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A Stitch Out of Time

Medieval Embroidery for the Modern Era


Appendix C: Symbolism

In researching this style, I soon noticed that there are several design motifs that recur over and over. The same geometric figure might be used in several different designs. It occurred to me that there might be a reason for this other than the obvious one that the embroiderers would tend to reuse successful designs and patterns, and copy them from each other. The possibility that these motifs might have a symbolic meaning seemed worth pursuing, and so I kept track of the figures that appeared most often. A search of the available books[18] on the meaning of symbols was instructive. I was able to attach at least a tentative symbolic meaning to each of the four motifs below. Given the strong component of symbolism in art, especially Medieval art forms, it seems reasonable that the workers of this type of needlework were aware of the meaning behind their patterns. However, if you look hard enough, it is possible to find hidden meaning in anything, so do not allow overemphasis on symbols to dictate what patterns you use.
image: flyfot
Figure 14: The Flyfot
image: Crosshatch
Figure 15: The Crosshatch
image: The Fret
Figure 16: The Fret
image: The eagle
Figure 16: The 'Eagle'
The first symbol to be discussed is perhaps the oldest. The flyflot or swastika was first known to be used over 3000 years ago in what is now Pakistan[19]. Its use soon spread to most of Asia and Europe, and was in use to varying degrees[20] throughout the Medieval period. While it is not used on any items on public display at the V&A, the Hildesheim cope and several of the wall hangings I have seen pictures of do contain it. There are a wide variety of meanings attached to this symbol, all for the most part positive. This is a symbol of power and good luck[21], especially in the Celtic, Teutonic and Scandinavian cultures, where it is also associated with the pagan thunder god, Thor [22]. In the modern period it has unfortunately become inextricably associated with Fascism, Nazi Germany and the horror of the Holocaust. Because of the emotional and political problems now attached to this ancient symbol, I strongly discourage the reader from using it in a design. It is included here for the sake of completeness.
This design, which I have dubbed the 'crosshatch', appears in no less than three of the patterns above. It also shows up in some of the larger pieces. Unlike the Swastika, it has no overall meaning. In alchemy it was used both as a sign for lead and in some cases "spritus" or alcohol[23]. It has also been used on pharmacological recipes with the meaning "Take in God's name" and "may this be good for you"[24].
Another symbol that appears several times in the pieces I have seen is the fret. The only meaning I have been able to attach to this one is another alchemical sign. In alchemy this symbol was used to denote iron vitriol or iron[25]. It was also a popular charge in heraldry. If there was a deeper meaning to this design I have not found it.
The final of the four motifs I will discuss is a strange one. In its two variations it appears over and over in the items I have seen. It is also used in other styles of needlework in the same time frame. However, a search of the books on the subject of symbolism turned up nothing. Looked at in the right way it can be taken for a highly stylized eagle. In heraldic terms an eagle displayed. In my opinion this is just what it is. The eagle is a recurring symbol in German history, dating from the time of Charlemagne[26].
As you can see, in those symbols that can be identified, there is a strong positive bent. Even given the lack of overt Christian symbolism, luck and good will are a recurring theme. If there was a symbolic component to this style, it was a positive one. It might be nice to keep the possible meaning of the designs you use in mind as you work.

Footnotes

[18] Carl G. Liungman, Dictionary of Symbols. (Santa Barbara: ABC-CLIO, 1991), and J.C. Cooper, An Illustrated Encyclopedia of Traditional Symbols. (London: Thames and Hudson, 1978).
[19] Carl G. Liungman, Dictionary of Symbols. (Santa Barbara: ABC-CLIO, 1991). p. 178.
[20] Carl G. Liungman, Dictionary of Symbols. (Santa Barbara: ABC-CLIO, 1991). p. 179.
[21] J.C. Cooper, An Illustrated Encyclopedia of Traditional Symbols. (London: Thames and Hudson, 1978). p. 166.
[22] J.C. Cooper, An Illustrated Encyclopedia of Traditional Symbols. (London: Thames and Hudson, 1978). p. 166.
[23] Carl G. Liungman, Dictionary of Symbols. (Santa Barbara: ABC-CLIO, 1991). p. 464.
[24] Carl G. Liungman, Dictionary of Symbols. (Santa Barbara: ABC-CLIO, 1991). p. 464.
[25] Carl G. Liungman, Dictionary of Symbols. (Santa Barbara: ABC-CLIO, 1991). p. 466.
[26] Mary E. Jones, A History of Western Embroidery. (New York: Watson-Guptill, 1969). p. 106.