Any excuse – even none at all – is good enough to visit Utrecht. A short train journey from Amsterdam brings you there. Utrecht offers you museums, a historic centre, pleasant walks, plenty shops, as well as restaurants and pubs with terraces lining the old river Rhine.
This time, my excuse was the opening of a temporary exhibition at the Catharijne Convent. The former convent now houses a museum. Unsurprisingly, the museum focuses on Christian art.
The subject of its current temporary exhibition is medieval embroidery. Or rather: embroidery used on Roman Catholic vestments. So there are mainly capes, copes, capas on show. However, you do not have to be religious to appreciate the beauty of what is shown. The needle work is exquisite. The stories behind dies, cloths and patterns, is impressive and interesting.
During the 16th century religious wars, many zealots destroyed churches, religious sculptures, stained windows, paintings and other beautiful artifacts. The reason that the embroidered vestments survived: they were easy to carry and smuggle to the safety of Catholic homes.
There, these items were hidden among personal possessions or in boxes stored in lumber rooms. Even before reaching the exhibition, there is such an item on show. While walking through a small crypt-like passage towards the exhibitions, there is a heavy Bible decorated with precious stones. This heavy book was discovered by accident in the 19th century. The medieval manuscript was used as an additional weight on a clothes press.
At the end of this passage, you can either visit the vault containing church silver and other treasures first. Or you take the elevator or the flight of stairs to the first floor of one of the sprawling buildings. On the first floor, take the left door to start your tour through the temporary exhibition. Or continue through the first few rooms to visit the museum’s permanent one.
It is difficult to imagine how harsh, dreary and drab the life of ordinary medieval people was. It is also difficult to imagine how religion permeated, regulated, controlled everything – twenty-four hours each day – from birth till death.
Visiting a church service was probably one of the few highlights of the day. Imagine the sun shining through the stained glass or candles flickering in the dark, the smell of incense, the silver and gold, the painted statues and frescoes, chants and mysterious Latin as well as the embroidered and rich cloths used during a service.
One would presume the stained glass, carved benches, paintings or statues would be the most precious pieces a church contained? The exhibition explains that the vestments were often more expensive than a church organ.
Sumptuous cloth was imported. First it came from as far away as China and several exhibits show traditional Chinese patterns and images. Once the silk road was blocked through war, merchants imported cloth from Persia and surrounding countries. When these markets became less easy to reach European regions started to create their own silks, brocades, and velvets.
A video shows traditional Chinese and Persian patterns which can be found in the various vestments on show. It also explains how certain dyes were made and patterns created. Some preparations may now be deemed highly unhygienic like the one used to prepare gold thread for embroidery. (Sheep intestines were involved.)
It is interesting to see that the images of say the Tree of Jesse, or the various saints were embroidered independently and stitched onto the vestments later. Embroidering one such scene would take about a week. A cape could easily contain fourteen or more such images – which explains why the vestments were more expensive than an organ.
Though not the oldest vestment on show, there is one supposedly donated by Emperor Maximilian. Another one was donated by a Catherine von Cleve (15th century). As the clothes were so costly, they were repaired and used for centuries.
At a table, there are samples of the various stitches used. Two modern microscopes help discover the high quality and fine craftsmanship of these hand-made stitches. The exhibition not only shows medieval embroidery. Next to the tables with samples and microscopes, there is a whole gallery showing 20th century and contemporary vestments created by the Stadelmaier firm. But the contemporary pieces only serve to illustrate the vast gap between modern creations and the exquisite, timeless craftsmanship and beauty of the centuries old pieces.
The exhibition also points out the role painters played in creating images which were embroidered. Paintings and drawings of biblical scenes or saints were copied , embroidered and then appliquéd upon vestments. This reuse of images does not surprise visitors who realise that embroiderers and painters belonged to the same guild.
If this exhibition is not to your taste, there is the permanent exhibition which contains works by Rembrandt, Frans Hals and other Dutch artists. Or you can postpone your visit till the next temporary exhibition will open in early September. This one will focus on wizards and witches.