From Winter Blues into Rainbows of Ornament




I am one of those people who hates the drear of winter time.  It’s a time of year when everything seems muted, gray, dingy, and brown.  I feel muffled and dulled by so many coats and scarves and such heavy boots.

The best cure for this I have ever found is to play with colors and textures.  This year, the cure has been a combination of knitting projects and one big embroidery project.  I’ve been accumulating embroidery flosses in silks, cottons, and wools that just seem to leap into my hands over the last few years, and begged for my attention.

The inspiration for this embroidery project is an old illuminated book called the Winchester bible.  You can see a capital initial “P” (on the left) from this gorgeous book.

I love how this illuminated letter shows the layers of clothes this guy is taking off in his haste to carry news to heaven.  I love the intense, rich colors the painter used.  But mostly, I love the curvilinear vines that recur over and over again in art throughout history.








Here is some of my collection of embroidery floss, all laid out to begin the project.  There is a group of golds, a group of reds, a group of grays, and a group of greens.  The slate blue-gray underneath it is the basecloth I’ll be using for the project.  (The dog is just a local helper, Coco, who believes that my lap is her special home.)


I know exactly what these threads want me to use them for.  These leafy vines are a motif that’s reworked and re- reworked throughout history, and now it’s my turn to have my way with them, too.

The close-up below was scanned from Hanns Swarzenski’s Monuments of Romanesque Art.  This is an old book with black and white photos, but it contains images of most of the major works of Anglo-French art from 1050-1250 c.e.   We have copies on the 5th floor Main N6280 .S9




Above is a close up of a border from the bronze doors of the town of Gnesen in Liege, c. 1127.  Here is a picture of one complete door, just so you can get an idea of the scale of the thing.  Pretty impressive casting job, right?

Being in the design-mode for an embroidery project makes me more aware of the patterns around me, both on the street and in the library.


These viney motifs have a long history.  They have been used and reused many times as decorative borders.  I found one as a window-frame carving as I was walking on the upper-east side  a few weekends ago.





Look at how similar these curving vines (probably carved in the 1920s) are structurally to the ones from the bronze doors.  Curiouser about these motifs now, I began looking them up in sources here in the library.  I began with that great compendium of design motifs from around the world, The Grammar of Ornament, by Owen Jones.  The corbel and archways below were redrawn by Jones from the church of St. Sophia in Salzburg, Austria (c. 767 C.E?).

jones arabian

Owen Jones (1809-1874) was an architect and designer who used his Grand Tour of Europe to research some of that continent’s most important architectural sites.  He was especially interested in the decorative patterns in stonework, tile, stained glass, or painting he had seen at each place.  His first book of drawings was about the Alhambra, the Moorish palace in Granada, Spain (c. 1278 C.E).

Because of his knowledge, he was appointed one of the chief designers of the Christal Palace Exhibition in 1851 in London.  This exhibition, focused the supremacy of British design, was sponsored by Queen Victoria’s husband, Prince Albert.  The organizers of the exhibition hoped to inspire manufacturers to design their products with beauty, not just usefulness, in mind.

Jones eventually published the drawings of many motifs from his travels in his major work, The Grammar of Ornament, reprinted in various editions between 1856 and 1868.  This book, like the exhibition, was designed to provide artists and designers with new ideas for their products.   It has been a huge influence on art and design through the current day.  The library holds copies of this book up on the 5th floor in the Main Stacks NK1510 .J7.   We even have a copy on disk at the Access Services Desk on the 5th floor.

Jones and his colleagues felt that artists didn’t just need training in art history, but that they needed to understand the variety of world decorative motifs.  Remember that this was before photography was widely used to document historic sites.

jones byz

Like the architect from the apartment building on the upper east side, and like me, Jones was looking at 12th century artwork to get these images.  The above two were drawn from the Norman cathedral in Sicily.  Apparently these vine motifs were so popular that they were carved or painted all kinds of places.  Here are a few more from Jone’s work, redrawn from various illuminated manuscripts:


Church columns, corbels and walls, boxes, tombs, combs, book covers and pages all were painted or carved or enameled in these kinds of patterns.  The Winchester Bible is a masterpiece of this form.

Here is a picture of the bible so you can get an idea of the scale of it:


This book was written by hand in this large format so that many monks could use it at one time.  It was a prestigious item for the Cathedral at Winchester to have commissioned before 1160 and 1175 C.E. because before the invention of the printing press in 1448, books were both valuable and rare.   The Winchester Bible was intended to be precious from its beginning.  In it, capital letters were embellished with real gold leaf and lots and lots of glorious, expensive, decadent colors.  We know that the colors used in books like these were imported long distances and were expensive to purchase.  The orangy-red in these letters was made with vermilion, imported from Spain, or China, or made synthetically with a mix of sulphur and mercury.

The blue on these pages was made of ground lapis lazuli, imported from the area where Afghanistan is now. (Winchester is in the south of England.)

Look how gorgeous the illuminated letters on the book are.  They were painted by a group of four artists nearly nine-hundred years ago, and they still take my breath away every time I look at them.


Here are some more:


The parts that especially fascinate me are the filling details within the outlines of the letters.  The undulating curves which are played out in carefully-painted white washes so that these acanthus leaves flow and fold around everything delight me.


winchQnQAnd then the ends of all the letters trail off into this surreal flowering of strange colors and leafy shapes.  The H above has knotting scrollwork around it, but the Qs to the right have this riotous abstracted foliage that may have begun as acanthus leaves, but has become something else in translation.

These are the knotwork and vine-leaf patterns that interest me so very much.  I’ve embroidered them a few times before.  Here is a version of knotwork (the name for this type of interlacing motif) I plotted out a few years ago:

yellowcuff.inprogHere is the original plan, so you can get a sense of the design.


For the current embroidery project, on the slate-blue linen, I think I will make the vines burgundy, with shaded stems.  Here are some of the patterns I’m working on.

portal vine collar scroll collar anmlsBoth of these are keyhole-shaped neckline templates.







Here is a similar leafy design I’ve already embroidered:

red viney cuff_edijpg12thEricleaves

The design I’m working on will probably be worked in more muted colors, like greens, silvery-grays and purples.  But I still have to decide.  The vines themselves will probably be one main color with related shades and tints to imitate the white painted detail-work in the manuscript.  Then the vine ends can have different colors at each place where they end or a different leg of the vine starts up.  Watch this space for progress on this project.

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3 Responses to From Winter Blues into Rainbows of Ornament

  1. Kelly H says:

    I loved this post about illuminated letters. It’s such a beautiful art form that I have been lucky enough to study! Keep up the pretty work.

    • Beth McMahon says:

      Thank you. I’ve tried my hand at calligraphy and illumination of it as well, but I’m more of a textiles person at heart.

      Glad you enjoyed the post! What are your specialties?

  2. Wow! Good article.
    I will support you:)

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