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Embroidered Linen Pillow Sham

Portuguese, early 17th c.

An unusual example of Portuguese domestic embroidery, this pillow sham is decorated with religious imagery befitting a woman’s expression of piety and industriousness through needlework. Worked in a defined range of stitches exclusively in pale-colored silk to match the unbleached linen ground, the embroidered motifs effectively combine varied textures and patterns—an extra challenge for a monochromatic palette.

Seen here are allegories representing four of the Seven Virtues. Each figural motif is bracketed by oversized floral branches and labeled in a narrow register above: CARIDADE (Charity); FORTAIECA (Fortitude); TENPERANCA (Temperance); and ESPERACA (Hope). Charity and Hope are two of three Theological Virtues, as extolled in the New Testament (1 Corinthians 13:13); Fortitude and Temperance are two of four Cardinal Virtues inspired by Plato’s Republic. The fundamental difference between the two sets is that while Cardinal Virtues are learned by practice and discipline, Theological Virtues are acquired through faith alone. These allegorical figures have specific, identifying attributes in place. Charity is depicted caring for a child; Fortitude cradles a broken column in one arm (an allusion to Samson’s destruction of the Philistine temple); Temperance pours a measured amount of drink into a cup, demonstrating restraint; and Hope is shown carrying an anchor, symbolic of safe travel. Each virtue sits atop an animal of Christian importance; none is linked with any particular virtue through conventional symbolism and was chosen at the embroiderer’s discretion. Charity rides a unicorn while Temperance is paired with a lamb, both potent emblems of purity; more unusual are the gryphon and camel reserved for Fortitude and Hope, respectively. The ancient gryphon, an imaginary combination of lion and eagle, was adapted by early Christians as a symbol of Jesus Christ’s dual mortal/divine nature. Able to forgo sustenance and shoulder great burdens, the camel embodies the qualities of sobriety and humility.

Embroidered Linen Pillow Sham (detail)

Set into borders comprising pulled work linen components, the main panel highlights the effectiveness of a few, high-relief stitches in creating depth and surface interest without the benefit of color for shading and delineation. Chain, star, open Cretan, and sheaf stitches are used throughout. Coral stitch—a series of closely spaced knots tied along the main thread giving the embroidered line a beaded appearance—outlines the motifs; discrete areas of pulled work, couched floss and a distinctive basket-weave darning stitch add contrasting textural dimensions. The restricted color scheme and religious imagery suggest a link with contemporary tussar silk Indo-Portuguese embroideries. A related seventeenth-century polychrome silk embroidery is in the Cooper Hewitt National Design Museum collection (19021904).

18.25” H x 44” W

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