Holy Hands: a study of knitted liturgical gloves

By Lesley O’Connell Edwards

‘Holy Hands’ is the first (and only) systematic study of knitted liturgical gloves. These gloves are generally finely worked from silk and metal threads, with ornate patterned cuffs and a symbolic medallions on the back of the hands. Some gloves are very complex, others very simple: figure 1 shows a typical example. Other examples of fine two-coloured silk knitting exist from the Middle Ages: there are relic bags from Chur and Sion in Switzerland, and cushions from Las Huelgas in Spain.

Figure 1: Liturgical gloves from the treasury of the cathedral of St Bertrand de Comminges, France (inventory number 58-P-726); image © Dr Angharad Thomas.

Liturgical gloves, which are also referred to as pontifical gloves, episcopal gloves or ecclesiastical gloves, were in use by the twelfth century in the western Christian Church. These were part of a bishop’s regalia, which also included the mitre. They were worn by senior churchmen, bishops and above, for the first part of the eucharist, before the sacrifice of body and blood. A bishop was specifically invested with them when he was consecrated. He often had his gloves put onto his hands as part of the service, and it has been suggested that the stretch in knitted fabric made this easier. Most of the gloves that survive are knitted ones, although there are some created by other looping techniques, and a few woven fabric and leather ones.

The gloves identified in the Holy Hands project are housed in collections across Europe and North America. However, knitted liturgical gloves had never been studied as a group until now: there was not even a listing of all the known gloves. Very few gloves are still in ecclesiastical institutions, although some have moved from an ecclesiastical institution to a local museum, such as the fragments of the gloves of Bishop Guy van Avesnes of Utrecht, which are now held in Utrecht Central Museum. The majority recorded passed into the hands of private collectors, and then moved into museums and similar institutions, and, as a result, there is little or no information about their provenance or date of construction. One such collector was Robert Spence, whose gloves are now held by the Glove Collection Trust in the UK (https://theglovecollection.uk/). A few gloves have been published repeatedly in books on knitting or art, such as item 437&A-1892 in the V&A (https://collections.vam.ac.uk/item/O107792/pair-of-gloves-unknown/) and the gloves at New College which belonged to Archbishop William Warham. One or two others have been published as a study of conservation, such as those of Archbishop de Rada, which were conserved at the Abegg Stiftung Foundation in Switzerland.

Not all recorded gloves have survived. The project discovered that two previously documented pairs have since disappeared. Only a single fragment remains of the bishop’s gloves found in a tomb at Fortrose Cathedral in Scotland; and a pair of gloves in an unknown bishop’s tomb in Paris seen by Margaret Rowe in 1949, had virtually disintegrated when she paid a return visit in 1959.

The Holy Hands team also believes that there are many other liturgical gloves in existence, but there is a general unawareness of such gloves and their role in church ceremonies. A visit to Vienna to see some reported gloves revealed not the two or three expected pairs, but more than 40 in the cathedral treasury!

The liturgical and historical context

Medieval liturgists do not provide much information on the theology and use of these gloves. The term inconsutiles or seamless is used by these theologians, and is taken by some later writers to refer to the gloves being created in the round and hence that they must be knitted. Inconsutiles is actually a much more complex theological concept: the liturgists are concerned with the seamlessness of the prelate’s adherence to the faith of the church: an understandable concern in an age where heresy was a constant worry.

Very little has been written on these gloves as historic artefacts. There are two main studies, one in French by Barbier de Montault from the 1870s, and the other in German by Braun from the beginning of the twentieth century; though neither has much to say specifically on the knitted construction of gloves. In the last few years, some detailed studies have concentrated on a specific glove, or pair of gloves.

Gloves were often linked with a saint or holy person whose date well precedes those of the item. An example is the fragment of a glove at Deventer connected to St Lebuinius – there are two possible candidates for him, but both lived in the 8th century, long before it is likely knitting began in Europe: the fragment is now dated to the sixteenth century. As early as the 19th century, writers such as de Montault were noting this discrepancy, whilst still arguing that the link with the venerated person nevertheless imbued the gloves with holiness, and thus with value. In addition, it might have been seen as appropriate to put gloves on the hands of the dead saint to honour him.

