VOIDED NARRATIVE PANELS

Voided work is a catch-all term for a family of embroideries where the background is covered by stitching, and voids in that solid stitching make up the motifs (the foreground). Sometimes the foreground is further ornamented by additional stitching, sometimes not. There are many different styles of this work, lots of posited points of origin/provenance, and just as many design or pattern groupings that have come and gone in and out of style over the centuries that voided work has been done. While modern Assisi (simplified motifs done with cross-stitch backgrounds) is the form of voided work most widely known today, it’s not the only type, and there is a lot to explore in the allied family of voided styles.

Here’s one subgroup – Story Panels. This is a family of works that I’ve run across as I’ve researched counted voided styles, that hangs together as a subset based on a number of commonalities.

First, the examples:

l. From the Cooper-Hewitt collection, Band. Italy, 16th–18th century; silk on linen; H x W: 24.1 x 172.1 cm (9 1/2 x 67 3/4 in.); Gift of Richard C. Greenleaf; 1954-167-5. These four panels show elements of the Adam and Eve story, and the workaday life after Eden . It’s done in red silk on linen, with a densely overworked meshy background. I don’t necessarily agree that it’s long armed cross stitch – that has a different look of directionality. This has more of a meshy appearance. Foregrounds are outlined (back stitch according to the listing), and ornamented by knot stitches.

Deep horizontal band with four biblical scenes in off-white on a red silk ground, with deeply scalloped red silk needle lace on three sides. The band consists of four joined panels, each panel depicting a scene which is labeled at the top. The creation of the universe, QUADO CHE IDIO CREO IL MONDO, shows the sun and moon, flowering trees, animals and birds. The creation of Adam and Eve, ADAM  ADAM ET EVA, shows at left Adam alone with a dog, the hand of God removing Adam's rib, and at right Eve emerging from Adam's side. The temptation and flight from Eden, ADAM ET EVA SONO SCACIAI D PARAD, shows Adam receiving the apple from the snake in the Tree of Knowledge on the left, and on the right God casting Adam and Eve out of the gates of the Garden. Cain and Abel the children of earth work, QUANO LA TERA CAIN EVEL SACRIFICANDO, shows on the left a woman nursing a child and a man tilling the soil; on the right two figures kneel before fires.  The figures are reserved in fine undyed linen cloth speckled with embroidered dots, while the background is entirely covered in crimson silk long-legged cross-stitch. Guard borders with sprigs, birds, and animals border each panel.

2. From the Art Institute of Chicago, Fragment (from a border), Italy, 1575-1625, silk on linen. 22.8 x 41.4 cm (9 x 16 3/8 in.); Art Institute of Chicago Purchase Fund; 1907.827 Part of the story of Noah. Outlined foreground elements with spot decoration, ground in long armed cross stitch aka LACS (that back and forth almost plaited looking directonality is evident.)

3. Another from the Art Institute of Chicago. Fragment (from a border) Italy, 1575-1625, silk on linen, 19 x 40.6 cm (7 1/2 x 16 in.); Art Institute of Chicago Purchase Fund; 1907.826. Joseph and his brothers. This may or may not be part of the same original (or series of originals) as #2, above. Similar color, and LACS technique, but the heights are different, and the motifs are simpler in this one – less ornamented, less detailed.

4. And also from The Art Institute of Chicago, Fragment (from a border), Italy, 1575-1625, Linen with silk. 276 x 44.2 cm (10 7/8 x 17 3/8 in.), Art Institute of Chicago Purchase Fund; 1907.825. To my eye based on these photos, it looks like this panel (Joseph and Potiphar’s wife?) is done the same way as #4, above.

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.

6. From the Metropolitan Museum of Art, Strip, Italy, 16th century, silk on linen, 9 1/8 x 25 in (23.2 x 63.5cm), Gift of Mrs. Harry Ge Friedman; 48.57. I’m guessing from the inscription that this is part of the Joseph in Egypt narrative, where he has dealings with his half-brother Simon. Again, probably long armed cross stitch, with either double running or back stitch outlines of the voids.

