Cloth acted as the first layer of decoration placed on an early modern banquet table. After the laying of the tablecloth, this napkin from 1663 would have been folded and placed to the left of a place setting, as is customary today. The presence of the number twenty-four stitched onto the corner of this napkin indicates that it was part of a set. The matching tablecloth and additional napkins from the set, also marked with the number twenty-four, can be found in the textile collection of the Abegg Foundation in Switzerland and elsewhere. 1 The practice of using napkins at the table can be traced back to Ancient Rome. Elite Romans brought their own embroidered silk or linen cloths called mappae to banquets and used them to wipe their lips. 2 In Medieval Europe, white cloths signified cleanliness and Judeo-Christian purity; They were used in religious ceremonies and placed on altars, and the tables of the well-to-do. 3 However, individual napkins were not provided during this period, so medieval diners wiped their hands on their clothing or the tablecloth. Some households employed a ewerer—a servant who carried around a jug of water and a communal hand towel to each guest. From the late Middle Ages up to the seventeenth century, long napkins were draped along the edge of the table and shared by several people. 4 It was during the fifteenth century that the French court began providing a napkin for each guest, and it became fashionable to do so. 5 In a 1530 handbook titled On Civility in Children, the humanist philosopher Erasmus of Rotterdam advised, “If napkins are distributed, yours should be placed on the left shoulder or arm; goblet and knife go to the right, bread to the left.”

Such luxe linens were more than fabric for guests to wipe their hands on. Some napkins, such as the one seen here, told stories, and could even be read as didactic, thanks to the development and spread of figured damask weaving. Damask, the English name for a technique allowing a pattern to be woven into fabric, was invented on draw-looms in China before the Tang period (618-907 A.D). 6 Made with one warp and one weft yarn of the same color, the pattern appears on both sides of the cloth, in reverse, with lighter matte figures standing out against a dark, satin background, and vice versa. 7 These costly textiles were sold by merchants on the Silk Road. In the early Middle Ages, Byzantium and the Middle East became centers for damask production. This style of fabric spread to the West during the Crusades, and in the fourteenth century, the French began referring to it as damas, connecting it to the ancient Syrian city of Damascus where it was exported from. 8 The weaving technique was adopted across Europe and used to make upholstery, curtains, and table linens for the well-to-do. Haarlem and Flanders in the Netherlands were the dominant centers of damask production in Europe, and this napkin was likely made in Haarlem. 9

The patterns and figures subtly imbedded in damask linens were revealed in proximity and enhanced by candlelight. 10 Figured damask featured scenes inspired by the Bible, mythology, history, daily life, and nature in order to provoke thought and conversation, and to indicate the status and values of the host. 11 Two stories are woven into this damask napkin: that of the owners and a story from the bible. A Dutch inscription at the top and bottom indicates who owned the napkin, their position in society, and the year it was made. It features the names Jonkheer Doecke Martena van Burmania, who is identified as “Lord of the manor, and keeper of the dikes,” and Jouffrow Edwarda Lucia van Juckema. Records indicate that the Van Burmania family was wealthy, and that Doecke Martena van Burmania married Van Juckema in 1647, the same year he became mayor of Friesland (a province in the Netherlands). 12 This inscription, which includes the date 1633, implies that the tablecloth and napkin set may have been commissioned to commemorate a special event. The Van Burmania crest is also featured on the napkin’s corners. The central imagery depicts scenes from the Old Testament story of Abraham and Isaac, in which the elderly couple Abraham and Sara miraculously conceive a son who they name Isaac. God tests Abraham by asking him to sacrifice Isaac. Abraham is ready to obey, but an angel stops him at the last minute, and Abraham sacrifices a ram instead. In the story, Abraham is rewarded and blessed for demonstrating his faith through his willingness to give up his only child. Linens decorated with this story were likely meant to communicate the depth of their owners’ religious beliefs.
[1] Deborah L. Krohn, “Selected Checklist of the Exhibition,” in Staging the Table in Europe 1500—1800, (New York: BGC Publications, 2023). [2] Françoise de Bonneville, The Book of Fine Linen, (Paris: Flammarion, 1994), 98.
[3] De Bonneville, 90.[4] De Bonneville, 100. [5] De Bonneville, 101. [6] Milton Sonday, “The Timelessness of Damask” from Textile Society of America Symposium Proceedings, 206. 1998.
[7] Sanny de Zoete, “Laying the Table,” in Class Distinctions: Dutch Painting in the Age of Rembrandt and Vermeer, Ronni Baer, et. al., (Boston: MFA Publications, 2015), 76.
[8] Sonday, “The Timelessness of Damask.”
[9] Krohn, “Selected Checklist of the Exhibition.” [10] De Zoete, “Laying the Table,” 80.[11] De Zoete, 77.[12] Krohn, “Selected Checklist of the Exhibition.”