Actual explanations for the dating or the provenance of gloves is rare. De Kriujf uses the embroidery on the St Gertrudiskathedraal gloves in Utrecht to date these to the early 17th century. Bažantovå compared Czech gloves with designs on fabrics from Arabic countries and Italy, whilst Carbonell dated a pair in Barcelona from the name that fortuitously was knitted into them. Ashton saw possibilities for the gloves linked to William Warham at New College being Spanish or Italian, by examining details of his political life, which involved international dealings with Spain and the Papacy.

The aims of the Holy Hands project

Historical knitted items have generally been overlooked by those studying textiles in depth, a ‘Cinderella’ subject as Dr Jane Malcolm-Davies describes it, which is reflected in the lack of recorded detail on knitted items in many collections. The research team was led by Dr Angharad Thomas, assisted by Lesley O’Connell Edwards, and Dr Jane Malcolm-Davies mentored the project. Sylvie Odstrčilová shared her expertise in on historic knitted items and assisted with the Holy Hands database. Jodie Cox was responsible for developing the Knitting in Early Modern Europe website and presenting the data on the gloves online.

The project successfully applied for a Janet Arnold Award for the project, which was granted in February 2020. There were four aspects to Holy Hands:

  • Create a database of extant gloves. There is now a database of ninety-six such gloves held in collections in Europe and North America (www.kemeresearch.com)
  • Produce a protocol for examining the gloves to ensure that the same data for different gloves is recorded, so that all researchers record the details of the gloves in the same format
  • Undertake a literature search and review
  • Reconstruct selected elements

Creating a database of knitted liturgical gloves

The project had its challenges (not least the CoVid lockdown soon after the grant was awarded). The initial plan had been to visit museums to study specific gloves in detail. This was possible for all the gloves in the UK, apart from the fragment in Scotland. An initial survey was made of the Glove Collection Trust gloves in March, and the pair at the Whitworth in Manchester; the gloves at New College, and those at the V&A Museum had already been examined. Fortunately, the curators of many of the collections that house these gloves were happy to supply photographs, and provide what other limited details they held. There were also a few individual studies on which to draw which provided various details of the gloves, including yarn, stitch count and construction, although not complete details for any glove. Records of other textiles regularly include this information, and to ensure that knitted items are treated on a par with other textiles, it needs to be recorded for these, too. The Society of Antiquaries kindly allowed the grant to be used for developing the Knitting in Early Modern Europe database to include the gloves (www.kemeresearch.com).

As a result, the project has created a virtual collection of these religious artefacts. There are currently ninety-six items in the gloves database – seventy-nine pairs of gloves, one right glove, eleven left gloves, and also five fragments of gloves. Each glove has its own entry (a pair counts as one), which includes either a photograph or an online link to images of the gloves, plus as much data is now known about that particular item. This can range from very sparse to very detailed information. The glove database is free for anyone to use for their personal research: users register and agree they will only use the data for personal research. The Knitting in Early Modern Europe website also includes the literature review and the protocol for examining gloves.

Figure 2: Liturgical gloves in Brixen Cathedral Treasury, Italy; image: © Diocesan Museum Hofburg Bressanone

Findings from the database

This number of gloves ensured the project could provide numerical data about them, despite the fact that the information for most gloves is incomplete. The dating of these gloves spreads across the centuries. Thirteen are pre-16th century, whilst the majority are 16th to 18th century. However, this pattern should not be read as that of the growth and decline in the use of these gloves – survival of medieval artefacts is much more problematic. It should also be noted that these are the dates given by the holding institutions only rarely with the relevant criteria. In addition, some of the later gloves are machine knitted.

Most of the gloves are created in one of the four main liturgical colours of red, white, purple and green. Nearly half the gloves have a red background, and a further third a white one. There are some for which the colour cannot now be determined. Given these were gloves for elite churchmen, who might well have presided at more important services, it is not surprising that there are more red and white ones, which are the colours for holy days and festivals, respectively, than purple and green, which are the colours for the times of preparation, Lent and Advent, and for ordinary time, respectively.

