and strong outlines, such as the outer shape of the eye shown here. A much lighter shade, almost the same as the fabric ground, has been used for seeding stitches that create more subtle depth and shadow.

“…we can see how a combination of threads have been used and layered together. Here alongside the thicker thread, which is used throughout the piece, a finer thread has been added. This was likely a conscious choice on the part of the object’s maker, who may even have separated these strands herself to create the texture of Christ’s beard. A very similar mixture of thread types and stitch lengths has also been used to create Christ’s hair.”

Esther Rollinson, Exploring Ecclesiastical Textiles in the Collections of Gawthorpe Hall
Lancashire Textile Gallery 2023

Date: 18th century
Origin: European
Dimensions: H 19.6 x W 14cm

This piece differs from the other two in technique as it features no embroidery and has instead been created using tiny cut pieces of silk fabric and ribbon applied using glue onto a backing of gauze in a type of collage. The overall design features a stylised urn or vase of flowers and in the middle of the largest flower a printed paper image of ‘Jesus Dolorosa’ or Sorrowful Jesus has been incorporated into the design.

“The design contains a series of flowers including what are likely carnations and forget-me-knots as well as leaves and grapes. For Christians grapes are associated with the wine of the Eucharist and the blood of Christ, whilst floral motifs often also had specific meanings. The carnation, for example, was often used as a symbol of Christ’s incarnation, and it can be found not just on small devotional items but on vestments and altar frontals.”

Esther Rollinson, Exploring Ecclesiastical Textiles in the Collections of Gawthorpe Hall
Lancashire Textile Gallery 2023

It is possible that this is the work of a nuns as with the other items described, but it could also be the creation of a talented amateur in their own home. Collages in paper or fabric became a popular pursuit during the 18th century for women with the means to indulge in hobbies.

Here we can see the individually cut petals that form the main flower, which have been layered over each other to give an effect similar to fish scales. The silks thet the pieces are cut from would have been expensive fabrics and the scale of the piece would have required incredibly precise cutting and care when assembling the design so whether this is the work of a professional or hobbyist it would have demanded an impressive attention to detail.

“To make each of the flowers we now see in the design of this collage, this object’s maker has cut tiny petals from strips of silk in varying colours and shades and has layered them onto the piece to make a complex floral garden design. We can see in image 3.2 below just how fine these petals are. The hexagon at the centre of the flower in the top left image, for example, measures just 2.2mm across.”

Esther Rollinson, Exploring Ecclesiastical Textiles in the Collections of Gawthorpe Hall
Lancashire Textile Gallery 2023

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