Embroidered Casket

pre 1665

Gallery 40, Old Master drawings, Tapestries and Sculpture


Focus on the Object

About the Object

The stories in the embroidered pictures

The casket takes the popular biblical story of Abraham and his family as its theme (Genesis 16: 21 and 24). As the founder of the Hebrew nation, Abraham was a model for kings, and in the 17th century lessons about heritage and succession were drawn from his biblical role in English sermons, writings and visual images. Similarly the stories of Sarah, Hagar and Rebecca offered moralizing tales of marriage, legitimacy and the proper behaviour of women as wives and mothers. The recurrence of these themes in embroideries attests to their familiarity at home and at school, and to their role in the education of young women.

The lid shows Sarah with her son Isaac, Abraham’s legitimate heir. On the left door, Abraham dismisses his mistress, Hagar, together with her son Ishmael, as Sarah had requested once Isaac was born. On the right, Hagar in the desert prays for help while Ishmael lies faint beneath a tree; a well miraculously appears. On the right side of the box, Abraham instructs his steward Eliezer to find a suitable wife for Isaac, and on the back Eliezer meets Rebecca, who gives him water from a well. The last scene on the left side presents a fashionably dressed couple, probably Rebecca and Isaac. Attractive motifs of animals, flowers and foliage animate the upper parts of the casket.

Making the embroideries

Embroidery designs were usually taken from prints and here the scene of Rebecca at the Well has some affinities with an engraving by Gerard de Jode. Probably the teacher or the embroiderer herself was able to choose combinations of figures and decorative elements from ready-made patterns to make up images with a more individual flavour. The raised work areas are worked on a silk satin ground; the three-dimensional figures are constructed from sections of detached needlepoint padded with silk thread. Their hands are formed by thick wire wrapped in silk, while collars and cuffs are made from applied sections of detached needlepoint lace in fine linen thread. A variety of materials are used: some human hair may lie beneath the finer silk wrapped coiled metal wire forming the figures’ hair, while peacock feather remains can be seen in the raised work caterpillar on the lid. The pictures on the back and sides of the casket were made with tent stitch.