Gauge information (wales and courses counts) was recorded for a quarter of the gloves. This confirms that they have a high wale (stitch) and course (round) count, of about eight and eleven per cm, respectively. A useful comparison is that modern knitters often knit socks using fingering (or 4-ply equivalent) yarn at a gauge of about three wales (stitches) per cm.

The backs of the hands have Christian symbols on them, which are often referred to as medallions. Some are metal or sewn on embroidered patches or directly embroidered (see figure 2). But many of the medallions are knitted in as part of the creation of the glove. These are often complex and cover most of the back of the hand. Many have an IHS symbol surrounded by either flames or leaves. Several gloves have the IHS medallion reversed on one glove of a pair. It has been suggested that the knitters may have been reversing a chart, and thus understood the concept of mirroring designs, but it also raises queries about the knitter’s literacy skills.

Knitting the gloves

There is no clear information about who knitted these gloves. There are suggestions they were made in convents, but there is no specific evidence for this: they could have been made in secular workshops. It has been suggested that some medieval Spanish knitted items may have been created in Muslim workshops in an area under Muslim rule. What the knitters undoubtedly had was excellent knitting skills: working with silk using fine needles requires considerable manual dexterity, and using two, and occasionally three, yarns at once is a complex task.

Figure 3: Recreation of gauntlet pattern from the liturgical gloves in the Whitworth Art Gallery, Manchester. The original is red with gold patterning. Copyright: Lesley O’Connell Edwards

One of the other aspects of the project was to work on reconstructions, with a view to a possible citizen science project, along the lines of a recent project to recreate a silk stocking from a 17th century shipwreck in Texel, Netherlands (see https://trc-leiden.nl/trc/index.php/en/blog/659-texel-silk-stockings-project-and-workshops-at-the-trc. The process of creating reconstructions requires very detailed examination of the original objects. It provides a much greater understanding of the skills and abilities of the original makers, and the problems they faced. Recreating several of the patterns on the gauntlets and cuffs of these gloves makes plain the need to manipulate a large number of stitches in some, whereas in others the pattern repeat is much smaller. In the case of the reconstruction in Figure 3, based on an original in the Whitworth in Manchester, the central repeat is sixty stitches. The researchers now share an immense admiration for the skills and abilities of the original knitters.

The future

The Holy Hands project has reached the end of its first phase but it has only just touched the tip of the liturgical glove iceberg. It would be good to know more about the individual gloves. There is little specific detail about the yarn, other than its fibres, and it would be useful to have more detail about construction. Scientific analysis might provide more details on the provenance of the yarn and the dating of the gloves. It could certainly provide information on the composition of the metal in the metallic threads. There is also a need to place the gloves in context with other evidence such as sculpture and painting showing senior churchmen wearing them at religious ceremonies: Suzanne Cooper published an interesting article on this in the Church Times on 11 March 2022.

The project team would be interested to hear of any other gloves: please contact the research team via the website.

Online Resources

Knitting in Early Modern Europe website www.kemeresearch.com. This is the online collection of knitted liturgical gloves.

Angharad Thomas & Lesley O’Connell Edwards, ‘Holy hands: studies of knitted liturgical gloves’, Archaeological Textiles Review n.62, 2020, pp.170-174, available to download from http://www.atnfriends.com/.

Lesley O’Connell Edwards, ‘Holy hands: ceremonial gloves for elite churchmen in Europe from the twelfth to the nineteenth century’, Journal of Dress History issue 5.5 late autumn 2021, pp.43-72; available to download from https://dresshistorians.org/wp/wp-content/uploads/2021/10/Late_Autumn_2021_issue.pdf .

Lesley O’Connell Edwards, Holy hands: a study of knitted liturgical gloves: evidence from the literature, Knitting in Early Modern Europe, 2021: available to download from https://kemeresearch.com/gloves/about

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