Based on the author’s doctoral thesis (Berlin: Technische Universität, 1999), this astute book investigates a series of embroidered liturgical vestments, most of which were made in Prague in the years around 1400. Generally absent from the canon of taught university courses, and seriously underrepresented in our ever-growing corpus of scientific literature, embroideries, and textiles in general, have long been a stepchild of art historical studies. The present volume certainly succeeds well in not only filling some of these blatant lacunae, but also in revising the widely-held belief that the study of textiles is just about counting loops and stitches. In Wetter’s historically methodical book, the paraments in question appear as an integral part of the visual culture within which they were conceived, expressing the interests and expectations of their patrons, and feeding into liturgical and political discourses. Her narrative is structured around three groups of vestments now preserved in collections in Trento/Trent, Brandenburg, Nuremberg and Lübeck. Though differing considerably from each other, all works testify to the high standard of Bohemian embroidery between the death of Charles IV and the beginnings of militant Hussitism.
Part I (of three) begins with a historiographical assessment of the study of Bohemian embroidery, which in the past has all too often been hampered by cultural chauvinism and the restrictions imposed by the Cold War on both sides of the Iron Curtain (Chapter I.1). The next chapter (I.2) introduces the city of Prague as the principal market for Bohemian embroideries. Analyzing a series of contemporary inventories, the author paints an impressive picture of the quantity and quality of the paraments made for the city’s many churches during the second half of the fourteenth century. In 1387, for instance, the treasury of St. Vitus’s cathedral could boast thirty-five complete sets of Mass vestments, twenty two chasubles and over one hundred and forty pluvials. Given the almost wholesale loss of these works during the Hussite period, the three groups of textiles under discussion here – nearly all made in Prague for donors on the fringes of the Empire – assume the role of important witnesses to, and representatives of, the manufacture and patronage of embroideries in Prague around 1400.
The three chapters that constitute Part II provide an in-depth analysis of the textiles in question, commencing with the surviving embroideries of the consecration vestments of Georg von Liechtenstein, Prince Bishop of Trent (1390-1419). Produced in Prague in 1390/1, and now preserved in the Trent Diocesan Museum, these embroideries are executed in sumptous gold thread, mainly worked in split stitch, and partly enriched by the application of seed pearls, glass pearls, corals and cabochons. The first part of this set comprises the dorsal cross of a chasuble, showing, among other subjects, the Apocalyptic Virgin asmulier amicta sole (the woman clothed with the sun), as well as the donor kneeling below his saintly precursor in office, the fourth-century martyr Vigilius of Trent. The second part consists of four embroidered panels (so-called praetextae), which enlarge upon this saint’s vita, providing a vivid account of his efforts to curb paganism in the Alto Adige, and of his posthumous veneration (a fifth praetexta depicting the stoning of St. Vigilius is missing) (Chapter II.1).
The following chapter (II.2) considers two vestment donations in the Brandenburg Cathedral Museum, the pluvials P13 and P14. Given to the cathedral by Provost Nikolaus von Klitzing, and possibly commissioned from a Prague workshop in 1414/5, the first of these features a dorsal shield (clipeus) with the Adoration of the Magi, two vertical trimmings and a morse depicting apostles below canopies as well as the arms of the donor. The other pluvial, P14, is likely to have been made locally, though by a workshop intimately familiar with Bohemian art (the Brandenburg Marches were ruled by the Luxemburgs from 1373 to 1415); it is accentuated by a clipeus showing an Annunciation scene (Gabriel, quite unusually, approaches the Virgin here from the right), vertical trimmings with female saints below baldachins, and a morse bearing the heraldic eagle of the patron, Margrave Friedrich I of Hohenzollern. The donation of this vestment was probably occasioned by the transferral of the Brandenburg Marches to Friedrich in 1415, or by his eventual enfeoffment with these territories two years later. The third set of embroidered textiles discussed by Wetter was originally commissioned for the church of St. Mary’s in Gdansk/Danzig, and consists of the chasuble M(annowsky)84 (c.1400; now Nuremberg, Germanisches Nationalmuseum) and the pluvial M24 (c.1410/20; now Lübeck, St. Annen-Museum). While the former bears a dorsal cross depicting, among other figures, the Resurrected Christ between two angels presenting the arma Christi, as well as a pectoral trimming with the Virgin Mary and St. John Evangelist, the latter’s embroideries comprise a dorsal shield with the Madonna of Humility in a hortus, and vertical trimmings showing Christ and the apostles below canopies. In contrast to the embroideries previously discussed, these two sets of praetextae are likely to have been serially produced in Prague for the export market, and assembled by a local Gdansk workshop according to the specific requirements of the individual commission. Possibly linked to the granting of indulgences, the donation of both M84 and M24 may have been a collective enterprise, in which various members of the Gdansk citizenry partook (Chapter II.3).
