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Portuguese, 18th c.

In Portugal, the textile tradition of embroidered colchas, or coverlets, is firmly associated with the town of Castelo Branco in the Beira-Baixa region. Domestic production of these distinctive bed furnishings began in the second half of the seventeenth century and reached its height in the following century. The materials used to create colchas—flax and silk—were cultivated locally, facilitating their manufacture and popularity. Although Castelo Branco coverlets demonstrate a shared sensibility and needlework techniques, each piece is nonetheless unique.

This particularly refined colcha illustrates Portugal’s long and well-established relationship with the East in its blending of exotic elements with Western taste and embroidery style. A central Tree of Life dominates the composition with attenuated, sinuous branches that curl across the surface, laden with oversized flowers and fruits—pomegranates, tulips, carnations, lilies, and roses—both Asian and European. Figures in fashionable eighteenth-century dress depicting the Senses often appear in colchas, either singly or in pairs of women or a man and a woman. Here, the representation of Smell by three figures is unusual. In addition to the two women flanking the tree, each tilting a flower towards her face, is a solitary man, hovering above them and blissfully enjoying the scent of the bud in his hand. A large, proud peacock, with its tail unfolded, perches at the top of the trunk within a scrolling branch, while at either side another peacock swoops downward with feet outstretched. Smaller birds flit among the branches while several alight on delicate sprays growing from the imbricated mound at the foot of the tree. A luxuriant, serpentine floral, fruit and foliate trail decorates the borders. Beyond their strong visual appeal, the Tree of Life and peacock may also have conveyed Christian symbolic meaning. In their overall design and motifs, colchas relate to Indian palampores known to the Portuguese through trade.

Castelo Branco Coverlet

The three discreetly joined widths of linen are worked with silk floss in a variety of stitches including tied laidwork and satin for the tree, fruits, blossoms, and figures; stem and feather for the floral and bud stems; herringbone for the figures’ lace-like neckwear; and eyelet for foliage details. The fresh palette elegantly harmonizes bright green, blue and yellow with subtle shades of pale pink, blue, peach, and cinnamon.

Referred to as filhas dilectas, or beloved daughters, by the women who made them, eighteenth-century colchas were cherished family objects. In the early twentieth century, they were taken out only at festivals and prominently displayed from balconies and windows.

Similar colchas are illustrated in Clara Vaz Pinto, Colchas de Castelo Branco (1993), pp. 78, 81, 84-5.

86”H x 70.5”W

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