From the Renaissance through the early 19th century and beyond, young women of high social position in England were well schooled in the needle arts. From a very young age they began making marking samplers—stitching simple letters in cross stitch on linen–progressing to increasingly elaborate work as they aged. With large houses to furnish, high born women often turned their embroidery skills toward the production of domestic articles such as book covers, pillows, boxes, and cushions. Biblical stories frequently provided the subject matter for these endeavors. This cushion cover, a rare surviving example of exceptional quality and condition from the 17th century, features the story of Abraham banishing his son Ishmael along with his mother Hagar.
Hagar, the handmaiden of Abraham’s seemingly barren wife Sarah, bore Abraham a son, Ishmael, as Sarah’s proxy. After Sarah herself gave birth to a son, Isaac, she required that Abraham send Hagar and Ishmael away in order to secure her son’s position as Abraham’s sole heir. The needlework portrays Abraham bidding farewell to Hagar and Ishmael as Sarah and Isaac look on from a tent. In a secondary scene Hagar and Ishmael are about to perish from thirst when an angel appears to show her a source of water and promise deliverance.
The design of the cushion cover was derived from a printed source–an engraving in Gerard de Jode’s Thesaurus Sacrarum Historiarum Veteris Testamenti published in Antwerp in 1585. While the subject is disturbing, the addition of numerous plants and animals in the background, rendered with characteristic disregard to scale, creates a naïve, whimsical landscape that belies the dark nature of the story. The excellence of this embroidery is shown in the exquisite fineness of the tent stitching, the skill exhibited in the use of multicolored silk threads for shading, and the fluidity of line achieved. The original silver and gold metallic bobbin lace provides an elegant and expensive finish.
Abraham and his son Isaac were also the subject of girlhood embroideries in the late 18th and early 19th century as seen in this excellent example, “The Sacrifice of Isaac,” which is also probably English. Characteristic of these fashionable silk pictures, this example was worked in silk threads on a silk ground with painted hands, faces, and background. Here, Abraham is commanded by God to sacrifice his beloved son Isaac as a burnt offering. He prepares to do so, but is prevented at the last minute by an angel, who tells him that God has relented and Isaac may live.
This beautifully conceived, expertly painted, and expertly embroidered scene may have been drafted by a professional artist for the embroiderer. The needlework in this piece shows a variety of stitches and materials used to achieve textural diversity: straight stitches in silk threads used to present the costume of Abraham with fringe, knotted stitches in silk depict the tress, and stitches in wool render the ram’s wooly fleece.
Comparing the two embroideries reveals great contrast between 17th and early 19th century norms. One shows an unrealistic landscape crowded with flora and fauna in varying scale, with characters dressed in contemporary garb and no interest in realism; the other portrays a realistic landscape with emphasis on the individuals, the action, and the detail of the costume.
Embroidery of such scenes provided an opportunity to teach moral precepts to young women along with needle skills. One wonders, however, what moral or message the embroiderer took from these stories. Did she feel the injustice of Hagar’s position? Did she find Abraham’s decision to favor Isaac over Ishmael and expel him into the wilderness cruel? Did she believe Sarah’s ruthless demands against Hagar and Ishmael were justified because they were made in defense of her own son’s interests? Was she shocked at the intention of Abraham to kill his own son? If she were faced in the future with the choice of protecting her child or her husband, which would she choose? How well equipped were the young women stitching these stories to put them into a context that would prove meaningful to their own lives?