Zoom Into This Embroidered Panel for a Cabinet Door

By Cooper Hewitt, Smithsonian Design Museum

Cooper Hewitt, Smithsonian Design Museum

Panel for a Cabinet Door (1575/1625) by UnknownCooper Hewitt, Smithsonian Design Museum

This embroidery was brought to life by a team of skilled 16th c. artisans. A panel like this one would be made by a team of professional embroiderers, mostly male, with specialized skills:

one for the hand-painted silk backgrounds...

...one for the raised metallic embroidery...

...one for the needle-lace leaves, etc.

Let's take a step back and appreciate the whole.

We see a small panel of embroidery, 13X11 inches, in high relief of a tree in an oval with an elaborate framework. The field is filled by an oak tree with dimensional leaves in shades of green. The trunk and branches are very dimensional, and are worked in silver metallic thread, now tarnished. At the base of the tree is a salamander, also in silver metallic thread. The background shows a landscape worked in pale silks with mountains and buildings, possibly a monastery. From the limbs of the tree hang crutches, a wax leg, and a censer.

The oval is surrounded by a row of coral beads and two rows of couched metal thread. The framework is embroidered with plant forms; in the two upper corners are coiled serpents, and in the two lower corners serpents emerge from cornucopias. The framework is accented throughout with coral beads and edged with a scalloped lace, probably added later.

And now let's take a closer look:

Generally speaking, animals in textile designs of the 17th century are conventionalized and static, while these seem coiled with energy. Partly that’s showmanship on the part of the embroiderers...

...the highly dimensional forms and the textured stitching in the metallic embroidery combine to give a very life-like feeling to the salamander...

...and the snakes.

But the rendering of their forms also feels tensed.

Anonymously made, like most textiles, the tree is also strikingly real...

...with each branch articulated...

...and every leaf a separate, detached needle-lace object, delicately suspended. They seem designed to rustle in the breeze.

The salamander is said to not only endure, but to thrive in the flames, and is a symbol of regeneration.

Hanging from the tree we see abandoned crutches and a wax leg. All this movement and energy seems well-suited to the spiritual themes of the piece, too.

And thus we see how a team of artisans can fashion silk, metal wire, metal strips, and coral beads into a raised embroidery piece that reaches across five centuries to ignite our curiosity and admiration while projecting ideas about spirituality and healing.

Credits: Story

Drawn from text by
Susan Brown
Associate Curator, Textiles
Cooper Hewitt

Design by
Marc Bretzfelder
Emerging Media Producer
Smithsonian Office of the Chief Information Officer

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Credits: All media
The story featured may in some cases have been created by an independent third party and may not always represent the views of the institutions, listed below, who have supplied the content.
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