Wetter’s argument concludes with a brief Part III, which is divided into three sections: first, a comparison of the embroideries, especially with regard to the possible motivations for their donation; second, a somewhat awkwardly-placed ‘retrospective look’ into the situation of the Prague embroiderers around 1400 (which, introducing more documentary material, would have been better accomodated in the introductory chapter I.2.); and third, an ‘outlook’ that identifies more examples of Bohemian late fourteenth-century embroidery, and ends with a call for a general corpus of these fascinating objects.
The actual narrative is complemented by a technical and bibliographical catalogue of the works discussed, a glossary of terms (essential to those not versed in the technicalities of this craft), and an extensive bibliography of primary and secondary sources.
The author approaches her material from a number of different perspectives, exploring not only their technical, stylistic and iconographical aspects, but also, most interestingly, speculating as to their place in liturgical ceremony, and their possible roles in pictorializing the personal aspirations and political claims of their donors. Wetter thus convincingly characterizes the donation of the Brandenburg pluvial P14 as a ‘political-diplomatic’ gift of its patron, Margrave Friedrich I, to the spiritual center of his newly-acquired Marches, i.e. the Cathedral of Brandenburg; similarly, P13 is shown to testify to the new need for self-representation of its donor, Nikolaus von Klitzing, who superintended the Brandenburg bishopric as capitular vicar during the long vacation of the episcopal see from 1414 to 1415. In the context of ‘visual legitimation’, Wetter’s analysis of the consecration vestments of Georg von Liechtenstein is by far the most thought-provoking. Casting Georg as a direct successor to Vigilius of Trent, by focusing, for instance, on particular episodes of this saint’s vita (such as the triumphal adventus of his bodily remains in Trent, a possible allusion to Georg’s own entry into that city), the embroideries furnish what the author aptly calls an ‘inaugural speech’ to the Bishop’s enthronement ritual. The inclusion of the Imperial Eagle as an attribute of the saint, as well as the choice of costly embroideries ‘made in Bohemia’ itself, also bear witness to the donor’s desire to draw attention to the imperial immediacy of his new office; at a time when the powers of the Bishop of Trent were being seriously curtailed by the Dukes of Habsburg, the visible demonstration of this see’s direct subordination to the Emperor assumes a very particular urgency.
The book is meticulously researched, well-illustrated, and, though somewhat dryly written, for the most part very readable. The only cause for annoyance is the long Latin quotations in the main text, which appear without translations or paraphrases (see for instance p. 45f.). Even those readers who have to varying degrees mastered this language would surely rather continue reading about these intriguing objects than waste time with doing their own translations. This minor criticism should however not obscure the fact that Wetter’s study is a significant achievement that will not only appeal to textile scholars but also to anyone interested in late medieval art in Bohemia, and central Europe in general. Making important, but highly neglected objects of visual culture accessible in an intellectually stimulating way, and indicating new directions in research, this book will provide a valuable resource for scholars for many years to come.
Getty Center, Los Angeles