Object of the Week | 11/05/2021

Embroidered Blackwork Corporal

C 1580

This beautiful embroidery was made in the late 16th century by an unknown Catholic, for use in clandestine masses. At that time, during the reign of Queen Elizabeth I, celebration of any Catholic sacraments were illegal, and the presence of priests in England merited severe penalties, including heavy fines, lengthy imprisonment and, ultimately, execution. So this was a dangerous act of subversion against the Elizabethan state, as well as a creative piece of artwork.

A corporal is a large square of fine linen, with five embroidered crosses. It is used on the altar in the mass, and the consecration of the bread into the Body of Christ takes place upon it, hence its name ‘corporal’ which comes from the Latin word for body. Blackwork is a fine and complicated form of embroidery which was popular in Tudor England and is traditionally associated with Katherine of Aragon who made it fashionable, and used the technique to decorate fine linen shirts for her husband Henry VIII. Although most blackwork involves black silk, other colours, such as red and gold, were also used.

The detail shown in the pictures show an elaborate carnation flower, which was a symbol for the Incarnation of Christ as a human being, and a pomegranate, which was a symbol of the spreading of the Christian faith (pomegranates are full of jewel-like seeds). This beautiful survival from Catholic Elizabethan times was given to Stonyhurst in 1888.