Really “painting” with silks and gold

Within the Catharijne Convent, just opposite the entrance to this museum, you will find a small white house. During temporary exhibitions, related activities usually take place here. During the current exhibition on medieval embroidery in silks and metal threads, this little white house is used as a workshop.

Together with other visitors, I popped across from the museum entrance and its lovely café, into the tiny white house. Nowadays, it is difficult to image that a whole family would have lived in such a modest dwelling. The family would sleep upstairs. Downstairs would house at least one loom, as well as a small kitchen.

Right now, gold embroidery is created there. The various gold and other metal threads as well as coloured silks – all needed to create Biblical and saints’ images as shown in the exhibition – can be admired. The whole process of designing an image on the cloth till the stitching by hand, is done on the premisses. Any questions regarding materials, stitches and other aspects of the craft are answered by “artist in residence”, ms Ulrike Müllners.

Ms Müllners will gladly explain and show you everything. She trained as an embroiderer at a design studio for church art. She also worked as a restorer at the Deutsche Textilmuseum in Krefeld. So if you have any questions after visiting the exhibition at the Catharijne Convent, why not visit this authority in the field of embroidery and restoration of vestments?

Ms Müllners kindly provided more background information to the exhibition. She was working on an image of a saint. But of course, with exhibition visitors regularly popping into her temporary workshop and asking lots of questions, it takes her far longer to complete an embroidery than the week or so it would have taken her medieval colleagues.

One of the interesting things I learnt was, that during the creation of gold embroidery, the metal thread is used first. Once all the places of a design are filled in with gold (or other metal) thread, silks in other colours as well as various stitches are used to create shades and patches of colour.

This method is completely the opposite to how medieval painters created their saints’ images. In an earlier exhibition on medieval paintings, it was explained the painters first created the image using paints. Gold leaf was added and worked last. Before watching ms Müllners at work on a gold embroidery of a saint, I had carelessly presumed creating saints’ images in gold embroidery and painting was done in exactly the same manner.

It was just one of the many aha-experiences this visit to ms Müllners’ temporary workshop provided. Another one was the use of medieval magnifying glasses and spectacles to create the very fine stitches. As pointed out in the post about the exhibition, one needs modern microscopes to see many of the stitches. Ms Müllners explained the exhibition also had a woodcut on show where someone actually uses spectacles or a magnifying glass. These were not a late Renaissance invention.

Copies of woodcuts illustrate the importance of women in the whole process of creating the beautiful ecclesiastic vestments. But the dyeing, spinning, embroidering was not solely a female affair. Nunneries were involved, but also secular workshops where it were often men who created the sumptuous images.

So after visiting the museum and its impressive exhibition on embroidery, why not pop across to the workshop and see if ms Müllners is in? You will not only have a chance to see gold embroidery being created. Some of your presumptions may also be rectified. But if, like us, you ask so many questions ms Müllners’ coffee grows cold – don’t forget to offer to get her another warm one from the museum café!

The museum does organise a limited number of embroidery workshops. As most are already overbooked, contact the museum through its website for more information. Bear in mind that a workshop will costs about 50 Euro and takes a whole day.

Unable to visit Utrecht but interested in courses or even a diploma in embroidery? Why not contact the Royal School of Needlework. It not only offers weekend classes at Hampton Court Palace, but also at other locations in the UK, USA and Japan.

Opus Anglicanum
History of optics
Museum Catharijne Convent Utrecht
Deutsches Textilmuseum Krefeld
Royal School of Needlework

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