Needle, Scepter, Sovereignty:
The Queen of Sheba in Englishwomen's Amateur Needlework

Ann Rosalind Jones



     1. In Edinburgh in 1584 Thomas Hudson, translating Guillame Du Bartas' Protestant poems on the Creation in response to a request by the young James of Scotland, published a description of the Old Testament Judith, engaged in a domestic task familiar to prosperous early modern Englishwomen. Paraphrasing Du Bartas, Hudson writes:

Sometyme she broyded on the canvas gall [yellow]
Some bird or beast, or Aegle or elephant tall.
While subtly with silver nedle fine
She works on cloth some history divine.1

Judith is praised here as a private needlewoman picturing not only fantastic beasts but public history, in which she is on the verge of performing herself as a political heroine, the slayer of Holofernes, the general besieging her city.

     2. In this essay, I want to propose a similar interplay of private and public activity as a framework for understanding a pair of topics for needlework often employed by early modern English and American women: Esther and the Queen of Sheba.2 As successors to Du Bartas' Judith, needlewomen textualized "devine history" via a stitched rhetoric celebrating the regal and intellectual power of women of the Old Testament. Judith's needle, foreshadowing the sword of a female hero about to enter the world of battle, and the intricacy of this woman's stitched "take" on earlier events sacred in her culture are rematerialized in seventeenth-century stitched representations of the Queen of Sheba. I'll examine literary texts and prints as sources for needleworked pictures in which women reinterpreted this biblical queen from the seventeenth to the early eighteenth centuries in England and in the American colonies.

The Queen of Sheba in the Bible

     3. The story of the Queen of Sheba (later sometimes called simply Sheba or Saba) appears twice in the Old Testament, in the First Book of Kings and in Chronicles II:9. Here is the first version, according to the 1587 edition of the Geneva Bible:


1 And the Queene of Sheba hearing ye fame of Salomon (concerning the Name of the Lord) came to proue him with hard questions.

2 And she came to Ierusalem with a verie great traine, and camels that bare sweete odours, and golde exceeding much, and precious stones: and shee
came to Salomon, & communed with him of all that was in her heart.

3 And Salomon declared vnto her all her questions: nothing was hid from
the King, which he expounded not vnto her.

4 Then the Queene of Sheba sawe all Salomons wisedome, and the house
that he had built,

5 And the meate of his table, and the sitting of his seruants, and the order
of his ministers, and their apparel, and his drinking vessels, and his burnt offrings, that he offered in the house of the Lord, and she was greatly astonied.

6 And shee sayde vnto the King, It was a true worde that I heard in mine
owne lande of thy sayings, and of thy wisedome.

7 Howebeit I beleeued not this report till I came, & had seene it with mine eyes: but lo, ye one halfe was not tolde mee: for thou hast more wisedome
& prosperitie, then I haue heard by report.

8 Happy are the men, happie are these thy seruants, which stande euer
before thee, and heare thy wisedome.

9 Blessed be the Lord thy God, which loued thee, to set thee on the throne
of Israel, because the Lorde loued Israel for euer and made thee King to doe equitie and righteousnesse.

10 And she gaue the King sixe score talents of golde, and of sweete odours exceeding much, and precious stones. There came no more such aboundance
of sweete odours, as the Queene of Sheba gaue to King Salomon.

13 And King Salomon gaue vnto the Queene of Sheba, whatsoeuer she
would aske, besides that, which Salomon gaue her of his kingly liberalitie: so she returned and went to her owne countrey, both shee, and her seruantes.

     4. No written source for this narrative has been found, though biblical scholars assume that the story, set in the middle of the 10th century B.C. when Solomon reigned, began as an oral tradition. Analysts of the Hebrew text translated in the Geneva Bible point out three interesting nuances in the Old Testament original. (I draw here on James Pritchard's summary of biblical commentaries.3) The Hebrew word for the "hard questions" with which the Queen tests Solomon means "riddles" or "conundrums"; in the Greek Old Testament the word is translated as "enigmas." So the story attributes shrewd intelligence to the queen. She doesn't pose questions expressing naïve admiration but tests the king deliberately and probingly. The Hebrew word translated as "sweet odors" is besamin, meaning sweet-smelling things --that is, perfumes or incense. So the story suggests that the queen's gifts were sumptuous to the nose as well as the eye, perhaps including myrrh or frankincense. And the Hebrew verb used to describe the Queen's approach to Solomon can also mean "to enter a tent or house for the purpose of sexual relations" (it's used in Genesis to describe the incestuous approach of Lot's daughters to their father). The final statement that the King gave the queen "all she desired" was also used to support a later argument that the queen's exchange with Solomon was an erotic one--an interpretation pursued at length in Jewish, Islamic and Ethiopian texts.4

