A 15th-century altar cloth that survives in almost miraculous condition, one of the National Trust’s greatest treaures

Our series looking at the National Trust's finest treasures looks at a pre-Reformation altar front from Cotehele which has survived to the present day.

The National Trust’s collections are not only vast, but contain objects of astonishing beauty, quality and human interest. To coincide with the Trust’s 125 anniversary, we asked nine senior curators — including national experts in painting and sculpture, textiles, furniture and decorative arts — to choose their favourite object from among those in their care.

Altar frontal of silk, velvet and linen, about 1493–1520, at Cotehele, Cornwall

Chosen by Emma Slocombe, textile curator

I have always been captivated by this intricately embroidered altar frontal. It is a rare survival of the type of devotional textiles that were once common in wealthy 16th-century English households. Stitched in silver, gold and silk threads, Christ and his 12 Apostles stand beneath architectural canopies against a crimson velvet background scattered with gold fleur de lys.

Remarkably, it has been in the collection of the Edgecumbe family at Cotehele for more than 600 years and carries the arms of Sir Piers Edgcumbe (1472–1539) and his wife, Joan Durnford (d.1525). In the late Middle Ages, England was famous for its ecclesiastical embroidery, which was sought after by the royal courts and cathedrals of Europe. Few English examples survived the destruction after Henry VIII’s break with Rome.

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