This roundel is a rare and splendid example of early fifteenth-century Franco-Flemish embroidery. The detailed pictorial design and luminous palette, created by colored silk and metallic threads, highlight the sophistication of this medium, which was so highly prized during this period. Part of a much larger ensemble, the Lehman roundel and thirty-five additional embroideries formed part of a series depicting scenes from the life of Saint Martin. Six of these pieces belong to the Metropolitan Museum: four are in the Robert Lehman Collection (1975.1.1906, 1975.1.1907, and 1975.1.1908), and two are in The Cloisters Collection (47.101.63 and 47.101.64). The remaining embroideries – including roundels and several arched panels - are dispersed among several public and private collections (Musée Historique des Tissus, Lyons; Cooper-Hewitt National Museum of Design, New York; Walters Art Gallery, Baltimore; Musée National du Moyen Age, Paris; Church of Saint Michael, Ghent).
An important figure in Western monasticism, and a patron saint of France, Martin was a highly venerated saint known for performing miracles, as several of the embroideries illustrate. Born in present-day Hungary in the early fourth century, Martin left the Roman army to devote his life to the Christian faith. He lived much of his life in France, where he founded one of the earliest monastic establishments (near Poitiers), and became Bishop of Tours. The episodes depicted in the series were inspired by several accounts of Saint Martin’s life, including a biography composed by his friend and disciple, Sulpicius Severus (ca. 363-425), Jacobus de Voragine's Golden Legend, and the poem Vie de Monseigneur Saint Martin by Péan Gatineau (canon of the church of Saint Martin in Tours in the thirteenth century).
This roundel represents the earliest episode in the life of Saint Martin in the series. The young Martin is portrayed announcing to his family that, against their wishes, he will become a catechumen (a Christian convert under instruction before baptism). The scene reveals the artist’s interest in narrative detail as Martin’s male relatives, dressed in vibrant colors, react to his proclamation. His father, presumably the male figure on the right, raises his hand, while another male relative, at left, covers his face.
The early history of the Saint Martin embroideries remains uncertain. The series may have originally decorated an altar frontal (a decorative altar covering frequently made of textile), perhaps arranged in rows or as a frame around a central panel depicting the most famous episode from Saint Martin’s life – his sharing his cloak with a beggar – which is missing from the series. The embroideries may have been assembled on a liturgical vestment, such as a chasuble or cope, either in an allover arrangement, or on orphrey bands (a decorative band placed over a seam on a vestment) or crosses, or both. It is also quite possible that they were assembled on a set of vestments. The most celebrated example from this period is the complete altar set made for the Order of the Golden Fleece, founded in 1430 by Duke Philip the Good of Burgundy (r. 1419-67). Now in the Kunsthistorisches Museum, Vienna, the set consists of an embroidered altar frontal and dorsal, a chasuble, three copes, and two dalmatics.
The Saint Martin embroideries were probably removed from their original fabric support in the seventeenth century. It was common practice when a fabric support became worn, or when styles or church decorations changed, to remove such embroideries, and either incorporate them into alternative configurations on new ground fabrics or frame them as individual objets d'art. By the late eighteenth century, the embroideries in Lyons were mounted on two orphrey crosses, each with seven roundels and an arched panel, and two orphrey bands, each with four roundels. Several other pieces from the series, including some of the Lehman examples (and two roundels depicting Saint Catherine, now at The Cloisters, which were once thought be part of the same ensemble) were mounted as an orphrey cross on a chasuble of Renaissance velvet.
The Saint Martin embroideries were probably designed by artists (several hands have been identified) from France or the Lowlands during the first third of the fifteenth century. While the identity of the artists remain unknown, scholars have drawn stylistic comparisons with painters and illuminators, such as the Master of the Exhumation of Saint Hubert, the Master of the Roman de la Rose, the Boucicaut Master, Jean van Eyck, Jean Malouel, the Rohan Master, and Rogier van der Weyden. It is likely that a painter/illuminator provided the design for the needlework, which was then carried out by specialized embroiderers. As suggested by the term "needle-painting," the Saint Martin series illustrates the close associations between embroidery and painting. Not only does the Saint Martin series share stylistic parallels with contemporary Franco-Flemish painting and manuscript illumination, but the embroidery technique known as or nué, or shaded gold, produces effects of light and shade, which resemble that of painting.
Recently it has been suggested that the five embroidered panels in the series, which differ in style and technique, and probably date to a few years later than the roundels, may represent a collaboration between Barthélemy d’Eyck, a Netherlandish artist active in France, and his stepfather, Pierre du Billant, who were, respectively, painter and embroiderer to René d’Anjou (Duke of Anjou 1434-80, King of Naples 1438-42). One hypothesis is that René may have commissioned the embroideries on the occasion of the marriage of his daughter Marguerite d’Anjou to Henry VI of England in 1444, and subsequently donated them to the Church of Saint Martin at Tours, where the wedding took place.
During this period, splendid embroideries were produced at the court of Burgundy. The dukes of Burgundy ruled over territories in present-day France and the Lowlands from their capital in Dijon and were significant patrons of the arts. While the patron of the Saint Martin series remains unknown, Philip the Good of Burgundy (r. 1419-67) is one of several possible patrons, all of whom are known to have commissioned costly embroidery. The others include Pope Martin V (r. 1417-31), the Saint’s namesake, as well as King Charles VII of France (r. 1422-61) and René d’Anjou, who were devoted to Saint Martin. The embroideries may have been intended for a set of vestments for the Basilica of Saint Martin at Tours, the site of the Saint’s tomb, or one of the many other churches dedicated to him.
The Saint Martin series was embroidered with colored silk and gilt-silver metal threads on a linen ground employing the sophisticated or nué technique, used frequently in Flanders and Italy. With this technique, metal threads were held in place (or "couched") with colored silk threads, and, depending on the placement of the stitches, different patterns were created. The metal strips were cut from a foil (a silver alloy containing 95% silver and 5% copper), gilded on one side and then wrapped around a yellow silk core. Gilt-silver metal threads were also used to create small design elements such as the bowl and the carafe in the roundel portraying Saint Martin Offering the Wine Cup to the Priest. Laid down in parallel lines on a shaped padding underneath and stitched to the linen background at their extremities, they create the impression of three-dimensionality. While the gilt-silver metal threads enhance the luxuriousness of the embroidery, the fine-colored silk threads create a sense of volume in the figures. The combination and the color gradation of the silk stitches (satin, split, and stem) modulate the tones and emphasize details of the facial features and vestments, thereby producing a needle-painting effect.
Alison Nogueira and Giulia Chiostrini
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