This installation features a series of rare fifteenth-century embroideries illustrating scenes from the life of Saint Martin (316–397), on display for the first time. These splendid examples of Franco-Flemish embroidery—in which detailed pictorial designs and luminous palettes were created by colored silk and metallic threads—highlight the sophistication of this highly prized medium.
The seven embroideries on view, drawn from the Robert Lehman Collection and The Cloisters Collection, were part of a much larger ensemble, thirty-six of which are now dispersed among public and private collections. Probably removed from their original fabric support in the seventeenth century, they may have adorned a liturgical vestment, an altar frontal, or possibly a combination of the two, constituting a set of vestments. The installation includes a liturgical garment (a chasuble) with embroidered roundels, which serves to illustrate the context in which the Saint Martin series may have first appeared.
The Saint Martin embroideries were probably designed by artists (several hands have been identified) from France or the Lowlands during the early fifteenth century. It is likely that a painter provided the design for the needlework, which was then carried out by specialized embroiderers. The embroideries share stylistic parallels with contemporary French and Flemish painting and manuscript illumination.
While the patron remains unknown, Philip the Good of Burgundy, Pope Martin V, King Charles VII of France, and René d'Anjou—all of whom commissioned elaborate needlework—have been identified as possible patrons of this significant ensemble. The series could 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.
Saint Martin, born in present-day Hungary in the early fourth century, left the Roman army to devote his life to the Christian faith. He lived mostly in France, where he founded one of the earliest monastic establishments (near Poitiers) and became Bishop of Tours. An important figure in Western monasticism and a patron saint of France, Martin was a highly venerated saint known for performing miracles, as illustrated in several of the embroideries.