Dating from the 1460s the Waterford cloth-of-gold vestments are made from Italian silk woven in Florence. The panels were embroidered in Bruges which was the centre of the medieval embroidery industry.
Depicted on these priceless vestments are various scenes from the Bible and from the life of the Virgin Mary. They are the greatest treasures of late medieval Ireland.
The Waterford cloth-of-gold vestments are the only full set of medieval vestments to survive in northern Europe.
They are Ireland’s only link with the Renaissance that was beginning in northern Europe and the survival of such fragile material after being buried for 123 years is truly remarkable.
They are included in the 100 iconic objects which tell the story of Ireland over the last 9,000 years.
The rising tide of economic prosperity that was washing over late 15th century Europe was also lapping the shores of Ireland allowing port cities like Waterford to experience a period of rapid growth following almost a century of stagnation. The growth in prosperity was also matched by a growth in religious piety because men and women throughout Ireland and across Europe lived in fear that following their departure from this world their immortal souls would languish in semi-torment in Purgatory. One way to avoid or at least reduce the time spent in Purgatory was to get an indulgence for one’s sins or to have masses said for one’s soul or the souls of one’s loved ones.
The indulgences could be gained by attending religious services and making a donation to the church. By the second half of the 15th century indulgences became an almost fatal obsession for the Catholic Church. Many deeply devout laymen and clerics saw their guarantee of a place in heaven as linked to their generosity to the Church while on this earth. In Waterford in 1468, John Collyn, the Dean of Christ Church Cathedral decided to build a chantry chapel adjoining the cathedral and in this special place of worship Masses would be said for the souls of the dead. Those who supported the building of the chapel with gifts of money or property would have their names or the names of their loved ones included on the daily round of Masses celebrated by the chaplains of the chantry chapel.
One of the wealthy patrons of the Church was the wine merchant and eleven-times Mayor of Waterford, James Rice. He was a very close friend of Dean John Collyn and he probably paid for these sumptuous vestments. Coincidentally both men lived next-door to each other in the two medieval buildings that today lie beneath this medieval museum.
The vestments were of the highest quality. They were made using Italian silk from Florence while the decorated orphreys or panels were worked in Bruges in present-day Belgium by skilled embroiderers working to designs prepared by artists of the calibre of Jan Van Eyck and Hans Memling. Bruges was one of the great maritime ports of northern Europe and a trading partner of Waterford. Bruges also acted as a sort of hinge between northern and southern Europe in terms of the exchange of high culture. The expertly-embroidered people in the panels are dressed in late 15th century Flemish fashions. Details of dress and architecture are incredibly well parallelled in Flemish paintings of the period.
The set on display in the Medieval Museum consists of three copes (large cloaks) as well as two T-shaped dalmatics and a chasuble. The embroidered panels draw their inspiration from the Bible - both Old and New Testament, as well as stories from the life of the Virgin Mary.
The Waterford set of cloth-of-gold vestments are now regarded as one of the great treasures of late medieval Europe. These vestments are a symbol of many things but essentially they represent the magnificence of the art that adorned the churches of late medieval Ireland. To the citizens of 15th century Waterford when the cathedral altar was bathed in candle light and the sunlight penetrating the stained glass windows, they must have been breathtaking, a glimpse of heaven in an otherwise rather dull world. They were indeed the heavens’ embroidered cloths, a heaven that people yearned to go to without the pain of Purgatory.
These vestments survived the 17th century wars of religion because they were buried in 1650 before the city fell to the army of the republican general, Oliver Cromwell. They were re-discovered 123 years later when the medieval cathedral was being demolished and were then gifted by the Church of Ireland bishop to his Catholic counterpart.
These vestments are unique and are featured in the Irish Times History of Ireland in 100 Objects by Fintan O'Toole.
The full story of these remarkable vestments is told in a special audio-visual presentation in a theatre adjoining the gallery where they are displayed.