by Christian de Holacombe
If there is anyone out there still harboring doubts
as to whether embroidered bead-work was done in Europe before
1600, perhaps the cover of this issue will be an effective counter-argument!
This huge, spectacular and very accomplished piece from the 14th
century is embroidered almost entirely in beads.
There is a good reason, though, that medieval beadwork, especially
the use of seed beads, is news to many of us. Much of whats
available in English about the culture of the European Middle
Ages discusses England and France, areas where beadwork did not
come into fashion until somewhat later. Where spectacular beadwork
is common in the 13th, 14th and 15th centuries is in the Germanies
and Eastern Europe, areas with which many of us arent so
Pearls, Coral & Gold
The earliest medieval bead work actually used small
pearls, small hand-made beads of red coral, and a lot of gold
thread. Interestingly, we can sometimes detect that pearls were
once used by their absence by the appearance of embroidered
outlines showing rows of little white bare spots where pearls
used to be. We see these on the embroidery of Sts. Harlindis and
Relindis from about 850, for instance. We also see them on the
tunic of St. Bathilde from the 600s, where there were probably
never actual pearls, just white spots as imitation
pearls. (There are embroidered jewels on this tunic
||Glove of the Emperor Frederick
II. Part of the insignia of the Holy Roman Empire. Sicily,
From the early 1100s we have items with the pearls surviving.
The gloves of the Holy Roman Emperor in Palermo are thickly sewn
with tiny pearls, jewels and little gold plaques or spangles.
The seed pearl tradition clearly continues to develop,
in later years. Look at the lamb of God (below),
worked for the top of a small box in southern Germany in the mid
1400s, and the panel of a saint, worked entirely in pearls (tiny,
tinier and tiniest!) at about the same period.
lamb of God
a panel embroidered
in pearls, showing a saint; 1350-1375, Prague, Czechoslovakia.
Somewhere around the middle of the 1200s,
we begin to see colored glass beads added to, and eventually
dominating, pieces of this kind of embroidery. (In German,
glass beads are glasperlen, literally glass
pearls.) There is a spectacular altar frontal from
Lower Saxony from the middle 1200s (left) with
large figures and motifs solidly embroidered in coral, pearls,
and both opaque and transparent glass seed beads in red,
two shades of green, blue, turquoise, purple, very deep
blue and gold.
Detail of a heavily
beaded altar hanging
from Halberstadt, Lower Saxony: 1250-1300
The beads are remarkably similar to modern glass seed beads,
although generally with rougher edges. They seem to be made by
basically the same process as seed beads today; a hollow glass
rod is heated and drawn out to form a long thin tube, which is
cooled and cut into slices. Seed beads may be rounded and smoothed
by re-heating, grinding or some of both. Some beads are ground
to have 3 or 6 flat sides, rather than being round. Beads may
be oval or round, but in the Middle Ages we dont see the
seed beads with silver foil linings or fancy iridescent finishes
that are popular types today. Instead, the sparkle
in medieval beadwork seems to come from faceted beads, metal beads
and spangles. The seed beads are plain glass.
Materials & Techniques
Much of the beadwork (and descriptions of beadwork) that we
have is items from church furnishings and royal palaces. These
pieces have the advantage of having been worked with the best
materials available, and have also been carefully kept and protected
from damage. Many of these rich pieces are worked on silk, often
with a backing of parchment or linen for support beads
are quite heavy, and must be well supported so as not to distort
the working fabric. Beads can also be worked on linen or canvas,
which may be cut out when the beadwork is done and applied to
another fabric, or used to cover a small object.
Beads obviously need to be sewn with strong, durable thread.
However, countless beads and pearls have been lost from medieval
embroideries because the simple laid-and-couched method often
used to secure them to fabric has not stood the test of time.
In this method, a string of beads is simply laid down on the fabric,
following the line of the design, and then couched,
with a second thread tying down the first thread in between every
A detail of St.
