“Another thing” is a series of occasional posts, each presenting a particularly interesting, beautiful or unusual object on display at one of the museums or sites on our tours.
This fascinating and colorful embroidery, an excellent illustration of one of the most important traditional Greek handicrafts, is exhibited on the first floor of the Benaki Museum at Athens, amidst a large collection of household linen and hangings.
Before reading on, have a look at the image. Can you guess what its purpose was, and what is depicted on it? If you are not familiar with Greek folk art, this may be hard to answer – another look at the title may help...
What we are looking at is an 18th century bridal cushion from the town of Ioannina, the capital of Northwestern Greece (Epirus), depicting a wedding procession. The bride is shown on horseback in the centre of the scene, surrounded by her relatives (at a smaller scale), while two horsemen belonging to the groom’s retinue are awaiting the moment after the wedding ceremony when they will receive her and accompany her to the groom’s house – her new home. All the figures are wearing elaborate costumes and headdresses, a faithful representation of the local traditional garb: boots, greenish inner dresses and decorated red overcoats. The horses are festooned with golden bridles embroidered saddle blanket on their croup. The festive spring ambience is completed by the background, filled with vivid multi-coloured flowers and human-like birds in the upper corners.
The custom of making embroideries for a bride's dowry was common in several regions of Greece. Certain designs and techniques were preserved and passed on, recurring generation after generation in the same area, which makes it difficult to assess the exact origin and date of such pieces. The patterns and techniques of one region often correspond with those of others, as the brides’ dowry was transferred with her to her husband's homeland. These embroideries were woven by the women themselves, using fine cotton, linen or silk, the production of which flourished greatly in Greece from the 17th to the 19th century, during the period of Ottoman rule.
The embroidery shown in our image was made of silk and gold thread (always coloured with natural dyes) on fine cotton. The designs were freely drawn and embroidered in the half cross-stitch technique, which was common in Northwestern Greece. The red carnations and tulips originate from decorative motifs of the Muslim world, resembling the famous Iznik style polychrome ceramic decoration (1550-1600), while the human-like birds, meant to bring “good fortune” to the newlyweds, may be distant and modified descendants of the sirens of ancient Greek mythology.
The typical Epirote attire of the figures themselves is an amalgamate of various oriental and westernising features, balanced slightly differently in each region. These mixed influences, arising from the long and complex history of Greece and the Balkans – passing from the Byzantine era and various Western occupations to Ottoman rule – were assimilated and amalgamated into the character and lifestyle of local societies.
Finally, a simple question comes to mind. Is the scene an accurate representation of reality? Did people really dress so richly and elaborately at the time? Although stylisation and a certain degree of mannerism are typical characteristics for such imagery of weddings or dancing, they do express and represent an actual luxurious and festive atmosphere that would prevail on these occasions. More esoterically and more personally, they also reflect the unnamed female embroiderers' attempt to express their own social background and aspirations, as well as their own aesthetic conceptions, and of course to commemorate the most memorable moments of their life.
After all, photography, with the perceived accuracy it implies, only became widespread in the 20th century. Folk representations on embroideries such as this one, but also on prints and drawings of earlier periods, open an intriguing window into a world where everyday life became located and expressed somewhere between reality and fantasy.
You can see this superb embroidery, along with many other fascinating objects, on our visit to the Benaki Museum on our Exploring Athens tour in June. And if your travels take you to London, you should consider dropping by the Victoria and Albert Museum to admire its great collection of 17th-19th century Greek embroideries.