I promised a look at the development of the “Christus Natus Est” design, so here is the very first version, much more traditionally representative in style, made by my mother when I was a little girl, for the window over the stairs in the first house I remember.
When we moved house, there was no window that the first version could fill, so she designed another, this time to fit in a living room window. It is much simpler and more stylised, but I think you can see that in both versions the primary impression is one of the protecting care of the Holy Family.
Then, about four years ago, she did a version in oils, for an exhibition at a local gallery that had the theme “Memorable Dates”. Somehow the design came into vivid life in the painting – she says it came together much more easily than many of her paintings do, but in this version, the Christ Child needs no protection, instead the Light of the World blazes fiercely, incandescent with power and authority.
I expect it is a surprise to none of you, having seen that progression, that I decided I wanted to do my own interpretation. As I’ve said before, I think my version is quieter and more subdued. It has a sense of stillness and purpose, perhaps, the outstretched arms of the Christ Child already prefiguring the Crucifixion, with none of the exaltation of the heavenly choirs.
If, unlike me, you believe that an artist’s work reflects their state of mind, you might be worried about that. Don’t be. Beethoven wrote some of his most joyous music when he was already profoundly deaf and acutely depressed, and while I would not in any other way expect to be bracketed with the great man, my embroidery never has anything to do with my emotional state!
A Happy Christmas to you all!
After considerable effort, and not a few significant struggles that I rather doubted I would win, I think I have finally finished the Christus Natus Est panel.
This back view shows a tangle of ends of the gold thread, caught down occasionally where the silk work has carried on over the top. If you look at the full size picture (click on the one on the left) you will see that in fact the central section is reasonably neat. What has made it untidy is that there were elements that I added to it – the halos that were done after the heads, the rust colour that I added into St Joseph’s robe, the additional light blue added to the Virgin’s robe. And of course there are all those wild gold threads which have a mind of their own!
The full size picture also gives you some idea how tiny all the coloured silk stitches are (we think on the order of 80 to 100 stitches per linear inch) – which will explain why I really didn’t want to have to unpick anything..
I’m going to put it away for a week and then look at it again to be sure it’s as finished as I can make it, before I mount it over padded acid-free card in preparation for framing.
I’m pleased with the progress I’m making on the panel now, but I’m becoming slightly anxious that I might run out of the gold thread before I finish the panel. I don’t know how thick the core is at the centre of the spool, and I’ve noticed that the kinks in the gold thread are getting tighter and more stubborn. If I do run out, that will put paid to the idea of photographing the finished piece for this year’s Christmas card.
You can see from this shot that the extra thickness of the silk thread forming the star is creating an extra curve in the lines of gold. If I were working a classical piece of or nué, with straight lines of gold, I would be trying to space the lines to reduce the effect, or I would have chosen a finer silk thread, with the same aim. In this case, however, I am quite happy to add an extra couple of curves to the gold lines, because it will add life and movement to the background.
If I have enough gold thread, I will rework the corner that is infilling that triangle on the left-hand side. I don’t think that the bends in the thread work as well as they might, and they are revealing the core more than I like. I need to finish the rest of the panel first, though.
As you can see, my recent obsession with this panel is paying off. I’ve finished the two bottom corners of the panel, and sunk all the loose ends. The red of St Joseph’s robe is enlivened with the rust sprinkled through it. Under normal lighting it barely shows, but it does make a slight difference, and with a strong side light, it warms up the red and increases the contrast with the blue of the Virgin’s robe. Good. I’d hate to have to unpick it!
The view of the whole thing shows that I have now only got the star to do in silk – all the other design elements are in. I still have to add St Joseph’s halo, but I’m running slightly short on the cream silk thread and I want to get the star in before I start going back to the haloes.
I’ve also begun to correct the curve of the Virgin’s robe. At the moment it is much too straight, so I am trying to curve it some more.
In fact it is the tidying up of small details such as this which might interfere with my ambition to have this finished by mid-November. I’ll have to continue to tweak until it looks right, and who knows how much I will need to do?
I’ve now got to the stage where I’ve started to leave uncovered gold thread at the bottom, and the sections of silk are reducing in size again. I’ve introduced a third shade of red into St Joseph’s robe, as well. It barely shows in most lights, but I think that it will make a difference in the end, by creating a sort of “ripple” in the appearance of the colour.
