Anita Jones, Curator of Decorative Arts for Textiles
In earlier centuries, lace was more than a frilly trim or symbol of feminine seduction. Men wore lace as a sign of status and rank in the Church, as well as in court circles. The need for lace decoration on altar covers, ritual cloths, and liturgical vestments made the Church a major patron of lace-making.
This lace flounce once graced the bottom of an ecclesiastic robe called an alb. It is a continuous band of Milanese bobbin lace over 16 inches high and 144 inches in circumference. In this type of bobbin lace, the cloth work (solid areas) and the ground (net) are made separately, thus allowing the work required to produce such large-scale items to be divided into manageable sections.
While scrolls and flowers are typical of Milanese lace, sections of this flounce indicate a special commission for a churchman of some status. On one side, the lace makers recreated a dramatic version of The Vision of St. Paul, depicting the moment in which Saul, a persecutor of Christians, has a vision of the risen Christ. The experience results in his conversion to Christianity and eventual martyrdom as Paul.
Despite the lack of color in the lace, the details of clothing, faces, horses, bridles and other elements are discernible through the use of different stitches. This powerful representation of faith may also have had a personal connection to the clergyman wearing it.
The other side of this flounce reveals an elaborate coat of arms, a privilege shared by the aristocracy and the Church. Coats of arms are not infrequent in Milanese laces, but required special designs and resulted in increased cost. Unfortunately, the identity of the owner remains a mystery. Claribel and Etta Cone, who purchased the alb flounce in Paris in 1926, believed the arms to be those of a Cardinal. However, according to the rules of ecclesiastical heraldry, 12 tassels (fiocchi) on each side of the hat (galero) and of a different color than the hat (indicated here by the use of different stitches) indicate a cleric of a different rank. Other secular motifs, such as the crowned eagle, signifying imperial power, and the lion passant (walking), associated with royalty, seem to indicate a connection to a powerful family, who might have sought to cement their social and political status by positioning one of their members in the Church hierarchy.
BMA Voices is an insider’s exploration of The Baltimore Museum of Art collection through the eyes of its curators, conservators, and registrars. Featuring a new object every day during the BMA’s 100 Day Celebration, the project will highlight some favorite, amusing, unusual, and obscure objects.