     5. But this sexual take on the queen's visit was an elaboration of the legend that Renaissance needlewomen chose not to represent: their Queen of Sheba is never African or erotic. They identified, rather, with her power as a public figure whose assessment of Solomon helped to affirm his reputation. So the reigning convention in needlework images of the queen is that she is always chaperoned by other people, male and female. These figures, of course, also signify her regal status: various combinations of ambassadors and ladies-in-waiting accompany the queen in the mainly seventeenth-century needlework pictures and panels I will present here.

     6. A late and wonderfully rich example of this closely companioned Queen was worked by an American girl whose married name was Mary Esher, in Worcester, Massachusetts, in 1812. As her model, she used an engraving by Joseph Seymour illustrating The Holy Bible Containing the Old and New Testaments, published in Worcester in 1791. Esher's Queen of Sheba stands between two ladies-in-waiting, resting her arm comfortably on the shoulder of the one closest to the viewer as she observes Solomon discoursing on his lion throne. But even this relaxed posture includes her firm grip on a scepter like Solomon's, emphasized by the gilt lace the needleworker uses to represent it and the way she silhouettes it against the Queen's pale yellow undergown:


1. Mary Esher, The Queen of Sheba Testing Solomon
Worcester, Massachusetts,
late eighteenth century5

     7. Two additions to the original story of the Queen appear in a second version in Chronicles, composed later, in the fifth or fourth century BC. In this later version of the story, the Queen is impressed only by Solomon's wisdom; the narrative omits her admiration of his prosperity, as specified in Kings. And in Chronicles, Solomon's gifts to the queen are described as more than equaling hers to him: his "liberalitie" includes "every pleasant thing that she asked," in addition to the return of all her gifts to him. The King James Bible translates the passage as "besides that which she had brought unto the king." If we consider this phrasing in light of the symbolism of gift exchange, Chronicles makes Solomon emerge triumphant from the gift-giving contest, even as the new emphasis on his wisdom rather than his prosperity stresses the spiritual rather than the material value of his gifts.6

     8. This emphasis gave rise to one predominant typological reading of the Solomon/Sheba exchange: she was allegorized as the pagan soul converted to Christianity,7 an interpretation supported by the translation of the Hebrew "Saba" (Sheba) as "captivity" in the table of proper names in the Geneva Bible. The Queen was also allegorized as the Church itself, personified as a woman "eager to know Christ."8 The New Testament explicitly establishes the queen as a prophetess of Christianity, in a prediction made by Jesus in an angry sermon to the Pharisees, narrated in Matthew and repeated almost verbatim in Luke: "The Quene of the South shal rise in iudgement with the men of this generacion, and shal condemne them, for she came from the utmost partes of the earth to heare the wisedome of Solomon, and beholde, a greater then Solomon is here" (Luke 11:31). Another typological reading linked the queen to the Magi, bringing gifts of frankincense and myrrh to the infant who would become king of the Jews.9 She was represented in this guise in the late twelfth century, in an Austrian altar enamel figuring her as the African or black-skinned member of the trio of kings.


2. Nicolaus of Verdun, enamel altar plaque,
Klosterneuberg, Austria, after 118110


     9. A fourth interpretation, recorded via Byzantium in Voragine's Golden Legend, posited the queen as the discoverer of the wood from which the Cross would later be made.11 She was said to have recognized a plank laid down for her to cross a river in Solomon's kingdom as holy wood derived from the Tree of Jesse, destined for later glory. Accordingly, she refused to walk upon it and advised Solomon to draw it out of the water and preserve it in safety. The story is narrated in a late fifteenth-century series of Dutch woodcuts, each of which centralizes the Queen as judge and admonisher of men:


3. Three woodcuts from a Dutch block-book, Geschiedenes van het heylieghe Cruys, 148312


     10. The geography of the Old Testament story raised some interesting conflicts. Where and what was Sheba, or Saba? In the Antiquities of the Jewish historian Flavius Josephus, the queen is named as Nikaule, the queen of Egypt and Ethiopia (Bk. 8, 5-6). But "Sheba" or "Saba" was also understood as a region of southern Arabia east of Solomon's realm. It's possible that the lines from Matthew and Luke influenced Josephus' location of the queen in the south, in the African kingdoms of Ethiopia and Egypt. A marginal explanation in the Geneva Bible quotes Josephus on the location of Sheba as follows: "Josephus saith that she was queen of Ethiopia, and that Sheba was the name of the chief citie of Meroé, which is an yland of Nilus."

