Saturday, May 23, 2015

19th to 20th Century Australian Christian Embroidery[1]
Art Essay

Marie-Therese Wisniowski

The three religions that believe in the Old Testament are the Jewish, Islamic and of course the Christian religion. There have been and there will continue to be religious wars amongst all three of them. These three religions have managed to create wars even between factions within each of them. A sectarian war is currently occurring in Syria and Iraq (Shia versus Sunni). In the case of Christianity there was a sectarian war in Northern Ireland between the Protestants and the Catholics, which lasted until 2002. In the distant past there were sectarian wars between Jewish tribes. It is clear that the common thread – the Old Testament – is not necessarily a uniting force (nor for that matter is the New Testament).

Bible cover. Etbel Oates (Melbourne, Australia, 1962). Ecclesiastical embroidery traditionally uses gold and silver thread of various gauges.
Courtesy of reference[1]. Photograph courtesy of J. Millowick.

I cannot recall a war being fought over art. Certainly many rivers of critical words have meandered their way to icy seas, but no battle lines drawn, no artillery shells fired, no tanks or war planes or ships engaged, and certainly no multitude of lives have been lost because of conflicted opinions. Art - in its multitude of forms - is clearly uplifting to so many. It is what humans do that other animals are unable to do. Sure some animals attract the opposite sex in a myriad of exciting ways, but humans create art in order for it to be engaged without any other external motivation. We think, we create and then we visually engage ours or someone else’s creation - hence we are!

Tasmanian wildflowers by Elsie Maria Benjamin, Perth, Tasmania, Australia. The flowers were worked in heavy silk and chenille thread on silk material. They include the blue-berried Dianella species, Tasmanian banksia, yellow bottlebrush and Eucalyputs globulus (Tasmanian blue gum).
Courtesy of reference[1]. Photograph courtesy of K. Atkinson.

Australian Christian Embroidery
The art of ecclesiastical embroidery dates from the 4th Century and is of a rigidly conventional nature, the symbolism of forms and colors have been long fixed by tradition. Forms are limited almost entirely to the lily, the passionflower, open pomegranates, vines, the apple, the palm, the dove, crosses, circle, arrow and anchor and the sacred monogram, IHS.

IHS is a symbolic monogram of Christ used by the Roman Catholic Church. This monogram consists of the Greek letters - iota, eta, and sigma - the first three letters of the name Iesous (Greek for Jesus), the letters of which are also used to spell out the Latin phrase - “Iesous Hominem Salvator (Jesus, savior of man). It relates to the story of Constantine, whose vision of the Chi-Rho was recorded by Church Father Eusebius. In the vision, Constantine was reported to have heard a voice proclaim, “In this symbol, thou shalt conquer.” Therefore, IHS has also stood for “In Hoc Signo” (in this sign).

Priest’s stole. Heavily embroidered with heavy gold thread in traditional wheat (loaves) and grapes (wine) symbols.
Collection Sisters of St. Joseph, North Sydney.
Courtesy of reference[1]. Photograph courtesy of K. Atkinson.

In the past, religion had a strong influence on Australian domestic life. In the beginning of the last Century, one of the central ways an Australian woman was judged by her peers and by the society at large was through her piety and devotion. She would express this in many aspects of domestic arts.

Lectern hanging embroidered by Miss Joyce Downing of Maryborough (Victoria, Australia, 1937) under instruction by Sister Minna of the Anglican Community of the Holy Name, Cheltenham, pomegranates and leaves were worked in pure silk and gold thread.
Courtesy of reference[1].

In Christian congregations, notably Anglican, groups of women participated in the mothers’ union and together they would embroider church banners. They would also combine their skills to embellish their churches with elegantly designed and stitched kneelers, sometimes commemorating aspects of local history or identities of note.

Kneelers worked for St Thomas’ Church, North Sydney Embroiderers Guild members for the Genevieve Fisher Memorial Chapel. Each commemorates a famous local identity associated with the church in the past.
Top Left: Elizabeth Berry and Rebecca Martens.
Top Right: Traditional symbols.
Bottom Left: Edgar Turton and Jane Martens.
Bottom Right: John Whitton and Suzannah Blue.

Ornate Bishops’ Copes were embroidered by groups of dedicated ladies throughout Australia. The ladies seated below were responsible for embroidering the Archbishop of Brisbane’s Cope in 1907.

From Left: Miss Bolton, Mrs Simmons, Miss Turner and Miss Wassell. The Archbishop is in the center of the second row.
Courtesy of The Queenslander, August 3 (1907).

Embroidery in gold using liturgical colors as an adjunct is one of the oldest forms of ecclesiastical embroidery. Records in the UK date from the 10th Century when embroidery was used on Church vestments. Its origin in Europe was centuries earlier.

Heavily embroidered vestments are now seldom worn by Catholic priests. Traditional sumptuous gold padded embroidery was made by hand as well as by ecclesiastical manufacturers.
Detail of embroidery on vestments belonging to the chapel, Sisters of St. Joseph, North Sydney.
Courtesy of reference[1]. Photograph courtesy of K. Atkinson.

Many Australian churches were encouraging the contemporary use of Australian motifs such as wild flowers, in combination with traditional Christian symbols within the context of church art. In the Anglican church the stoles of St. Thomas’s, North Sydney, made by Mrs. Connie Hewson, offered motifs including waratahs (flowers) and other natives, which are delicate and small but precise and beautiful in execution.

Stoles embroidered by Mrs. Connie Hewson of Sydney incorporating innovative Australian motifs with traditional ecclesiastical symbols.
Courtesy of reference[1]. Photograph courtesy of M. Courtney.

The tradition of handwork on church banners was mainly developed in Australia in the Anglican and Catholic churches. From these early days, motherhood and the home as a pivot of a woman’s life were central to the principles of Christian life at the turn of the last Century.

Banner of the Guild Of Perseverence, embroidered by Ellen Elizabeth Green, Glenelg, from 1893 to 1904, 140 x 80 cm St. Peters Church, Glenelg, South Australia.
Courtesy of reference[1]. Photograph courtesy of S. Schrapel.

Temperance Unions were an immense social force at the turn of the last Century as women joined to fight the evils which alcohol wrought on the peace and sanctity of family life. They took to the streets and carried banners, often hand embroidered.

Embroidered flower wreath from a temperance banner.
Courtesy of reference[1]. Photograph courtesy of G. Morrissey.

In more upper class houses or estates, the elegant traditions of embroidery were used in numerous items, which had a religious purpose. These included the embroidered “prie-Dieu”, a chair with a high sloping back used in prayer.

Prie-dieu. Details of the gros point tapestry design in wool and beads. Made by Margaretta McLeod, ca. 1840s, for her sister Janetta McLeod who married Charles Marsh in 1842. The chair was in use for prayer at “Salisbury Court”, Uralla (NSW, Australia) from 1850 – 1887.
Courtesy of reference[1]. Photograph courtesy of M. Courtney.

In Australia, for a variety of reasons the modern day Christian churches have moved away from using elaborate arts within their churches. Thus, due to their past histories many elaborate traditional forms must now co-exist with more modern forms of worship.

[1] J. Isaacs, Gentle Arts, Ure Smith Press, Sydney (1991).

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