The Magi Cope

This 15th century priest's Benediction cope is one of the most important of the church treasures of Waterford, from the only complete set of pre-Reformation vestments to survive in Britain or Ireland and belonging to Waterford's Christ Church cathedral. The cloth is red or green brocaded velvet on cloth-of-gold ground with pomegranate design made in Florence about 1480, the figurative panels are of linen richly embroidered in gold thread and coloured silks in the famous Flemish embroidery workshops. It is a miracle that the vestments survive. At the time of Cromwell they were hidden in the vaults of the cathedral and not rediscovered until the end of the 18th century when they were generously presented by the Protestant bishop to the Catholic dean. Placed for safekeeping in the National Museum of Ireland in the mid-twentieth century, two pieces of the set are on display in Waterford.

The complete set consists of four Copes, and a set of High Mass vestments, six pieces. The set follows the great cycles of the Old and New Testaments from Creation through the life of Christ to the Redemption of Souls. The Magi cope is the second cope in the cycle and the panels show scenes from the life of Jesus and the virgin: Joachim and Anna at the Golden Gate; the Presentation of the Blessed Virgin; the Annunciation; the birth of Jesus; the Circumcision, and Jesus among the Doctors; the hood - the most spectacular part of the cope - shows the visit of the three wise men flanked by the Queen of Sheba's arrival at the court of King Solomon and Abraham's visit to Melchisedech. Events from Jesus's life illustrated by parallel scenes from the Old Testament is an example of medieval teaching of the Gospel.

The superb quality of the images and workmanship, suggests that the figures were drawn by artists skilled in miniature painting and familiar with the rich contemporary sources. There is much detail: faces and details of costume, architecture and armour are all Flemish, late 15th century. The Mystery plays had a far-reaching influence on artists in sculpture, painting, illumination and embroidery and there was cross-fertilisation between the arts. We do not yet know if the vestments were a royal gift, were commissioned by the cathedral or were the gift of a wealthy benefactor.

Conservation generously assisted by the Heritage Council.

date/period: c.1480 A.D./late medieval

inventory no.: 1999.005

collection: Waterford City Council by kind permission of the Bishop of Waterford & Lismore

location: Waterford Museum of Treasures exhibition

dimensions: 1410 max height x 2050 max width mm

provenance: The medieval Christ Church Cathedral, Waterford

material: cloth of gold, velvet, linen, silk

Further Reading:

Catriona MacLeod, "Fifteenth Century Vestments in Waterford" JRSAI Vol LXXXII, Part II, 1952

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