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.