     11. This conflict regarding the geographical placement of the kingdom of Sheba parallels two opposing views held by modern historians of religion. One is that the story is completely apocryphal, a fiction constructed by an admirer writing to glorify Solomon.13 Several Old Testament passages work similarly to glorify high officials by representing them as figures of awe to contemporary pagans (Pharaoh, for example, and the harlot in Joshua, Chapter 2). This intention is affirmed by the heading of the Kings account in the Geneva Bible; the title sets the "Quene of Sabà" in a section entitled "Salomons reuenues," subordinating her visit to his accumulation of wealth. So does the page-top title in Chronicles: "Salomon's riches." The anonymity of the queen also suggests that she may be a legendary invention. Further arguments that the story is a fiction focus on the fact that Saba, now a city in present-day southeast Yemen, is 1400 desert miles away from Jerusalem--an implausibly long and difficult journey to Solomon's court.

     12. Defenders of the historical reality of the Queen of Sheba base their arguments on twentieth-century archaeological discoveries: the city of Saba was a rich metropolis, often ruled by queens whose names are still preserved in inscriptions there.14 The region was also known for a lucrative trade in myrrh and frankincense--precisely the gifts the queen takes to Solomon--and trade routes linked it via caravan to the west as well as the south, that is, to Baghdad and Gaza, and to Alexandria, west of Jerusalem.15 In later versions of the story from Muslim sources, the queen is renamed Makeda and said to have had a son by Solomon. This addition to the legend is preserved as a founding history in present-day Africa: the 1955 Revised Constitution of Ethiopa claims the son of the queen and Solomon, Menelik I, as the ancestor of present-day Ethiopians.16

     13. The best basis for reading Englishwomen's needlework pictures of the Queen are the meanings attributed to the story in early modern Christianity, especially Protestant texts (hence my use of the Geneva Bible), and the significance given to her in humanist texts that would have been available to a few literate women. I draw in what follows on a wide-ranging art historical essay by Paul Watson17 and on my own reading of Boccaccio, Christine de Pizan, and the late seventeenth-century educator and essayist Bathsua Makin.

The Queen of Sheba as literary heroine

     14. Boccaccio, in his De mulieribus claris (1473), follows Josephus by giving his forty-third chapter the title "Nicaula, the Queen of Ethiopia." He emphasizes the learning and capacity for awe that drew the queen to offer homage to Solomon, in spite of the distance of her kingdom from the civilized world, and his fascination by her wealth parallels Solomon's:

     As far as I can determine, Nicaula was a product of remote and barbaric Ethiopia. She is the more worthy of remembrance as her splendid moral principles had their origin among uncivilized folk.

     The following facts are known (if we can believe the ancient sources): when the dynasty of the Pharaohs came to an end, Nicaula, either as a descendant of this or another line, was a famous queen of Ethiopia and Egypt; some authorities say that she was also the queen of Arabia; she had a royal palace on Meroe, a very large island in the Nile, and her massive wealth was thought to surpass that of every mortal.

     Despite the pleasures that riches can bring, we read that Nicaula did not abandon herself to idleness or feminine luxury. Quite the contrary: though her teacher remains anonymous, we do know that she was wonderfully learned in the natural sciences. Sacred Scripture, which authoritatively indicates Nicaula's existence, also seems to attest to this.

     In the Bible she is known as Sheba, and there it is reported that she marveled when she heard of the wisdom of her contemporary, King Solomon, whose fame had already spread throughout the whole world. . . . What is more, not only was Nicaula filled with admiration, but she abandoned her own illustrious kingdom, setting out from Meroe, which is situated practically on the other side of the world, and came to Jerusalem to hear him. She crossed Ethiopia, Egypt, the coast of the Red Sea, and the deserts of Arabia with such a splendid entourage, glorious pomp, and multitude of royal retainers that Solomon himself, the wealthiest of all kings, was astonished by her magnificence.18

Sumptuousness and daring are the qualities that stand out in Boccaccio's account, as much or more than the learning for which he sets Nicaula up as an exception to the rule of idle, corrupt queens. But her poise and skill in persuasion are emphasized instead in an intriguing mid-sixteenth-century woodcut illustration of Boccaccio's story by the South German printmaker Mathias Apiarius:


4. Mathias Apiarus, woodcut illustration, De Claris Mulieribus, South Germany, 153919


Mathias fashions the Queen disputing orally with Solomon, gesturing rhetorically as the king and a high official listen. In a reference to the debates of his own time, Mathias represents the Queen turning her back on the burning books associated with Protestant/Catholic controversy--implying, perhaps, that her oral reasoning is wiser than the violent printed polemics of his time.20

     15. Christine de Pizan praises the Queen for both secular and religious wisdom in her version of the story, which she sets early in the second book of The City of Ladies (1405). After listing thirteen Christian and Hebrew prophetesses, Christine sets the Queen of Sheba at the head of a series of pagan prophetesses, emphasizing her dignity, the difficulty of the challenges she set Solomon, and his respect for her gifts (II, 4):

. . . she arrived in the city of Jerusalem in order to see and visit wise King Solomon and to test and verify what was said about him throughout the world. Solomon received her with great honor, as was fitting, and she spent a long time with him, testing his wisdom in many fields. She put many problems and questions to him, as well as several obscure and cryptic riddles, all of which he solved so well as soon as she proposed them that she declared that he possessed such extraordinary wisdom not because of human wit but thanks to a special gift from God. This lady gave him many precious presents, including the saplings of small trees which produce sap and balm and which the king had planted near the Mediterranean, ordering that they be carefully cultivated and tended there.21

In her second set of remarks, Christine emphasizes the foresight attributed to the Queen in the legend of the True Cross:

Several writings mention this woman's wisdom and prophecies. They relate that when she was in Jerusalem and Solomon was leading her to see the noble temple which he had built, she saw a long board lying over a mud puddle, which served as a plank to cross this mire. Thereupon, seeing this board, the lady stopped and worshipped it, saying, "This board . . . will, when the time comes, be honored above all pieces of wood in the world and adorned with precious gems from the treasures of princes. And He who will destroy the law of the Jews will die on the wood of this plank." The Jews did not take this pronouncement as a joke but removed the board and buried it in a place where they thought it would never be found . . . . And it is said that from this plank the Cross was fashioned upon which our Savior suffered His death and passion, and thus this lady's prophecy was fulfilled. (pp. 105-6)

Like the later Dutch printmaker's attention in his three woodcuts to the emphatic gestures his Queen directs to Solomon and his followers (3 above), Christine's setting of the Queen's speech as direct discourse and her remark about how attentively it was heard emphasize how much more the Queen knows than the king and his men.

     16. Curiously, given the rhetorical and spiritual power attributed to the Queen in all these early texts and images, I find no references to her in popular English defenses of women published under women's names, such as Jane Anger in the 1590's and the three pamphleteers writing against Joseph Swetnam in 1620. But after the Restoration, Bathsua Makin forcefully recalled the Queen in her Essay to Revive the Antient Education of Gentlewomen (1673). Makin sets Sheba in contexts that evoke her intellectual and political power, in contrast to the social limits imposed on women of her own late seventeenth century. She first names the Queen in a section of the essay entitled Women Have Been Profound Philosophers: "Miriam was a great philosopher; and so was the Queen of Sheba, or else she would never have ventured to try the wisdom of Solomon with dark problems and by hard questions."22 Later, advertising her school for girls in Tottenham High Court, London, by listing a series of the subjects on offer, useful and pleasurable both, Makin names the Queen of Sheba as an example of a powerful woman in her own court, in a analogy to powerful queens of the preceding century, a time more open to public action by her sex than was Restoration England:

. . . public employments in the field and courts are usually denied to women.
Yet some have not been inferior to men even in these things also. Witness the Queen of Sheba in Arabia, . . . Miriam and Deborah among the Israelites, . . . Katherine de Medici in France, Queen Elizabeth in England. (p. 131)

The queen lived on, then, in catalogues of exemplary women of the past and present.23

     17. A historical question we might pose about seventeenth-century English needlewomen in order to understand their readings of this queen is "How would they have imagined a woman of their own time confronting a king?" One such meeting, well known through publication now and certainly circulating in the gossip of the early seventeenth-century elite, is narrated in Anne Clifford's diary. Her writing suggests how much more humbly than the Queen visiting Solomon a female subject was expected to enter into conversation with a secular monarch such as James I. Clifford, sued by her husband Richard Sackville for refusing to allow him to take over her family estates, was summoned by Sackville to an appointment with the king in the winter of 1617. She writes that she knelt humbly down before James, but that she resisted firmly when he asked her to let him resolve the property dispute. This audience was obviously an enforced and fearful occasion, as her diary entry of January 17th suggests. Clifford sought out the support of highly placed women near the king, and she dreaded an intemperate and embarrassing response from him:

When I came up [to London] my Lord told me I must resolve to go to the King the next day. . . . Upon the 18th being Saturday I went presently after dinner to the Queen to the drawing Chamber, where my Lady Derby told the Queen how my business stood & that I was to go to the King, so she promised me she wou'd do all the good in it she could. When I had sta'd but a little while there, I was sent for out my Lord and I going through my Lord Buckingham's Chamber who brought us into the King being in the drawing Chamber. He put out all that were there & my Lord & I kneeled by his chair side when he perswaded us both to peace & to put the matter wholly into his hands, which my Lord Consented to; but I beseech'd his Majesty to pardon me for that I would never part with Westmorland while I lived upon any Condition Whatsoever. sometimes he used. fair means & perswasions, & sometimes fowle means but I was resolved before so as nothing wou'd move me.24

Clifford continued to resist, even in the presence of thirteen hostile men--"at which," she wrote, "the King grew into a great Chaffe, my Lord of Pembroke and the Kings solicitor speaking much against me" (p. 67). In spite of worry that the King would do her "some publick disgrace," she held firm. Although she eventually won the suit, she did so through the intervention of powerful relatives and her own persistence against her husband, rather than through any further audience with the irascible king. It's plausible, then, that the story of the Queen of Sheba--and of Esther with King Ahasueras--provided women embroiderers with a counter-fantasy to the stern reality of highly placed Englishwomen's subordination to their king.

The Queen of Sheba versus Esther, Wife of Ahasuerus

     18. Certain images of the Queen of Sheba downplay her regal powers. For example, a stained glass window of Canterbury of the late twelfth century shows her without a scepter, though she is placed emphatically in the center of the roundel and gestures with equal firmness toward Solomon and her African-featured companions riding camels.


5. Stained-glass window, late 12th century, Canterbury Cathedral25


On a later Italian marriage plate, the Queen meets the king with modest downcast eyes, carrying no royal regalia and holding his hand, while female companions stand with equal modesty behind her. The picturing of the scene on a wedding salver, the couple's joined hands, and the painter's division of the women and men into opposing groups suggest that this is a wedding scene. Accordingly, greater age and majesty is attributed to the king/husband, whose antique costume and hand placed on top of the Queen's signify his sovereignty in the couple.


6. Italian wedding salver, c. 1475,
Umbria, c. 147526


Sculptors and painters in France and Italian city states likewise depicted the story in ways that de-emphasized the Queen's sovereignty. As Paul Watson shows, Ghiberti cast the Queen and Solomon as a betrothed, hand-holding couple for the bronze doors of the cathedral of Florence; the pair is sculpted in the company of other sages in a portal of Chartres Cathedral; Piero della Francesco painted a fresco series of the Queen dressed as a noblewoman protecting the Cross; and Veronese produced a sumptuous wall painting focused on the lavishness of her gifts to Solomon.

     19. But these images from Catholic Europe seem not to have provided the basis for English needlework pictures. I have found little evidence that French and Italian visual compositions were used by Englishwomen working biblical subjects. For instance, a distinct contrast can be seen between Marcantonio Raimondi's 1518 print of the Queen of Sheba and Solomon, which circulated mainly in Italy, to the 1589 version printed by the Antwerp engraver Gerard de Jode, who published two collections of engraved illustrations from the Bible by various artists, prints that were frequently used by English needlewomen.


7. Marcantonio Raimondi, engraving,
"The Reception of the Queen of Sheba
 By King Solomon,"
Rome, c. 151827


8. Gerard de Jode, "Reception of the Queen of Sheba,"
Thesaurus Sacrarum Historiarum Veteris Testamenti, Antwerp, 158528

In Raimondi's print, Solomon, in noble classicizing profile, greets the Queen from his raised throne. She, with modest lowered head and hand laid across her breast, points to the gifts being presented and carried by an opulent and chaotically organized mass of servants. As a result, the amazement registered in the gestures of Solomon's more dignified companions (mostly evenly vertical) seems to be caused by the Queen's wealth rather than her wisdom and skill in posing riddles.

     20. The print from De Jode's collection, however, positions Solomon in a three-quarter view, so that his expression of awe and hand raised in salutation or awe of the Queen is clearly visible: their gazes meet, dramatizing mutual admiration. This Dutch engraver downplays the elaborate canopies and thrones usually identifying Solomon in visual versions of the encounter, and he places Solomon only slightly above the visiting Queen. Although the print from De Jode depicts her offerings in detail and sets them in the foreground of the engraving, the direction it gives to the gazes of Solomon's attendants suggest that they, like their king, are more impressed by her person than her gifts. The Queen's personal magnificence is emphasized, as well, by the camels and male attendants centrally placed in the background, by the graceful circle of her ladies-in-waiting (who look at one another rather than at Solomon), and by the parasol, with its intricate handle, held above her like a portable throne-room canopy.