7. Also from the Metropolitan Museum of Art, Panel with Noah’s Ark. Italy, late 16th/early 17th century. Silk on linen. 14 1/4 x 39 1/4 in. (36.2 x 99.7 cm) with lace. Robert Lehman Collection, 1975.11784. Another Noah’s Ark. Note that the base drawing of the ark section is very, very close to the green one, although the follow on panel is different.

8. Still more. From the Cooper-Hewitt, Band, Italy, Late 16th, early 17th century, linen, silk; H x W: 150 x 19 cm (59 1/16 x 7 1/2 in.); 1950-29-8. The center panel is probably David avoiding Saul’s spear, but the rest of the iconography is hazy and there’s no top line inscription to help. Very clearly long armed cross stitch, possibly double running on the outlines (there are also a few later repairs done using another color, to reunite the stitched ground with the open foreground but that doesn’t count).

9. From the Cooper Hewitt, Band, Italy. Late 16th, early 17th century. silk embroidery on linen foundation; H x W: 23.5 x 60.6 cm (9 1/4 x 23 7/8 in.); Bequest of Richard Cranch Greenleaf in memory of his mother, Adeline Emma Greenleaf; 1962-52-1. This one doesn’t have lettering at the top, but it’s clearly the story of Isaac. LACS, outlined foreground, some ornamentation of foreground with straight stitches (possibly double running or back stitch).

10. And finally, from the Yale University Art Gallery, Unknown Fragment, Italy, 17th century. Linen ground with red silk, 19.1 x 43.2 cm (7.5 x 17 inches), Gift of Howard L. Goodhart; 1928.151. Very had to tell from the photo but it’s probably LACS, with double running or back stitch for the lines. This bit is probably Jonah and the whale, and is clearly part of a multi-panel piece (or once was).

Now, I am sure there are lots more of these out there, that I haven’t included here. And there are narrative panels done in other stitched styles, but these do seem to hang together, more or less.

First, unlike most (but not all) other voided work examples, they display no symmetry. There are no reflection or bounce points; the designs are not aligned in balance around center urns, trees, or other elements. Each one of these panels stands alone, without a clear repeat inside its sequence.

Second, most (but not all of them) rely on similar framing techniques – a narrative with a very similar looking style of letter representation on top, and the curious mix of birds, dogs, and leaf/branch/flower elements below (which does repeat).

Third, none of these were done on the count. By that I mean that the foreground elements were not carefully copied from a graphed source. They incorporate strange angles and curves, and the ground stitching behind them – which was done on the count – looks to have been “mashed in” around the designs where they present those odd curves and angles.

I posit that these were hand drawn onto the cloth, overstitched using double running or back stitch (or possibly even SINGLE running in some cases); the foreground ornament was done, and then the backgrounds were stitched, in neat lines going back and forth across the cloth. BUT it’s pretty clear that some sort of common cartoon (in the tapestry sense) was used for the two Noah’s Ark panels – #2 and #7. Same ship, same placement of birds, bit players and leaves around it, but with just enough difference of detail and odd angles to look like tracings from the same original, not copies of the same chart.

Fourth, for #1-8 above, there are clear divisions into panels, with strangely familiar fat-fruited, full-leaved vegetation or ruled dividers separating the scenes.

Fifth, all appear to be Old Testament scenes. Given the time and place, it’s kind of strange that no large scale New Testament scenes are included. Now those may exist elsewhere, I don’t claim to have gathered a definitive collection of these fragments, but one would think that there would be a Last Supper, Passion or stray Saint among the lot. The closest we get is the Agnus Dei (lamb with cross standard) in the Jonah panel – #10, and even that is background – not the “featured scene.” It’s also worth noting that even with the popularity of Greek/Roman myth images at the time (just look at emblem books and early pattern books) – we’ve got no Aphrodites, Sieges of Troy, or other mythic representations.

Now, what conclusions can we draw from all this? Sadly very few without further research.

