Needlework Sampler (Dechado) Depicting Our Lady of the Pillar (Nuestra Señora del Pilar)
- Ruperta Gutiérrez
Instruction in sewing, embroidery, and other needlework was considered an essential element of a young woman’s education in Spain and the Spanish Americas during the early modern period until at least the late 1800s. Over the course of her education, especially when undertaken in a school outside the home, a girl would typically produce at least one advanced needlework exercise called a sampler (dechado in Spanish), a panel of embroidered cloth made to show off the student’s training and skill. Like the more well-known works from Great Britain and the United States, samplers made by schoolgirls across the Spanish-speaking world often include a wide variety of stitches and other needlework techniques, alphabets, numbers, verses, as well as religious and decorative motifs sometimes drawn from printed pattern books. Girls frequently signed and dated their samplers, and occasionally included the name of the school or instructor who supervised the project.
Although proficiency in needlework was considered a practical skill, it also came to be equated with female virtue and popular conduct manuals such as Juan Luis Vives’ Education of a Christian Woman (first published in Latin in 1523) and other moralizing texts promoted textile work as a particularly appropriate type of feminine labor. In addition, the stitching of a sampler demonstrated more than needlework skills as the embroidered text and imagery often drew upon multiple aspects of a young woman’s education, including reading and writing, math, drawing and composition, religion, politics, and geography. The display and preservation of samplers by families further points to their role as a symbol of a young woman’s accomplishment, virtue, and social status. A sampler is oftentimes the only surviving record of a woman’s life. As objects of artistic and material culture, samplers not only chart the history of needlework, but give evidence of the limitations and opportunities in female education and literacy, and help to illuminate the lives of individual women, their families, and the specific cultural, religious, and political contexts in which they lived.
The Spanish inscription along the bottom of this sampler indicates that it was made by Ruperta Gutierrez in the year 1850 (“LO HIZO RUPERTA GUTIE[R]E[Z] AÑO 1850”). Made in Mexico, possibly Mexico City, it is an example of what is sometimes called a pictorial sampler, since it depicts one cohesive image. Embroidered with silk thread primarily in cross stitch, the sampler illustrates Our Lady of the Pillar (Nuestra Señora del Pilar), a miraculous statue enshrined in the basilica of the same name in Zaragoza, Spain. Ruperta’s depiction appears to be remarkably similar to how the statue was likely displayed in the mid-1800s. Set within a small niche-like altar, against a cloth adorned with stars, the Virgin is shown wearing a gold crown and blue cape. On either side are yellow flowers that seem oversized in comparison to the diminutive statue, which is only fifteen inches high. The composition is nearly identical to several other samplers made at the same time, suggesting that all were based on a common print source perhaps made to commemorate some event associated with this specific Marion devotion. The sampler shows evidence it was once mounted and framed and may previously have been displayed in a home or convent as a devotional image.
--Sabena Kull, 2017-18 Mayer Fellow for Spanish Colonial Art