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Women in the Arts and Letters in Navarre (6). The Role of Women in the Art of Embroidery


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Diario de Navarra

Alicia Andueza Pérez

PhD in Art History

Diario de Navarra, in partnership with the Chair of Heritage and Navarrese Art of the University of Navarra, addresses, monthly, with the help of specialists from various universities and institutions, aspects on the relationship of women with the arts and literature in Navarra.

Needlework, sewing and embroidery have traditionally been associated with women and the construction of femininity. Likewise, as is the case with many women's fields, they have been associated with the private sphere and the domestic sphere, as they are considered ideal activities for women to carry out in their homes.

Sign of virtue and distinction

Therefore, the girl will learn...spinning and tilling, which are very honest exercises...and very useful for the preservation of the treasury and honesty, which should be the main care of women. As these words of Luis Vives in his work Instruction of the Christian woman (1523) show, these tasks have been part of the Education of women and not only that, but they have been distinguished, from a moral point of view, as weapons against temptation and idleness, appearing as a measure of virtue in the collective statement of core values since Antiquity. Federico Luigini, in Il libro della bella Donna (1554), says that the needlework work is for all women, of high or low birth, but where the poor find utility in this art, the rich and noble lady also finds honor. This moral dimension explains why the great ladies, queens and nobles dedicated themselves to these works, especially to embroidery because of its relationship with luxury and distinction. These works were part of the knowledge transmitted from mothers to daughters, by means of embroidery patterns and samples that formed an affective heritage that united the feminine universe of the different generations. Specifically, the pattern books for embroidery and lace that appeared from the 16th century onwards and which included letters, animals, plant forms or ornamental borders, had a great boom and diffusion in Germany, Italy and France. These repertoires, often dedicated to great ladies, were used by women of high rank and played an important role in the knowledge dissemination of the art of embroidery and in the exchange of ideas and decorative designs throughout Europe. In them, in addition to the textile patterns that were also used in the art workshops, there are scenes of women embroidering, as can be seen in Peter Quentel's, published in Cologne in 1527, or in the Burato: libro de rechami, a work by Alessandro Paganino, published in Venice around 1530.

Paradoxically and in spite of what has been said, the truth is that professionally and in the public sphere, those in charge of carrying out the embroidery work were fundamentally men. They were the ones in charge of directing the erudite embroidery workshops, understanding as such the one applied to liturgical ornaments and to the so-called court works, thus differentiating it from the one known as popular embroidery. Thus, women were mostly dedicated to embroidering canvas fabrics and everything related to white embroidery, such as tablecloths, bedspreads, sheets or pillows. Regarding gender, we could say that when men embroidered it was art and when women did it, their works were considered a mere handicraft, a specifically feminine and domestic labor.

The embroidery workshops

In this way, due to the social and legal status of women in the past centuries, being always in a status of subordination to men, they could not develop in most cases the artistic trades in a professional manner. It seems that this was not always the case, since there are references in European cities during the average Age in which there were women in the embroidery workshops, but when the trades were regularized and the guilds and their ordinances were officially instituted, their role was diminishing until they were relegated, as we have mentioned, to the private sphere.

In the specific case of Navarre, although the constitution of the official document as such took place at the beginning of the 16th century, we do not preserve any evidence of its regulations. However, the numerous documentary evidence confirms that master embroiderers were the ones in charge of the workshops. We have no evidence of the participation of women in them, but the silence of the sources does not prevent us from thinking that they probably carried out different activities within the workshops. This status changed when they were widowed, moment in which they acquired certain legal entity and became position of the workshops of their husbands. They became in charge of concluding, by means of agreements with other embroiderers, the works contracted by their spouses, as can be clearly seen in the case of Graciosa de Izu, wife of the embroiderer Juan de Agriano y Salinas who, after the death of her husband and as his widow and heir, captained his workshop and made agreements with other craftsmen to finish the works that her husband had contracted in 1628 with the parish of Lodosa. In this sense, they also made position of the apprentices left by their husbands, as it seems from the will of the embroiderer Juan de Arratia, who left his wife as his heir and ordered his servants, Vicente de Aróstegui and Nicolás de Marchueta, to continue working in his house until they completed the stipulated period of apprenticeship.

In addition, and with respect to the role of women in professional embroidery workshops, it should not be forgotten that they were a link for the preservation of official document and the consolidation of the workshop through the generations, as there are several data of daughters of master embroiderers who married other officials of the art, as in the case of the craftsman Juan de Sarasa, whose daughters, Magdalena and Graciana, married other embroiderers, Juan Vidal and Andrés de Agriano y Salinas respectively.

