From the Exhibition:

English Embroidery from The Metropolitan Museum of Art, ca. 1580–1700: ‘Twixt Art and Nature

The exhibition, English Embroidery from the Metropolitian Museum of Art, 1580-1700: ’Twixt Art and Nature, explores the technical, stylistic and iconographical characteristics of English embroideries of the late Elizabethan and Stuart eras, and asks questions as to their production and uses within the context of the home and of their relationship to the wider ambient culture.

Despite the present fragile and somewhat degraded condition of these gloves, they retain enough of their sumptuous embroidered decoration to convey the luxury of the highest quality embroidered components of late Tudor and early Stuart era dress1. Portraits from the period are replete with minutely detailed representations of entire garments incorporating emblematic symbols and complex stylized patterns, found on men’s doublets and hose, women’s bodices and skirts, and fashionable accessories worn by both sexes.

The prominent presence of gloves in so many sixteenth- and seventeenth-century portraits reveals their importance as a part of the complete presentation of a sitter’s status, stage of life and character. Historically, gloves in and of themselves could be objects replete with symbolism. Gloves were exchanged by lovers, or given as signs or marks of favor from a social superior. Sir George Clifford, the Elizabethan courtier, wore his tournament armor accessorized with a jeweled glove, presumably the Queen’s, attached to his hat, in his 1590 portrait painted by Nicolas Hilliard. To “throw down the gauntlet” was to issue a challenge by presenting one’s glove- referring to the armored gloves known simply as gauntlets, which were representative of a person’s honor. The glove was seen as a surrogate for its owner—the owner’s representative in their absence. This extends to the cast-off or carelessly treated glove as an indication of melancholy—the owner of the neglected glove is equally neglectful of his or her person when in a state of despair.

The gauntlets of these gloves are decorated with motifs which also appear on other embroidered objects of the late Elizabethan era—a disembodied eye raining pale blue and silver tears, a colorful pansy flower, and a bright green parrot with pearls on its wings. At least one of the motifs, the weeping eye, is related to a contemporary emblem book.

The first printed book of emblems, impresa or “devices,” was Andrea Alciato’s Emblematum liber, first appearing in 1531; though the first English emblem book, Geffrey Whitney’s A Choice of Emblems, did not appear until 1586, Continental examples were known to have made their way to England. Motifs from these and many other printed sources were frequently used as designs for the decorative arts of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, including wood carving, plaster work and embroidery. The best-known examples of this practice in sixteenth-century embroidery are the so-called “Oxburgh Hangings.” The design of the Oxburgh Hangings was devised at request of Mary Queen of Scots, and the numerous octagonal pieces, executed in tent stitch on canvas and applied to a green velvet background, were worked by her and the Countess of Shrewsbury, with the help of their household staff. The individual pieces, containing emblematic images and mottos that relate to Mary’s situation as a political prisoner, were made during the 1570s and 1580s when she was under the supervision of George Talbot, Earl of Shrewsbury. The designs have been shown to be based for the most part on four continental emblem books in Mary’s possession, also revealed in her description of the contribution of a professional embroiderer in her entourage, Bastien Pagez, who “in this dreary time cheers me by the work he invents, after my books.”2

These motifs could have more that one meaning, and the disembodied eye is an example of this. In one representation of Queen Elizabeth I, the “Rainbow” portrait of ca. 1603, the queen wears a mantle covered with detached eyes and ears.3 It has been suggested by Frances Yates that these symbolic appendages are drawn from the female personification of Ragione di Stato, or “reason or Interest of State” as personified in Cesare Ripa’sIconologia. In the 1603 edition of the Iconologia, this figure wears a helmet, and breastplate armor, as well as a skirt scattered with eyes and ears. In Edmund Spenser’s poem The Faerie Queen (1590-96), the figure of Envy is described as wearing a garment covered with eyes. However, the heavy-lidded eyes on embroidered on the gauntlets of the Museum’s gloves almost certainly relate to another emblem with yet another meaning. A disembodied, weeping eye floating above a landscape appears in Henry Peacham’s Minerva Britanna or a garden of heroical devises. This emblem is very similar to the eye on the Museum’s pair of gloves, and the verse which accompanies the emblem articulates the frustration of unrequited love:

Looke how the Limbeck gentlie downe diftil’s,
In pearlie drops, his heartes deare quintefcence:
So I, poore Eie, while coldeft forrow fills,
My brest by flames, enforce this moifture thence
In Chriftall floods, that thus their limits breake,
Drowning the heart, before the tongue can speake. 4

Minerva Britanna was Peacham’s only published book of emblems and he himself was responsible for the woodcut illustrations and the accompanying verses. He is perhaps better known for The Compleat Gentleman (1622), a conduct book which ran into many editions. Peacham’s emblem book wasn’t published until 1612, and stylistically these gloves are probably earlier than that date. However, the metaphor of the eye as a distiller of tears shed for love was in use by the 1590s and Peacham’s emblem was probably derived from linguistic usage, if not from an earlier emblem book.5

