pages 16-17 pages 20-21 

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English, ca. 1670

Canvas work served a practical purpose in seventeenth-century furnishings; colorful and relatively simple to make, the amateur embroiderer could create a wide variety of decorative materials for the household. To enliven the typically dark interiors of English homes, needlework pictures of great imagination were made, inspired by popular prints and pattern books. Though embroidered pictures could be purely ornamental in nature, pictorial needlework frequently relied on allegorical and biblical themes to convey more complex messages. Many existing needlework depictions of the story of Queen Esther present loose interpretations of engraved prints; this picture does not indicate a specific source, but shows an individualistic, almost naive, approach to the subject matter. The entire surface of this sensitively wrought piece is worked in extremely fine silk petitpoint (referring to the size of the stitch), also called tent stitch (from the French, tenter, to stretch, as the canvas was made taut over a frame to be embroidered).

In the wake of the Reformation, the Old Testament played an important role in Protestant life. Many of the favored themes for canvas work compositions represent Old Testament stories, especially those centered on valorous women. These biblical heroines played prominent roles and were celebrated for their virtues and courage; none was so widely depicted in needlework pictures as Queen Esther. Poet Thomas Heywood included the Jewish queen in his pantheon of notable female figures, The Exemplary Lives and Memorable Acts of Nine of the Most Worthy Women of the World (1640), praising her noble yet ultimately “masculine spirited” character. She is indeed portrayed in needlework of the period as a compassionate and brave woman.

Dressed in her royal robes, Queen Esther kneels before her husband, the Persian King Ahasuerus, requesting his presence at a special court banquet. The king extends a golden scepter to his beloved wife, granting her wish. Esther also asks her husband’s permission to invite Haman, his treacherous minister, who has coerced the king to condemn all the Jews in Persia to death. At this banquet, she invites both men to dine a second time; at the feast the next evening, Esther reveals that she herself is Jewish, and pleads not only for her life, but for the safety of her fellow Jews. Following the queen’s successful intervention, and her disclosure of Haman’s devious plot, Ahasuerus revokes the unjust law. Haman’s fate, execution by hanging, is carried out on the gallows he had prepared for Esther’s Jewish kinsman, Mordecai.

It has been suggested that the preponderance of embroidered Old Testament episodes, rather than those taken from the New Testament, resulted from a Protestant interpretation of the second commandment forbidding the worship of images of Christ, the Virgin Mary and the saints. Another possibility is that the embroiderers perceived links between the actions of these ancient heroines and their own after a period of tumultuous civil unrest. Esther’s fierce, unselfish dedication to saving her people inspired admiration in her husband and earned the loyalty of her kingdom, attributes which contributed to the story’s allegorical appeal in seventeenth-century England. Ultimately, with details such as costume and architectural settings revised, Old Testament pictorial needlework was replete with morals that the embroiderer could relate to her daily existence.

15” H x 13” W

Needlework Picture of Queen Esther and King Ahasuerus
pages 16-17 pages 20-21  

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