The "work of hands" in convents

If there is an exception to the panorama described, it is the one that occurred in the convents of nuns in Navarre. There are numerous data of the dedication of the nuns, especially cloistered nuns, to embroidery work, a field in which they achieved a similar and sometimes higher quality than that achieved by professional artisans. During the Modern Age and up to our days, many nuns worked for their own sacristies and also for other Navarrese temples, putting in internship the importance that the work guide , in tune with the monastic rules, had in the feminine cloisters. As an antidote against idleness and accompanied by time, patience and dedication, many agile and delicate hands were dedicated to this needlework. In this sort of "praying with their hands", they learned from each other and collaborated in the maintenance of their communities, consecrating such a virtuous task to God.

The Discalced Carmelites of St. Joseph, the Augustinian Recollect Sisters and the Adorers, all of them from Pamplona, are a good example of this. As for the first ones, already in the middle of the XVII century they appear, within the structure of official document, as awardees of a licence to carry out several liturgical ornaments for the churches of Marcaláin and Garínoain, and as appraisers, by mandate of the bishop of Pamplona, of some works for Villava and Isaba. To this religious community we owe the making of one of the most significant ensembles preserved today in Navarre, the Great Pontifical of the old monastery of Fitero. In its execution, the discalced Carmelite nun Graciosa de los Ángeles stood out, and the chronicles record that she embroidered with great care, as can be seen in the terno referred to, a work from the second quarter of the sixteenth century, where the quality and mastery achieved in the combination of gold thread with colored silks can be appreciated. On the other hand, already in the 19th century, they carried out different repairs and compositions of ornaments for the parishes of Navarre, such as that of San Nicolás de Pamplona.

Regarding the role played by the Augustinian Recollect Nuns of Pamplona, the reading of their chronicles highlights the skill that many of their nuns had for embroidery and needlework, especially for the service of their sacristy, such as Mother Josefa de San Francisco or Mother Teresa de los Angeles, to whom we owe the arrival of the precious Neapolitan frontal that is preserved in the convent. In addition to the composition and embroidery of many of the works that are treasured in the sacristy, they worked for other temples and institutions in Navarre, as happened in the late seventeenth century when they carried out several actions in the cathedral of Pamplona, such as the making of the terno called Murcia; In 1752, when they made a cape for San Fermín, or in the 19th century, when they made position of the canopy for the Pamplona City Hall that was taken out in the Corpus Christi procession and made a pluvial cape for the parish of Echalar and a canopy for the church of San Nicolás in Pamplona.

As for the Adorers of Pamplona, since their arrival in the city at the end of the 19th century, they excelled in embroidery work, repairing already existing works, as when in 1907, together with the Josefinas of Pamplona, they restored the terno of Madrid origin that the bishop of Pamplona, Lorenzo Igual de Soria, had given to the cathedral one hundred years before; or carrying out new works, such as the making in 1960 of the current mantle of the Dolorosa, which, embroidered entirely in gold on black velvet sample a great quality, at the height of the devotional importance that this image has for the city of Pamplona.

Your role as donors

There were many women who, as a sign of piety and of their social position, made donations of textile pieces to Navarrese temples, sometimes of their own dresses so that embroidered works could be made from them and especially to the different images of the Virgin. As sample of all of them, the royal gifts stand out, such as the one made to the schoolgirl of Tudela in the 15th century by Queen Leonor, together with King Carlos III, of some garments and a brocade cloth; the mantles that Queen Catalina donated to the Virgin of the Sagrario of the cathedral of Pamplona; or the brocade brial that Queen Leonor, daughter of Juan II, donated to the collegiate church of Roncesvalles and from which a mantle was made for the Virgin and a pluvial cloak. In the 18th century, the figure of the widowed queen Mariana of Neoburg, who gave the Virgin of the Way of Pamplona a white cloth dress with silver flowers and the convent of the Discalced Carmelites of Pamplona two dresses from which a terno was made, stands out. Queen Bárbara de Braganza also gave a cloak of crimson velvet embroidered in silver to the Virgin of Araceli of the convent of the Discalced Carmelite Mothers of Corella, to which Queen Isabel II gave another cloak, this time of blue velvet. Both are preserved today as sample of luxury and devotion and of the place that women also occupied as donors and patrons of textile pieces.