     21. De Jode's print of the Queen of Sheba seems to have provided the prevailing model for English needleworkers, who almost always identify her as coming from the hot South and requiring regal framing by means of a carefully worked parasol. But they refigure this print's placement of the King above the Queen. Typically, they represent a standing rather than a kneeling queen (sometimes their king stands, too); they give the Queen a scepter; and they set her face on the same level as that of the king. In this silk on satin stumpwork (three-dimensional) picture from the 1650's, the queen holds both a gift urn and a scepter; her two female attendants balance the two male attendants of the king. This needlewoman seems to have seen De Jode's print: her king, too, is beardless and greets the Queen with a gesture of surprised awe.


9. Stumpwork picture,
"The Reception of the Queen of Sheba by King Solomon," 1650's29


Most embroideries identify the queen both through her scepter and the gifts she carries, as in this canvas picture from the 1650's, in which the needleworker sets two urns at floor level in the space between her king (who is standing, not sitting) and her queen and gives the Queen a third offering (perhaps a small balsam tree?):


10. Canvas panel, c. 165030


The Queen's identifying parasol is carefully worked in gold and given a contrasting two-toned blue lining:


11. Detail: the parasol

In another needlework picture from the 1650's, the queen is shown carrying a flower (related to the sweet-smelling gifts of the Biblical narrative?) and a scepter. Another detail here, which appears in most needlewomen's treatments of the meeting, repeats De Jode's print: the lady-in-waiting closest to the queen gazes in irreverent distraction at her fellow attendant rather than at the king himself:


12. Silk on canvas picture, c. 165031


The subject of this picture, interestingly, was first assumed to be Esther going to Ahasuerus. But the queen's scepter and parasol led Xanthe Brooke, the curator of needlework in the Lady Lever Gallery, to re-identify the topic as the reception of the Queen of Sheba by King Solomon.32 Brook also points out (p. 24) that this king resembles Charles I in his pointed beard (and, I would add, his chunky-heeled, rosette-bearing leather shoes, a mid-seventeenth-century style):


13. Detail of Queen and King


This identification is reinforced by the royal animals (unicorn, stag, leopard and lion) at each corner of the picture. These details elevate the Old Testament queen to a position of sceptered equality with the monarch reigning at the time the picture was made.

     22. A comparable stumpwork picture from the second half of the seventeenth century follows the biblical account more fully. Here the Queen, at our right under a dark parasol held again by a De Jodean attendant looking backward rather than at Solomon, offers the king an urn and holds her scepter at the same time. The elaborate towers and city wall above the king allude to his building of Jerusalem (only a fantastic peacock is worked above the queen's head).


14. Satin and silk picture, c. 167533


     23. The eyes of this queen and king, set at the same horizontal level, have an equivalent in an embroidered panel made after 1650, now in the Ashmolean, in which both figures are placed at the same height. Again, this king is standing rather than sitting, greeting the queen with his left hand. Both figures hold scepters, each angled backward. They are an evenly matched pair in size, color, density of pattern, and regal accoutrement.


15. Embroidered panel, 1650 or later34


     24. As a point of contrast, it's interesting to look at a contemporary print by Wenceslaus Hollar, who engraved a central, raised, arrogantly powerful King Solomon based on a drawing by Hans Holbein while he was at the court of Henry VIII during the 1530's. In the Holbein drawing, the king looks straight forward at the viewer, scepter in hand; his gaze does not lead us to the Queen of Sheba, but to a bearded counselor also looking down at the queen. Hollar revises this detail so that the king focuses on the queen, but she is represented six steps below him, almost lost among her ladies, with her back to the viewer. Her upraised hand and fluttering draperies suggest excited awe at the king rather than a challenging interrogation of him, and the lack of any facial features makes her into an oddly generic female petitioner. Watson describes the figure of the king as "squat, stocky, sprawling and scowling . . . a thinly disguised portrait of Henry VIII" and suggests that the queen might, as elsewhere, represent the Catholic church, but now in a hostile Protestant context.35 No English needlewoman interested in the figure of Sheba adopted a design like this, in which the architecture and the invisible face of the queen contribute to the overwhelming dominance of the male monarch.