Who made these and why? I am tempted to say there was a small number of professional ateliers producing these in late 16th century Italy, due to the strong similarities of style, and the fact that these examples are relatively few among the large number of other voided work fragments we have today. Given the elaborate nature of the non-repeats and the scale of these sequential multi-panel narratives, I somehow doubt that these were loving-hands-at-home works created for household use.

Many of those other bits are probably domestic works – with designs that are symmetrical, with clear easy to replicate repeats. While it’s certainly possible that these panels were bed or other secular hangings, but I think it is more likely they were made for liturgical/didactic use.

And #9 and #10 – the odd outliers? I think they were clearly influenced by the group as a whole, but given the difference in their visual styles and details, I would not be surprised to find out they were done a bit later – or possibly even by competing contemporary workshops – in emulation of the established style.

Have you found other examples of these stitched comic books (biblical or not)? Share!

UPDATE

Readers have most graciously pointed out additional examples! Thank you – keep them coming

11. Holly found this in The Jewish Museum in New York, Embroidered Panel: The Story of David and Bathsheba. Greece, 19th century. Silk on linen. 10.5 x 29 inches (26.7 x 73.7cm). From the H. Ephriam and Mordecai Benguiat Family Collection, Accession S 202. The date and provenance are different from the rest, but it does appear to have some stylistic commonality with #8, above.

12. Melinda Sherbring alerts us to a holding in the Los Angeles Museum of Art, Embroidered Textile Panel Depicting Scenes from Genesis. Iberian Peninsula (Spain or Portugal), late 16th century. Linen plain weave with silk embroidery. (a): 9 7/8 × 64 1/4 in. (25.08 × 163.2 cm); (b): 35 3/4 × 9 5/8 in. (90.81 × 24.45 cm) Costume Council Fund (M.87.230a-b) . Sadly, there is no shared image available there, but from her detailed descriptions, it’s another version of the Adam and Eve panel (second panel in #1, above), and the Ark panel (#2 and 7 above), done in long armed cross stitch, in red silk. The foreground ornament of both is a bit simplified compared to the other versions posted here.

Melinda and her co-conspirator in textile history high-jinks, Robin Berry, had the opportunity to examine the piece up close. They have given me permission to share their notes on technique:

  • Fabric thread count approximately 96 tpi. 
  • Embroidery floss is filament silk, finer than a single strand of Eterna; possibly Kreinik size 0. 
  • Motif colors:  background color card 19-12 and 19-11 for Genesis, approximately DMC 3687.
  • Technique: long armed cross stitch background with backstitch for details and outlines.  Looks like the same thread was used for background and for details.  Stitches over 3 threads, approximately 18 stitches per inch. 
  • There are holes along the edges clearly where fabric was nailed or tacked to a support.

Robin additionally points out that voided works with Iberian origins are properly termed “Reserve.”

Melinda agrees with me that the base layout of these pieces were probably traced or drawn rather than established by count. Having three examples of such a work is quite special.

4 responses

  1. https://thejewishmuseum.org/collection/22389-embroidered-panel-the-story-of-david-bathsheba

    Yup I have. Here’s one. Looks like this sister of one of yours. Do you think LACS is prettier than xstitch?

    1. Thanks! I’ll revise and include it too. Frankly of the various fill techniques , I like the tightly drawn meshy one the best, and the open squared filling second best. LACS os third (although I like it better in silk than in cotton). Plain old cross stitch will do in a pinch, but to my eyes it usually looks better for modern applications than historical voided designs. No aspersions on those who favor it, just personal preference for my own work.

  2. Isn’t it wonderful how accessible these collections are now? Not so long ago this kind of research would have required extensive travel, and sharing the results in a book.
    These panels are delightful, an interesting variation on the theme.

    1. Absolutely. When I wrote my first booklets on historical patterns, traveling cross country yo museums or libraries with microfiche collections was required. Being able to roam the world’s great collections from my own home is exhilarating, and the immediacy of it all is the driving force behind these observations.

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