Whether you’re living abroad, in a dorm, newly moved to a new location, or spending time away from friends and family that you’d normally spend with them, there’s nothing like time zone and distance separation to make one feel disconnected.
It’s Passover time. We generally don’t make a huge deal of it in our house. Some years we celebrate the Seder with friends, or travel to Florida to do it with my mother and extended family down there. But even if we are having a quiet year with minimal fuss, to me at least Passover foods and at the bare minimum – a special dinner – are sure signs of spring and the comfort of home.
I am sure that somewhere here in Pune, matzoh can be had, along with macaroons and other seasonal goodies. There is after all a Chabad House here in town. I haven’t found these things yet, but to be fair, I haven’t conducted an exhaustive search, either. Instead, I improvised our own special dinner last night, roasting a tiny chicken in our Easy Bake Oven, making potatoes and onions, plus a sort of a ratatouille with the local baby eggplants. We talked about the holiday and the special significance it has to us this year, as literal “strangers in a strange land.”
However I can’t let the holiday time slip by so unmarked. To make up for that I present some stitched historical artifacts found in museum collections, with direct connection to either the Jewish community of the 1500s, or to the Passover story itself.
First up is this bit of stitching, a Torah binder in the collection of the Jewish Museum in New York:
F 4927, Torah Binder, , Photographer: John Parnell, Photo © The Jewish Museum, New York
The full citation for this object is here (accession F-4927; the photo above has been shamelessly borrowed from that website). In short, it is dated on the artifact itself – 1582/3 (Jewish calendar 5343), and was donated by a woman, Honorata, the wife of Samuel Foa, to a congregation in Rome. It’s unclear if she stitched this herself, or if she commissioned it, because the inscription can be interpreted either way: “In honor of the pure Torah, my hand raised an offering… it is such a little one.”
The pattern is so typical of its time: double running stitch (or possibly back stitch, we can’t see the reverse), counted, in silk on linen. It might be modelbook-derived, although I haven’t spotted the exact source yet or found the same design on another artifact. I will continue to look for it. The museum does mention that the Sephardic community of Italy and Turkey commonly used secular design elements for devotional items, and that donation by a woman without a specific dedication in the name of a male child was also a normal practice.
Was this was in fact done by Honorata Foa herself based on a published or copied design? Did she stitch this as the donation of a home-needlewoman; or was she somehow part of an embroidery atelier or other enterprise, and used her professional skills to make it? If the latter – was the Roman Jewish community in the late 1500s involved in the production of counted embroidery as a trade? Obviously, more research here is required.
I have graphed this pattern and will include it in T2CM. I may also pull together a separate project instruction sheet for a matzoh cover using it and its lettering.
UPDATE: YES! I knew I’d seen something like this before. This pattern is a very close cousin of the Large Grape Repeat with Matching Border, presented in Plate 71:1 of The New Carolingian Modelbook. It’s not spot on the same, but the leaf shapes, the berries, the crosshatched angular stems joining to a more organic trunk – they are very, very close. That one is also illustrated in Pauline Johnstone’s Three Hundred Years of Embroidery, Wakefield Press, 1986, on page 17. No modelbook or broadside sheet source yet. Here’s my rendition of 17:1, on a sampler I did back in 1989:
My stitched version of TNCM 17:1 My rough plot of Torah binder’s design
One curious note on the Johnstone citation, she notes that the piece she presents was done in chain stitch on the reverse side, to give the appearance of double running or back stitch on the front.
UPDATE UPDATE: Chris Berry of Glasgow, former Chairman of the Embroiders Guild has sent me a delightful note of clarification. She has examined the artifact pictured in Ms. Johnstone’s book, and is convinced through close observation that the chain-like appearance on the reverse was in fact a by-product of back stitch. The point of the needle split the floss on the reverse as the back stitches were formed, giving the reverse the look of split or chain stitch. But it’s back stitch, all the same. Heartfelt thanks for this information!
Here’s the second share. This is a series of Italian voided work panels depicting scenes from the Passover story. They are collected at the Cleveland Museum of Art, dated to the 16th-17th century. I’d guess from the inscriptions that they were not made for a Jewish audience.
The final plague, on the first-born (accession 1939.355):
Preparing unleavened bread and crossing the Red Sea (1939.353):
Baking of unleavened bread: (accession 1939.354)
The Red Sea overwhelming Pharaoh’s army (accession 1939.352):
It’s pretty obvious that these are all fragments of the same work or pieces made and intended to be displayed together – a series of panels with vignettes of the story, spaced out with floral ornament between. As to technique, there were several ways to produce a voided piece. One was clearly counted, with the design elements being plotted out on the ground cloth based on a full graph of some sort, and replicated true from repeat to repeat. These panels weren’t made that way. Not even the narrow borders are count-true. I would hazard that the images were sketched onto the cloth, then outlined in double running or back stitch. After the lines were established, the background was filled in using long-armed cross stitch. I would also guess that the lace applied along the bottom edge is needle-made, not bobbin lace.
So there you have it. Pesach far away from home, enlivened by holiday-themed needlework.
Happy holidays, Chag Sameach! Enjoy.
Thanks for sharing these beautiful pieces.
Thank you for sharing those red voided bands. I had only ever seen them in black and white, in one particular book. Gorgeous! Are you making blintzs, as you did last year, or is that a different holiday?
Blintzes would not be a Passover food, made as they are with flour. We’re not following the matzo-only dictum, but even so, it’s not part of this holiday’s set.
Shalom! Thank you for sharing so much of yourself! I spent time at the NY Jewish Museum many years ago. Now I visit the Skirball Museum about 1.5 hours’ drive since we moved from LI to southern CA.
It very well could be that the binder was stitched by Honorata herself. There was/is? a bracha in the Italian rite in praise of the women of the community who created needleworks to adorn the Synagogue. Thank you for sharing this image with us – and the reference! It’s more complete than the one I have now…and thank you for finding/doing the charting. I hope your Yom Tov was wonderful – 🙂
I appreciate the history and opportunity to view these works on my screen. Living in Australia, I am hoping that one day the museums give us internet access to view the collections we are interested in. I understand other treasure may be hard to view this way but embroidery is the perfect way to start. Meanwhile, I look forward to seeing the works in books and posts like yours. Thank you.
[…] grapevine, with very angular, striated branches sprouting off more organic and woody trunks. I wrote about it here before. The space for it was too small to show the entire repeat, so I focused on the center bit, […]
[…] written about this design before. I think this time I’ll circle the center panel with other, narrower bands. Again, no set […]
[…] We have a clear provenance with the Jewish Museum’s piece. It’s dated with a reference to the Jewish calendar year 5343, which puts it at 1582/1583 on the standard Western calendar, and it’s from a congregation in Rome. The lady Honorata Foa either commissioned it or made it herself for donation to that congregation. I’ve written about it before. […]
[…] 5. From the Cleveland Art Museum, Embroidered Border: The Baking of Unleavened Bread, Italy 16th-17th century. Silk on linen. 18.1×45.4cm (7 1/8 x 17 7/8 in.) Gift of the Textile Arts Club; 1939.354. From Probably LACS (no prominent holes like the meshy style). Foreground lightly outlined with what looks to be a thinner thread, foreground details in back or double running. No knot stitches. I’ve discussed the group of four panels from which this comes once before. […]