Advent Blue

This is a glorious little piece of late medieval English embroidery in the V and A. It formed part of an altar frontal, of unknown provenance, given by Henry Smyth and his wife and their son Thomas Smythe and his wife. It dates from the final quarter of the fifteenth century. It is decorated, as you see, with kneeling donor images of the two couples and with the standard ‘waterflowers’ of the period. All this embroidery is offset by a wonderful, rich blue velvet ground. The combination of this blue ground and the goldwork make for a rather striking and opulent piece of textile design.

I include this image on the blog today at the beginning of Advent, because I rather lament the aesthetic loss of dark blue from liturgical use. Dark blue was a common colour for medieval textiles and aware of this, its use as a suitable colour for Advent was encouraged by those who promoted the ‘English Use’, notably people like Percy Dearmer and Vernon Staley. The use of dark blue during Advent was fairly widespread in the Church of England until recent years. Sadly blue has been replaced in many places with garish shades of purple that I think clash terribly with many English medieval church buildings. This change has been aided by the calendar of Common Worship, which has designated purple as the colour of the season. Below are a number of examples of the use of dark blue for Advent and I think you will agree that they are very striking.

Sarum blue in Cuddesdon, Oxfordshire

A stamped blue velvet frontal at Cuddesdon church in Oxfordshire.

St James, Louth, Lincolnshire

Blue velvet frontal in Bodley’s ‘Gothic’ silk, at Louth in Lincolnshire.

St James, Louth, Lincolnshire

6 thoughts on “Advent Blue

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  1. This frontal is very similar to one at St Mark’s Philadelphia designed by Kempe and embroidered by the Clewer Sisters. The same format, same damask and even apparels. It was described at the time as violet…


  2. Davis, do you have a photo of the frontal in Philadelphia? Lapinbizarre. Yes I think you are right. I feel a post coming on about rosary beads. Interesingly those single decade strings were often portrayed at a disproportionate scale in monumental brasses, presumably to emphasise the piety of the deceased. I’m glad to know somebody else in the world appreciates Advent blue, I was beginning to think it was a lost cause.


  3. No, Alan, I haven’t as yet photographed the digitally. It’s on my list along with a Comper frontal. There are actually 5 by Kempe/Clewer at St Mark’s which need to be seen and are still in use after 106 years.


  4. Blue is alive and well at St George’s Chapel Windsor. Indeed they have two blue frontals, an earlier Vicrtorian dark blue with ppassion flowers and a lighter (Comper) blue with the crucifixion. Modern blue vestments by Watts are used in Advent and Lent.


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