As a curator of costume and textiles, my eyes are in constant search mode for exceptional objects to add to LACMA’s collection. But on rare occasions a treasure appears that requires neither inquiry nor pursuit, which is exactly what happened when I was contacted by Reverend George F. Woodward III, rector of Saint Edmund’s Episcopal Church in San Marino.
Since the fifties, Saint Edmund’s has been graced with an eighteenth-century altar frontal—a decorated textile, usually large, hanging on the front of the altar. After contacting both the Huntington Library and the Victoria and Albert Museum in London, the Reverend had decided that the piece needed to reside within a museum to ensure its preservation and exhibition for generations to come, and he wanted LACMA to be the recipient of the church’s donation.
I must admit I wasn’t prepared for such a marvelous sight when I went to examine the frontal, and quite literally gasped at the intense color of the silk thread and the lavish encrustation of gold and silver! This was the hallmark of professional embroiderers, skilled in “painting with the needle,” who created magnificent textiles and vestments for powerful ecclesiastical patrons in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries.
This altar frontal was most likely made for a church in northern Italy about 1730–40, but virtuoso artisans worked throughout Europe for royal and aristocratic patrons as well; embroidered silks were in great demand for fashionable dress and the decorative arts. The vibrant colors produced by new advances in dye chemistry, and Europe’s developing fascination with gardening and exotic blooms imported from Asia, made floral motifs the most widely used embroidery designs. The science of botany fascinated scholars and laymen alike; skilled needle workers manipulated hundreds of shades of colored silk thread into both fanciful and highly naturalistic flowers that reflected the gardens and bowers of country houses and grand estates.
How fortunate we are that Saint Edmund’s chose to donate its exquisite, yet imposing, altar frontal—more than nine feet in width—to LACMA’s collection. It will be a star in an exhibition of eighteenth and nineteenth century dress opening in the fall of next year.
Kaye Spilker, curator, Costume & Textiles
[…] LACMA announced on its blog that it has acquired an 18th century Italian altar frontal — which is "a decorated […]
WOW!!! What an amazing piece. This truly is a wonderful gift. I can’t wait to see it in person. I have been fortunate enough to travel through Italy several times in the last five years and been to a number of very old churches. I have laid my eyes upon some very beautiful frontals and this one is right up there with the best.
This is a truly magnificent piece of eclesiastcial embroidery, althought the design has little ecclesiastical imagery included. Heavily influenced by fashionable textile design found in furnishings and garments, it also shows a strong Asian influence in both the shading, very reminiscent of crewel work embroidery using wool, and the metal thread work.
As a professional embroiderer, I am fortunate enough to have had pieces of this quality in my workroom for repair, remounting and as a basis for a new,additional item for a church,a stole, burse and veil etc.
There are many similar examples to found, often still in use, in many of Britain’s glorious parish churches and cathedrals.
Thank you for putting a piece of ecclesiastical work on the web, it’s a subject sadly neglected in museums and in churches and cathedrals. Stained glass, stone and wood carving, church plate, sculpture? PLenty of information. Textiles? Nothing!
Jane Dew, Stafford, U.K.
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