Catherine from the vestments of the Order of the Golden
Fleece, early to middle 1400s.
|The problem with this is that the individual
beads are actually not sewed directly to the fabric; only
the connecting thread is sewn down. The beads are held on
the fabric only by the fact that they are all strung on this
thread. If it breaks anywhere, beads will start dropping off
one by one, each one that drops off freeing the broken end
of the thread for the next one to come loose, as in the closeup
on the left.
Because so much of the surviving bead-work comes from palaces
and churches, the motifs that appear are often figures of saints
and biblical scenes, and occasionally flowers, foliage, symbols
or lettering between and around the main subjects. In later centuries
we begin to see more floral and purely decorative beadwork. Heraldry
is another common source of motifs for secular beadwork, such
as the extraordinary belt and cap buried with the young prince
Fernando de la Cerda around 1275.
Its clear from the examples pictured here that its
rare for a surface to be completely covered in beads. The beads
may be worked solidly to form motifs, but the fabric background
usually shows between them sometimes decorated with gold
spangles, scattered beads, or little stamped medallions shaped
as flowers, stars etc.
Beadwork in general seems to
appear on almost any object that will stand still to be
decorated, including wall or altar hangings, and on ceremonial
garments for priests and royalty, such as several bishops
However it is rare to find glass beads on ordinary clothing.
Usually what you see on garments, like the left sleeve of
the German lady (below), is gold thread, gold beads and
pearls, used around the edges of embroidered or appliquéd
motifs. (There seems to have been a fad around her time
for having only one sleeve, or one sleeve and the adjoining
half of the bodice, decorated like this.)
of a woman wearing the Order of the Swan, by an anonymous
master active at the court of Ansbach (?) c 1490, Thyssen-Bornemisza
Collection. From the book Early German Painting 1350-1550.
Seed-beaded motifs do appear on very rich belts, headgear and
other small accessories. While less expensive than pearls and
gold, glass beads seem to have been costly enough that they were
used mainly in small quantities or as an accent.
An intriguing group of objects is the half-dozen or so surviving
wooden containers covered with beadwork. Again these are church
objects, such as the pyx (a small box with a pointed cap), used
to hold communion wafers, and at least one larger chalice-shaped
box used to hold relics. (These boxes were the inspiration for
the project on our Pattern Page.)
A pyx (wooden box for communion
wafers) covered with bead embroidery; Lower Saxony, second
half of 1200s.
Lady Elspeth Grizel of Dunfort (Griz) from the Middle
Kingdom has what it quite possibly the best web page anywhere
on medieval beadwork:
This site includes color pictures of many medieval pieces, a guide
to seed beads, and detailed, illustrated instructions on bead
A Few Good Books
Good discussion and pictures of medieval beadwork are hard to
find one reason Grizels website is so valuable. Unfortunately
many of these books are out of print.
The Conservation of Tapestries and Embroideries, by The Getty
Conservation Institute, 1989, ISBN 0-89236-154-9.-
Medieval Craftsmen: Embroiderers, by Kay Staniland; University
of Toronto Press, 1991, ISBN: 0-8020-6915-0
La Riqueza del Bordado Ecclesiastico en Checoslovaquia (yes,
a Spanish book about Czechoslovakian embroidery...) by Zoroslava
Drobna & Bohumir Lifka (Sfinx, Praga, 1949, no ISBN). There
is also a French edition.
Pictorial History of Embroidery, by Marie Schuette and Sigrid
Müller-Christensen, New York: Frederick A. Praeger, 1963,
Stadt im Wandel: Kunst und Kultur des Bürgetums in Norddeutchland
1150-1650. Aussletellungkatalog. Ed. Cord Meckeper.
More examples of beadwork
Details of an altar hanging
from Cheb, Czechoslovakia, from about 1300.
An Annunciation scene worked on
a mitre from Minden,
about 1400; pearls and silver-gilt motifs on silk.
|At right, a beaded hat, and below, detail
of a belt, both buried with Fernando de la Cerda, who died
in about 1275. From the royal tombs at Burgos in Spain.
Below, a horizontal border, First
half of 1300s, Lower Saxony,
in coral, gold and glass beads.