16. Wenceslas Hollar, engraving of Hans Holbein's c. 1535 drawing of Solomon, c. 166036


Needleworked Esthers versus Queens of Sheba

     25. The ways in which English needlewomen reworked this story stand out by comparison to their treatment of another Old Testament account of a meeting between a woman and a king: the Jewish Esther and her Persian husband Ahasuerus (Xerxes, in Greek and Roman texts). This story, in the Book of Esther, tells how the queen defeated Haman, the counselor of Ahasuerus, after he'd convinced the king to send out an edict calling for the slaughter of all the Jews in the kingdom. After three days of fasting, advised by the king's Jewish counselor Mordecai, Esther went uninvited--against all royal law--into the throne room and invited the king and Haman to a series of banquets at which she exposed Haman's villainy and convinced the king to grant the right of self-defense to the Jews throughout his kingdom; the king also saw how well Mordecai had served him and raised him to the position of chief adviser. The story celebrates Mordecai's success as much as Esther's, and it also emphasizes her dependency as wife and subject. Though she is bold enough to enter the throne room, she is restored only when Ahasuerus reaches out and touches her with his scepter. Further, their exchange links the humility of Esther's speech ("If I have ever found favor in the king's eyes") to the king's willingness to be persuaded.

     26. Altogether, the Esther story contrasts in significant ways to that of the Queen of Sheba and Solomon. The Queen of Sheba is a sovereign in her own right, not a wife; she speaks challengingly rather than humbly to the king; and her great wealth and considered judgment add weight to her affirmation of Solomon's wisdom. Esther is a figure far more bound by gender convention: the modest wife, the gentle and beautiful persuader. De Jode's print represents her kneeling before a highly elevated Ahasuerus, whose eyes she does not meet. The engraver shows that the king similarly overawes the attendant closest to Esther:


17. Gerard de Jode, "Esther and Ahasuerus,"
Thesaurus Historiarum Sacrarum Veteris Testamenti, Antwerp, 158537


The strong diagonal of the king's scepter carries the weight of the story: he allows Esther to approach and signals his willingness to listen. The male figure centered in the background looks admiringly at the king, not at Esther, who carries no royal insignia. Rather, she raises imploring hands to her sovereign husband.

27. The differences between these two heroines were noticed and elaborated by early modern needleworkers. Some needleworkers of Esthers obviously modeled their work on the De Jode engraving, which set up a genealogy of needlework images quite different from those based on his print of the Queen of Sheba. A late case in point is an early eighteenth-century tentwork panel that reverses but otherwise reproduces the position of De Jode's figures almost exactly, though the needlewoman modernizes all the figures' clothing and replaces the background scene of Jerusalem with an enclosed garden:


18. tentwork panel, Esther and Ahasuerus, early 18th c.38


An earlier version of the scene, from 1652, represents all its episodes, including the banquet, at the left, and the hanging of Haman, at the upper right. Here Esther covers her breast modestly as she approaches Ahasuerus' splendid carpeted throne. His scepter can be dimly seen, connecting him to her, as Haman, in a long beard and fur-lined robe, looks on at the left.


19. Canvas panel with the story of Esther and Ahasuaerus, 165239


The fanciful mermaid in front of coral-trimmed mountains at the lower left, gazing at herself in a mirror, might be intended as a counsel to women looking at the panel to consider whether they are as devoted to the well-being of their tribe as Esther was. Liz Arthur argues that the royal lion at the lower right, holding a bloody bone in its mouth, represents the king's support for Mordecai's revenge over his rival counselor, in a deliberate analogy to the Dyers' uprising in 1654 and their appeal for the restoration of the king, who, they hoped, would protect them against the austerity of the Commonwealth.40

     28. But if the needlewoman of 1652 was stitching Esther in support of a specific political group in her own time, the majority of Esther embroideries emphasize the marital harmony of a generalized royal couple. In a silkwork picture from the 1650's, Esther holds hands gently with the sceptered Ahasuerus. In spite of the king's scepter, the couple's poised outward rather than interlocked gaze makes them resemble many married couples in needleworked pictures celebrating weddings:


20. Silkwork picture, Esther and Ahasuerus41


Such pairs have been taken to represent specific historical couples, as in this panel from the 1640's, in which the king is identified as Charles I because of his long hair and wide-topped boots. The queen, also shown in time-specific mid-1640's costume, would therefore be Henrietta Maria:


21. panel, Ahasuerus as Charles I, 1640's42


But in the later seventeenth century, even regal figures became generic couples. In this satin mirror case, the needlewoman figured a couple without the royal canopy or recognizable features, though the man's small crown and ermine-lined cloak identify him clearly as a king:


22. Satin mirror case, 1650-80, king and queen43


Esther and Ahasuerus as a couple, then, could be assigned political identities relevant to the era of women stitching their images. By subordinating this queen to her king, needlewomen blended the two of them into a typical, historically recycable married pair.