While I’ve been stitching I’ve been trying to see whether this interpretation of my mother’s original design says something different to the other versions. What occurs to me now as I look at the photo is that the shape of the Christ Child reminds me of the many Renaissance Nativity paintings in which He is shown with arms outstretched, prefiguring the Crucifixion.
I’ve also been thinking about mounting the piece when it’s finished. I went to the framing shop and looked at their gold card (all much too green), and then thought, since it’s a textile piece, maybe the mount should be textile too. There’s a fabric shop just around the corner, and although they didn’t have anything that was immediately suitable without alteration, they did have a sort of flimsy “cloth-of-gold” which gave me an idea. I’ve overlaid two layers of amber net over the cloth-of-golf in this photo, and the trimmed the edge with a piece of braid I found somewhere else. If I do this it will be nearly as much work as the embroidery was, so I’m hoping that I might have another idea soon!
I’ve become rather obsessed with making progress on the Christus Natus Est panel. Now that the spiral is finished, and the gold couching only stretches from edge to edge, that progress becomes easier to see.
In particular, not only have I managed to finish the top of St Joseph’s head, and run two or three more rows across the bottom of the panel, but I’ve started to fill in the gap between the spiral and the breakaway line. In fact I’m not sure that I am entirely happy with it – I may have begun to use single threads on both sides of the triangular shape a little early, which leaves some gaps in the coverage.
I will have a lot of tidying up and corrective stitching to do, even when the whole fabric is covered with gold. I need to finish the Christ Child’s halo, and put St Joseph’s in place. I also need to correct the curve of the Virgin’s gown, which is a little flat and straight.
I don’t yet know whether I will stitch rays coming from the star. I think that decision will be made only when the rest of the piece is finished.
I’m beginning to think about the mounting and framing of this piece. I think it will need a wide mount, because such a vibrant piece will need plenty of air between itself and the frame. One possiblity involves a mount covered in cloth of gold or gauze, and trimmed with braid or crystals. If I can’t find a suitable fabric, I will have to hope for a mount card in the right shade of gold. A cream mount would look insipid, and a mount in one of the colours would contend for attention with the panel itself. It’s just as well we have a good framing shop nearby!
I’ve been making more progress, and in fact passed another milestone this past week.
I’ve reached the right-hand edge and started to stitch just on the top section for a while. Suddenly it feels quicker, because although I’m making progress at the same rate as before (the stitching itself hasn’t speeded up!) I sometimes manage two or more rows in a session, and the sections of design that are covered are side-by-side, and thus more noticeable.
So here is the whole thing to show the progress that I’ve made. I’ve unpicked and removed the line of gold I put in following the black line, because in fact it isn’t running exactly where I want it to, even if it is running along the line I drew.
I sink the threads in batches at the end of a session, which means they don’t slow me down when I’m nicely “in flow”, but it looks neat and easy to understand when I get back to it. When I’ve reached the black line (the correct one!) I shall stop working on the top section and work on the bottom section until that is done, then I will have the last section to work which should go more speedily as there will only be one colour to stitch.
I’m beginning to have hopes of finishing this in time to use it as a Christmas card. Now I just need to work out how to frame it…!
I’ve got to the point where the lower ends of the robes of Mary and Joseph have both been started, which also brings me very close to the other edge of the panel.
It’s been a little slow of late, partly because the weather has been frightful – grey and overcast. Stitching goldwork in bright sunshine is a recipe for eye fatigue (learn from my mistakes, Gentle Reader!) but at the same time the rich red of Joseph’s robe and the purple of the Christ Child both become quite difficult as the day turns darker. I’m finding that if I want to make progress, everything else has to come second to doing a row or two when the light is good. Sometimes I’m so busy doing other things that I only realise quite late that I’ve missed the best of the light. Very frustrating!
The other reason it has been slow is that I have so many needles in operation – ten of them! Every change of colour means putting one needle aside and picking up another, and while this is a tangible demonstration of progress, and therefore welcome, it does rather slow me down!
I’ve been talking recently with a friend who has been trained in icon painting, and it’s fascinating to hear about the layers of meaning and symbolism in the materials, preparations and even in the process. I’m working so hard on developing a technique here, that I’m not necessarily managing to turn my version into a spiritual exercise as well, although I do sometimes feel that I’m not a million miles away from stitching-as-meditation.
Well, St Benedict said “Laborare est orare” (“To work is to pray”). So maybe I’m onto something, after all.