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: A Stitch in Time


Evan M. Maurer



Institution Minneapolis Institute of Arts
The art of embroidery has a long history in England, where the decorative arts have traditionally been held in high regard. In the 17th century, a culturally refined individual was expected to also be an artistically creative person. Often, young girls from wealthy families were trained by professionals and frequently required to create sample pieces incorporating progressively more elaborate and complicated patterns to demonstrate their skills and accomplishments. After several years of training, a girl as young as 12 years old could create exceptional work, and as a sign of accomplishment, she was expected to complete a complex embroidery project.The Significance of Stumpwork
For those who could afford it, a popular choice during the third quarter of the 17th century was the creation of an elaborate box or small cabinet. Current research indicates that often the patterns for these containers were drawn by professional embroiders, who were also skilled draftsmen. Designs for the four sides and the top of the box were usually drawn on white satin cloth and were often inspired by Dutch prints, which were popular in England at the time. Biblical imagery was frequently chosen as an expression of the needleworker's moral values, and the stories included such heroines as Judith, Abigail, Susanna, and Esther, the heroine of this box, who saved others by their courageous actions.Although the patterns were pre-drawn, and embroidered pieces were sent to a professional for final assembly, the needleworker herself would choose the embroidery threads, materials, and stitches that would be used. The most ambitious projects were those done in raised-work embroidery, which today we often call stumpwork. Stumpwork is a form of embroidery that is characterized by a three-dimensional quality achieved by stitching over padded areas and by incorporating additional elements worked separately in very fine lace stitches and then applied to the design. Often, the embroiders used a variety of expensive materials, which included silver and gold threads, pearl and coral beads, spangles, sequins, peacock feathers, and human hair.A Recent Acquisition
These distinctive qualities of stumpwork often draw admiration and affection from embroidery enthusiasts. Mary Ann Butterfield, the head of the Institute's textile conservation laboratory from 1984 to 1994, was particularly fond of this textile expression. On the occasion of her retirement last year, the museum, with the assistance from many friends, colleagues and family members, acquired this exceptional raised-work embroidered box, which portrays the old testament story of Esther. This amazing example of embroidery now also serves as a memorial to this exceptional individual who passed away last October.Esther's Story
The Book of Esther is one of the five books of the old testament Bible that are read on various festivals during the year. The story is read from the Megillah, a parchment scroll during the festival of Purim, whose joyful carnival atmosphere celebrates this tale of danger, heroism, and the deliverance of the Jewish people from their enemies. Biblical scholarship has shown that the events depicted in the story of Esther are not based on historical fact. Rather, it dramatizes the tenuous nature of Jewish personal and communal life for thousands of years both in Israel and in the many other countries in which Jews have lived. Since ancient times, this story of deliverance from an implacable enemy has had great relevance in Jewish communities around the world.The Book of Esther is a dramatic, romantic novel set in the court of Ahasuerus, King of the Persian-Median Empire around 400 B.C. The story involves four main characters of the Royal Court: King Ahasuerus, Haman, his chief advisor, Esther, a young Jewish maiden who is chosen to be his new queen, and Mordechai, Esther's cousin. At the beginning of the story Mordechai is honored by Ahasuerus for saving his life. However, when Mordechai angers the powerful Haman by refusing to bow down to him, the arrogant advisor convinces the King not only to order Mordechai's death, but to also kill all the Jews of the empire and take their property. Esther's Jewish identity had been kept from the King, but in this crisis Mordechai convinces her that she must intercede on behalf of her people. Esther acts courageously and succeeds in exposing Haman's evil plot. Esther and her people are saved, and Haman is hanged on the very gallows he had prepared for Mordechai.Five major elements of this narrative are represented on the embroidery panels of this beautiful work of art. The story begins with a side panel that shows Mordechai dressed in the King's robes and crown riding through the streets of the capital city of Sushan led by a herald who sings his praises for having saved the King's life. The next part of the story can be seen on the opposite side panel that shows Haman riding up to the gates of the King's palace where Mordechai sits, refusing to pay homage to the Royal Advisor. It was after this insult that Haman brings about his plot to destroy the Jews. The front panel depicts the dramatic scene in which the King extends his golden scepter to Queen Esther who kneels before him in supplication to save her people. The fourth panel on the top of the box shows the banquet at which Esther denounces Haman to the King who raises his hand in anger. The fifth and final panel represents the hanging of Haman.The artist or artists who created this embroidery masterpiece embellished the narrative scenes with complicated architectural renderings and a marvelous garden of trees, shrubs, and flowers alive with a menagerie of insects, birds, and animals, including the lion and unicorn that represent British royalty.Universal Appeal
While the story of Queen Esther and Purim had and continues to have a special relevance to the Jewish people, it gained popularity with many Christians during the 17th century when it became a frequent subject in paintings, textiles, and other art forms. The story of a loyal, strong queen who dares to stand up to an evil advisor was a prevalent theme in many royalist circles, especially in England after the revolution led by Oliver Cromwell in which the monarchy was abolished and King Charles I was executed.Evan M. Maurer is the Director of the Institute, and Lotus Stack is the Textile Curator.Related ImagesWhen the front doors of the cabinet are opened, they reveal a number of small drawers that were used to store small personal items. In addition, behind the drawers are hidden storage areas used to keep rings and other valuables. On the back of the box is an image of Haman being hung for his crimes. The silkworm and leaf were used to fill empty spaces. Richly dressed and mounted on a fine horse, Mordechai is led through town as a hero for all to see how a king rewards those who serve him. At right, Esther kneels on a ground of embroidered chenille thread and asks the king to come to a special dinner in his honor. Chenille, which is a woven rather than a spun thread, was first developed in the 17th century. This image of Esther was worked independently and later applied to the surface. The embroiderer has used fine needle lace stitches in a three-dimensional form to create the entire scene.
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Source: Evan M. Maurer and Lotus Stack, "A Stitch in Time: An exceptional example of English embroidery tells the story of Queen Ester and serves as a memorial to a former museum conservator," <i>Arts</i> 19, no. 3 (March 1996): 6-7.
Rights: ©MIA
Added to Site: March 10, 2009