Nowadays there is great interest in ancient ecclesiastical embroidery. Following icon painting, which is already popular world-wide, the art of ecclesiastical embroidery has begun to experience its own revival.
In Russia there are already several schools and studios devoted to this beautiful art form. One of the very best, the Pictorial Embroidery Department of the Icon Painting School under the Moscow Orthodox Theological Academy, is located at the Holy Trinity-St. Sergius Monastery in the town of Sergiev Posad near Moscow. It is not large, admitting only three or four students each year. They study and live there for four years. I am proud to have studied at this school and worked in this studio, which is a real research laboratory of ancient ecclesiastical embroidery.
Apart from embroidery, students at the school study a number of theological disciplines: church history, catechism, moral theology, basic theology, iconography, the Old and New Testaments, the history of Orthodox art, and others.
There are several reasons why this is the best studio for the study of ecclesiastical embroidery. First of all, it is located within The Holy Trinity Monastery, which gives it great spiritual support. In addition, right next to the school is a great museum of ecclesiastical art - the Vestry of Holy Trinity Monastery. Apart from other exhibits, it houses a supremely rich collection of ancient ecclesiastical embroidery. Students are allowed to come and see and research these works of art nearly every day. Finally, the Pictorial Embroidery Department belongs to one of the foremost icon painting schools, which helps it to get high-quality drawings for embroidery.
All these factors have a very positive effect on the level of mastery, both of teachers and students. The products of this studio are always high quality, beautiful, and very authentic (resembling their ancient counterparts). Strict adherence to the traditions of Byzantine and ancient Russian embroidery is the most important principle of this studio. Another main principle is never to make copies of ancient embroidered objects, but to create new original works in the ancient style, using the ancient technology.
The studio carries out extensive research on works of ancient embroidery not only in the Vestry of Holy Trinity-St. Sergius Monastery, but also in various other museums throughout Russia, where there are a great many works of ancient embroidery, some dating from the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries. That period is considered to be the greatest flowering of ancient Russian embroidery. This is why the embroidery style of the fifteenth - sixteenth centuries is the favorite style of this studio. Every summer the teachers and students spend a week or two working in some museum famous for its collection of ecclesiastical embroidery, taking pictures and making sketches for use in their subsequent work. In this way the students have made a good number of discoveries, recovering lost and forgotten techniques and patterns of ancient embroidery.
It is well known that the materials used in embroidery have a strong influence on the final result. Therefore we try to use natural materials, which were used in ancient times: real silk fabric and only pure silk and metal (or metallic) threads, genuine pearls and colored semiprecious stones. In ancient times these materials were brought to Europe and to Russia from faraway lands, and they were very expensive. Therefore, in ancient times, mostly empresses, princesses, and noblewomen practiced the art of ecclesiastical embroidery. Nowadays, practically anyone can afford all the materials needed for church embroidery.
We often dye or tint the floss ourselves to achieve softer, more natural colors. Floss for faces is always dyed with herbs to get a cool tone for the skin color, as it is depicted on icons.
As with any genre of art, ecclesiastical embroidery has its own special figurative language. It differs from the figurative language of the icon in that it is simpler and more laconic. For example, ancient embroiderers most often used only two (three in the very large works) colors of floss for faces and other exposed parts of the body (light and shade). Sometimes they used only one color for the face, but their works are no less expressive. On the clothing of embroidered figures there are virtually no highlights. You can see remarkable multi-coloured highlights only on a few embroidered works of one ancient studio from fifteenth-century Novgorod, which belonged to Bishop Evfimii.
This studio was influenced by western embroidery art.
On ancient embroidered objects, some clothing is executed mostly with silk, some only with golden or silver threads in various patterns, and a third category is embroidered decoratively both with golden thread and silk, creating surprising textures which imitate the splendid patterns of ancient fabrics. They are totally different from what can usually be seen on icons.
During my studies at the Department I independently created several embroidered works and supervised two major projects: the creation of a bishop’s miter and an ”Aer” (the cloth covering used for the Chalice and the Paten during the Divine Liturgy) with an Entombment composition. More than five embroiderers worked on each of these projects.
Since completing my studies, I have continued to practice ecclesiastical embroidery in Kiev (Ukraine), and to teach this beautiful art to others. You can see my works on my personal page in Live Journal on the Internet:
Researching ancient embroidery in various museums, practicing it for many years and teaching it to people, I have realized some important things:
1. All the beauty and luxury of ancient embroidery was created essentially using only two or three generally known stitches in various combinations and patterns. These are the stem stitch, split stitch and couching.
2. It doesn't take any special talents, or even the ability to draw, to learn to embroider as the ancient embroiderers did. (Ancient embroiderers couldn't draw by themselves, but this did not prevent them from creating masterpieces, using prepared drawings.)
3. Any person who can hold a needle, and has just a little patience and a great desire to master this art, can practice ecclesiastical embroidery. Even your first work - your first sampler - would be a masterpiece, which people would admire.
4. Ecclesiastical embroidery doesn't require the use of materials that are very highly priced, allergenic, or injurious to your health, so it is much cheaper and safer than icon painting.
If you would like to learn traditional ecclesiastical embroidery, I can teach you.
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