QUILTED AND EMBROIDERED FLOOR SPREAD
Indian (Bengal) for the European Market, mid-17th c.
Needlework has long been recognized as one of the most outstanding types of Indian textiles to survive from the seventeenth century. Impressive wall hangings, bedcovers and decorative floor spreads of the type shown here were made in Northeastern India—specifically Bengal—and were worked in a monochromatic palette with densely embroidered scenes. In a category distinct from other Indian needle arts, Bengali embroideries (also called Bengalla quilts) usually consist of two or more layers of hand-spun, hand-loomed unbleached cotton cloth which were quilted together with back stitching, while the decorative motifs were executed in chain stitch. Most often, both the quilting and the embroidery were executed in tussar, one of the local Bengali wild silks which has a naturally golden yellow hue.
This exceptionally rare floor spread is distinguished from the majority of comparable textiles for two noteworthy reasons. Unlike most Bengali embroideries, which subtly juxtapose only yellow tussar against an off-white ground, the lustrous silk floss used for quilting in this piece (as well as for details of the corner roundels and cross-shaped accents) was dyed a deep indigo blue. Documented examples do confirm the occasional use of polychrome silks in Bengali needlework—chiefly red, green and blue threads—though this was not typical. However, the most significant difference between this floor spread and other related embroideries is the absence of figurative motifs in the central field. Hindu mythology, local vistas and folk art motifs were often depicted in this indigenous needlework tradition; more characteristic of embroideries made for European markets were scenic renditions of hunting parties, sailing vessels, biblical stories, and classical mythology. Here, instead, there is a continuously repeated double-ogival lattice pattern formed by linked, stylized leaves. Enclosed within each diamond-shaped space, two motifs alternate in rows: a simple eight-pointed star and a larger, more elaborate cusped cruciform, both with their centers dramatically highlighted by indigo silk floss embroidery. The borders, also filled with geometric motifs, display groupings of addorsed, stylized human figures. These simplified forms alternate with blocks of European Mannerist-inspired volutes and winding stems, some of which terminate in grotesque animal heads with tendril-like tongues.