Indo-Portuguese embroidered blanket (colcha), Bengal, first half of the 17th century

Decorative blanket in cotton and silk from Tussar


Decorative cotton blanket, entirely embroidered with Tussar silk, with a natural color tending to yellow. The embroidery decoration is made like a real horror vacui. There are several borders decorated with phytomorphic and floral motifs among which hunting and fighting scenes are taking place, with knights, warriors, real and fantastic animals. In the second border, in the corners and along the median lines, there are eight circular reserves within which there are various figures of ladies and knights, in some cases intent on hunting or feasting; also in the center of the blanket there is a banquet between a lady and a knight. In particular, one of these scenes is identifiable with the Judgment of Solomon, thanks to the iconography and the inscription in the cartouche above (“SEMS SALMO”).

The recognition of the protagonist in this biblical character allows us to trace all the scenes back to his life and, in particular, to the meeting with the Queen of Sheba, who appears full-length and crowned in one of the aforementioned medallions. Inside the main reserve, the four corners are delimited by the bodies of a pair of snakes with their tails wrapped. In the corners thus formed there are four scenes, all accompanied by writings. Certainly useful is the one that allows us to identify the Judgment of Paris (“PALAS / IVNVS / VENVS / PAПES”): the young man is handing the apple to Venus, behind which are his antagonists, Athena and Juno.

Another scene is identifiable with the mythological episode of Actaeon (“AMTEAM”), where the young hunter riding his horse, is already turning into a deer, guilty of having come across Diana intent on taking a bath with her handmaids. Another myth depicted is that of Leandro and Ero: if the iconography is more difficult and even less known, the inscription “LEANDAO / HERO / TIAO” is fundamental. The last reservation, on the other hand, bears an inscription that is very difficult in reading (“IVDIC”) and difficult in the iconography, but which could be dissolved in the allegorical representation of justice. There are two dark brown ink stamps on the back of the blanket. Two different monograms, one inscribed in a circle and the other in a square.

Dimensions: 325 x 260 cm ( 128 x 102,3 in )


Historical-critical analysis:

Since ancient times, Indian textile products have been among the main trade goods exported from this land: the production of the largest centers specialized in textile manufacturing, located in Bengal and Gujarat, was able to satisfy the demands of the southern markets. -East Asia, China, the Roman Empire and, later, also in the nascent Islamic states (Egypt, East Africa, Middle East). With the arrival of the Portuguese and later the Germans and the British, the rich textile manufactures were also exploited, so that the production of the latter had to adapt to the demands of the European market. The first mention of a colcha is found in Gaspar Correia’s Lendas da India, in which the typical Bengali blanket is presented inside a trousseau used for a diplomatic gift, in consideration of the commercial and artistic value that this product had.

Subsequent documentation, such as letters and travel reports, testify that the textiles produced in Bengal, precisely called colchas, began to be part of the European royal collections starting from the late sixteenth century. The colchas were in fact among the first artistic works commissioned by Europeans and sold in the courts as a novelty and by virtue of the preciousness of the embroidery, often in silk or with a cotton base. If initially the decoration of the cholchas was characterized by Bengali iconography, with the intervention of the Portuguese, who have the merit of having understood the true potential of these works, the theme of the embroideries also varied with adaptations that made the colchas very complements requested in European courts.

The iconography of the embroideries thus expanded with motifs from both the Indian and European traditions, often with a fusion between the two; in particular, episodes belonging to Western culture were chosen, such as those belonging to Greek-Roman mythology (for example the triad of Athena, Juno and Venus) or to the Old Testament, reread and presented through the Bengali artistic vocabulary. Among the well-known buyers of the Bengali colcha is also Cardinal Ferdinando de ‘Medici, Grand Duke of Tuscany, who in 1585 commissioned his Asian correspondent Filippo Sassetti to purchase Indian curiosities, including two embroidered Bengal quilts (documentation preserved in the State Archives of Florence); it was not the only occasion for the Florentine Cardinal, who also commissioned the merchant Francesco Carletti to procure him the products of the Indian textile manufacture.

A Bengal colcha and a cloak, formerly belonging to the imperial collections, are now kept at the Kunsthistorisches Musem of Shloss Ambras, and are probably those sent in 1594 from Madrid to the court of Vienna. These exotic artifacts were kept inside the Kunstkammer or in the Wardrobe, and only shown on rare and special occasions: they were hardly used in everyday life, much more as a demonstration of the erudition and power of those who could boast them in their collections. Indian colchas are a generic term that encompasses different types of textiles, such as blankets, carpets, tablecloths and cloaks and which therefore could have different uses. An example is demonstrated by the Annunciation by an anonymous artist of 1549, a painting preserved at the Museu Nacional de Arte Antiga in Lisbon, where the Virgin is seated on an extrado, a type of colcha used as a carpet also in the Lisbon court itself. In Florence it is attested that numerous colchas were kept in the warehouses and workshops of the Casino di San Marco, probably as textile samples for the Florentine artists who worked there. Our colcha is plausibly placed in the Bengali production destined for export, as evidenced by the scenes embroidered above in Tussar silk (naturally yellow in color, it grew spontaneously in the eastern territories of India. Judgment of Paris) with biblical scenes, including the Judgment of Solomon. It is rare to find such well-preserved artifacts as ours, even in the museum collections. The colcha described here, in fact, has only a small intervention on the border and is still adorned with two silk tassels that decorate the edges. Several other museums boast works similar to the blanket in their collections. Among these, noteworthy are those preserved at the Museu Nacional de Arte Antiga in Lisbon (n.3692, no.3413), the British Museum in London (n.2000,1213,0.1), the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York (1970.173 , 1975.4 and 34.104.1), and Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum in Boston (T20e4).


 – John Irwin, Indo-Portuguese Embroideries of Bengal, “Art and letters, Journal of the Royal India, Pakistan and Ceylon Society.”, vol. XXVI, n. 2, 1952, pp. 65-73;

– Maria José de Mendonca, Embroidered quilts from the Museu Nacional de Arte Antiga Lisboa, catalogo della mostra (Kensington Palace, London, 1978), n. 6, London, 1978;

– Barbara Karl, The Narrative Scheme of a Bengal Colcha Dating from the Early 17th Century Commissioned by the Portuguese, Lincoln, Nebraska, Textile Society of America Symposium Proceedings, 2006, pp. 438-448;

– Rosemary Crill, The earliest survivors? The Indian emroideries at Hardwick Hall, in Rosemary Crill, Textiles from India: the Global Trade, Calcutta, Seagull Books, 2006, pp. 245-260;

– Teresa Pacheico Pereira and Carmo Serrano, Indian emroideries for the Portuguese market, end of 16th century/beginning of 17th century, The Textile Collection of the Museu Nacional de Arte Antiga, Lisbon, 2007;

– Barbara Karl, “Marvellous Things are made with needles”. Bengal colchas in European inventories, c. 1580-1630, in “Journal of the History of Collections”, 8 Novembre 2010, pp. 1-13;

– Interwoven Globe, The Worldwide Textile Trade, 1500-1800, a cura di Amelia Peck, New York, Metropolitan Museum of Art, 2013

– Barbara Karl, Embroidered Histories. Indian Textiles for the Portuguese Market during the Sixteenth and Seventeenth Centuries, Wien, Köln Weimar, Böhlau Verlag, 2016.

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