The phrase ‘Hot, Holy Ladies’ was first used as a sarcastic insult in 1602, aimed at an impressive and effective group of strong-minded female supporters of the Jesuit Catholic mission. The physical exhibition at Stonyhurst College (July-August 2022) will examine the lives, circles and works of a selection of influential, educated Catholic women who carried out remarkable acts of creativity and subversion spanning the early Tudor pre-Reformation period into the George IV era of Catholic Emancipation. It will feature a range of women ranging from high-profile historical figures who shaped policy and national events to less well-known individuals who achieved extraordinary acts of religious defiance and cultural creativity in the shadows imposed by state-imposed religious intolerance and persecution.
In this online exhibition, intended to accompany the exhibition at Stonyhurst, you will get a close look at Helena’s six surviving vestments in a series of short videos of 3-4 minutes each, presented by curator, Dr Jan Graffius. The online exhibition concludes with a 20 minute video allowing you to discover the remarkable story of Helena Wintour. If you wish to first learn about Helena’s life you can do so by clicking on the ‘documentary’ heading above.
This exhibition features the flamboyant and defiant embroideries created by the remarkable Helena Wintour. Her life story is told in this film; from orphaned child of a proscribed traitor, to the centre of a creative, erudite, spiritual and charitable recusant network, with close ties to Jesuit missionaries and Jesuit spirituality. The paradox of Helena’s life is encapsulated in her embroideries. She was creating illegal vestments for a proscribed religion, forced to operate in secret under threat of exposure- sheltering priests and enabling the celebration of the mass in the 16th and 17th centuries carried the death penalty. In addition to which, Helena’s family name was tainted by association with the most notorious attempt at terrorism of the 17th century- the Gunpowder Plot. Yet she persisted in this dangerous, subversive work, and defiantly embroidered her name on the vestments.
The first vestment in the series is the Pentecost red chasuble and chalice veil. The unusual imagery on the vestment and veil may seem bizarre at first sight, but makes sense when viewed in the context of the description of Pentecost in the Acts of the Apostles,
When the time for Pentecost was fulfilled, they were
all in one place together. And suddenly there came
from the sky a noise like a strong driving wind, and it
filled the entire house in which they were.
Then there appeared to them tongues as of fire,
which parted and came to rest on each one of them.
The symbols of wind and fire are clearly embroidered on this chasuble which also includes Helena’s initials and her family crest, as well as the motto of the Jesuit order AMDG, Ad Maiorem Dei Gloriam, or For the Greater Glory of God.
This particular chasuble is associated with Easter, as Helena has embroidered the word ‘alleluia’ in four places on the front and back. Alleluia is an ancient Hebrew form of prayer, meaning ‘God be praised’ and is repeated four times in the Easter mass, celebrating Christ’sresurrection.
The lavish embroidery uses the imagery of a rich garden to celebrate the Virgin Mary’s virtues, and the spectacular piece on the back of the chasuble shows the Lamb of God as described in the Book of the Apocalypse. Helena’s images were both beautifully executed and theologically inspired.
This beautiful white chasuble and its accompanying chalice veil are fairly recent additions to the collections at Stonyhurst College, arriving in 1980 from the Jesuit parish of St George in Worcester. Helena’s will, made on the morning of her death in 1671, left her entire collection of ‘churchstuffe’ to the Jesuits with one specific exclusion…that this spangled chasuble should pass to her goddaughter Nell Atmore. It is presumed that Nell left it to the Worcester Jesuits on her death, where it remained until 1980.
This chasuble, alone of all Helena’s works, carries no text or indeed any overt religious imagery, but there are subtle references in the embroidered fruit and flowers which could be read by those familiar with Jesuit spirituality. The lilies, cornflowers and passion flowers symbolise the virtues of the Virgin Mary- chastity, patience and steadfastness in grief.
The Lady Wintour Black chasuble is a striking example of a Tridentine requiem mass vestment, used for funerals and also on Good Friday. The black silk and velvet backing are 19th century replacements of the original 17th century fabric, but the embroideries have been reattached according to their original places on Helena’s vestment. The dove symbolises the Holy Spirit but also represents Mary’s sorrows at her son’s death on the cross. The sparkling stars with their embroidered saints’ anagrams also reflect the Jesuit order’s fame as astronomers.
The final vestment in the series is the Lady Wintour Peasecod chausable. The Peasecod chasuble was originally part of a bigger set, with an antependium and, presumably, other accessories as well. Helena’s inventory of 1671 confirms this,
one rich white vestment with flowerpots with peasecotz pearle, antependium, credenza, vale
Rebecca Somerset (Archivist, British Jesuit Archives) conducts an interview with Dr Jan Graffius (Curator, Stonyhurst College Collections) about the Hot, Holy Ladies exhibition launched in April 2022. They discuss the remarkable life of Helena Wintour and the underappreciated but essential role of 16th and 17th century Catholic women in saving many of the artefacts held by Stonyhurst and the British Jesuit Province today. The podcast also offers an understanding that vestments are a fundamental part of English and Welsh creative, literary and artistic history.Download transcript