The pansy flower which appears below the weeping eye strengthens the emblematic reading of this pair of gloves as tokens referring to unrequited or lost love. The pansy, or heartsease as the flower was often referred to in the sixteenth century, was a popular motif in the Elizabethan era. It was known to be a favorite of the Queen herself, and when the Countess of Shrewsbury sought advice on what to give the Queen as a New Years gift in 1575, it was suggested that she have made a cloak of pale blue satin with a border of colorful embroidered pansy flowers, set off by gold and silver thread, because “ye queen lekes byst off that floware”.6 The pansy continued to appear in embroidery well into the seventeenth century. The most common reading of this flower was as a pun on the French word la pensée, or “thought,” implying the desire that one not be forgotten by a beloved.

Elizabeth I owned many jewels shaped like animals, including a parrot sitting on a perch.7 Embroidered parrots appear in a similar pose on a skirt panel dated about 1600, in the Victoria and Albert Museum.8 This skirt panel includes a number of other emblematic motifs—an obelisk, an armillary sphere, a rampant lion, bolts of lightning, and spiders—all scattered in a fantastic garden. While the parrot’s voluble ability to mimic human speech has taken on a negative connotation today, this exotic tropical bird was appreciated as a rare and delicate creature in the Middle Ages, and was associated with femininity and the most highly exalted of women, the Virgin Mary.9 This Medieval association with the rare, the beautiful, and the feminine may well have been the message intended by including the parrot in the decoration of these gloves.

When the gloves were new, they were further embellished with bobbin lace of metal thread edging the individual tabs of each gauntlet (now missing). A ruffle of salmon pink silk (now faded to pale pink) trimmed with narrower metal thread braid and spangles circles the wrist between the decorated gauntlets and the leather hand of the glove. These elements, originally brightly colored and three-dimensional, are seen preserved on another pair of gloves in the Museum’s collection. Nevertheless, the polychrome silk embroidery of the emblematic gloves is still quite fresh and the silver and gold metallic threads have retained much of their shine, which attests to the high quality of the materials. The variety of the silk and metal threads, in addition to seed pearls, which were employed in the decoration of the gloves, as well as the skill with which these materials were worked goes far beyond what would have been strictly necessary to convey their symbolic meanings. One imagines that the commissioner and the owner of these gloves might engage in contemplation of their intricate beauty as well as their meaning. Though other examples of the weeping eye appear on extant embroideries, it may well be that this particular combination of motifs was unique, prepared for one particular client only. Another pair of gloves in the Lady Lever Gallery employs the weeping eye, but in conjunction with a flaming heart- clearly a reference to romantic love, but one that may differ slightly that the meaning of the Museum’s gloves, which appear to refer to a yearning for recognition or remembrance versus burning passion. The Museum’s gloves still convey a sense of physical beauty in the remnants of the highly skilled needlework, and of loving gentleness in their combination of symbolic motifs designed to flatter, and perhaps persuade, the recipient of this courtly gift.

Melinda Watt is the Assistant Curator in the Department of European Sculpture and Decorative Arts at The Metropolitan Museum of Art.

1.I would like to thank Elizabeth McMahon, PhD. candidate at the BGC, for sharing her observations on these gloves.

2.Mary Queen of Scots’ comment appears in A. Strickland, Lives of the Queens of Scotland, vol. I, Edinburgh: Blackwood, 1850, 224; quoted in Michael Bath, Emblems for a Queen: the Needlework of Mary Queen of Scots, Archetype Publications (2008), 3; Bath has produced the most complete study of the Oxburgh Hangings to date.

3.Janet Arnold, Queen Elizabeth’s Wardrobe Unlock’d, Leeds: WS Maney and Sons, Ltd., 1988: 81-2; Arnold discusses the various interpretations of the symbolism of the eyes and ears.

4.Peacham, Henry. Minerva Britanna, 1612: 142.

5.Oxford English Dictionary online, entry for “Limbeck.”

6.Lisa Klein, “Your Humble Handmaid: Elizabethan Gifts of Needlework,” Renaissance Quarterly, vol. 50, no. 2 (Summer 1997): 470.; quoted in Arnold, (1988): 95.

7.Arnold, (1988): 74–75, fig. 125.

8.Victoria and Albert Museum, inv. no. T.138-1981; see Doran, Elizabeth (2003): cat. no. 120, p. 113, and Arnold, Queen Elizabeth’s Wardrobe Unlock’d (1988): figs. 370, 380–83.

9.Bruce Thomas Boehrer, Parrot Culture: Our 2500-year-long fascination with the world’s most talkative bird. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2004: 37, 47.