     29. Such subordination was never the fate of needleworked Queens of Sheba. In two interesting further representations, she is emphatically figured as equal to Solomon. When, about 1668, an English girl, Rebecca Stonier (later Plaisted), worked a satin cover for a casket (to hold her needles and thread, pens and ink, pearls and gold), she depicted Solomon on the left door, welcoming the Queen with a gesture of his hand.


23. Satin-covered casket, Rebecca Stonier, 166844


On the right door, the Queen stands slightly higher than Solomon, accompanied by a manservant offering the king a rolled case of black velvet trimmed with actual seed pearls.


24. detail, Stonier casket Doors


Here, then, the needlewoman emphasizes the gems the Queen brought to Solomon by materializing them in the tiny gems she may well have kept in her own jewel case. In this way, she associates herself as textile artist with the gift-bearing queen.

     30. In the American colonies a similar casket from the 1660's, probably made by one of the daughters of John Leverett, governor of Massachusetts, follows the pattern of the Ashmolean panel (my image 15) very closely.45 On the doors of this casket, the equal sovereignty of the Queen and Solomon is forthrightly and strikingly represented. The king, standing under a canopy, holds his scepter diagonally over his right shoulder; the Queen, accompanied by a lady-in-waiting carrying her train, holds her scepter over her left shoulder. Both emblems of royal power are identical in color and silken stitchery, and the upward V they form, like the placement of each figure on paired doors, reinforces this symmetry:


25. Leverett casket, New England, 1660's


26. detail, front doors of Leverett casket


No gifts are in evidence in this version of the story, but the position of the palm tree and towered city worked at the upper right, over the Queen's shoulder, suggests that they represent Meroe (Jerusalem is stitched above Solomon). So in the hands of this American girl, the Queen's kingdom, her splendid blue gown, and her upraised hand and scepter call our attention to her royal power, her personal elegance and her queenly authority. This is a Sheba made to fill her frame abundantly.

Conclusion: Symmetrical scepters

     31. We might expect that biblical doctrine and early modern gender ideology would have combined to privilege Esther over the Queen of Sheba as a proper topic for women's needlework. And there are indeed many needleworked Esthers.46 But these samples of stitched versions of the story of Sheba and Solomon suggest that this regal heroine was meaningful in a particular way to English needlewomen. The texts and images I've analyzed demonstrate that they worked out three proto-feminist interpretations of the narrative. They re-materialized the Queen of Sheba, not as an allegory of the Church but as a flesh and blood heroine; they celebrated her splendor with all the luxurious materials at hand, including gold and silver thread and pearls; they used a range of compositional formulas to insist on her equality with Solomon as interlocutor and sovereign. Through the medium of embroidery, they appropriated the story as material for sumptuous elaboration, figuring the Queen's exchange with Solomon as an occasion on which stitched splendor signified power. In their hands, the Queen comes splendidly dressed, accompanied, and canopied. Her gifts are evidence of her wealth and discernment. And her scepter, worked in silk, gilt lace, and silver thread, is fully a match for the king's.



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1 The Historie of Judith in Forme of a Poem Penned in French, by the Noble Poet, G. Salust Lord of Bartas, translated by Thomas Hudson from Les Oeuvres de G. de Saluste, Seigneur du Bartas (Paris 1579), IV: 153-6.

2 For a discussion of the public--that is, political and memorializing--aspects of Englishwomen's needlework, see my and Peter Stallybrass' Renaissance Clothing and the Materials of Memory (London: Cambridge University Press, 2000), chap. 6.

3 James Pritchard, ed., Introduction, Solomon and Sheba (London: Phaidon, 1974), p. 9.

4 On Jewish and Islamic interpretations of the biblical accounts, see Jacob Lassner, Demonizing the Queen of Sheba: Boundaries of Gender and Culture in Postbiblical Judaism and Medieval Islam (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1993). Lassner points out that an Aramaic version of the Book of Esther includes a version of the story of Solomon and Sheba, according to which she goes to visit the king and takes him gifts as a strategem to deflect his military ambitions toward her country (pp. 14-17). For the Queen of Sheba in Ethiopian legend, see the essay by Edward Ullendorf, "The Queen of Sheba in Ethiopian Tradition," in James Pritchard's anthology, Solomon and Sheba (pp. 104-114), and also Ullendorf's book. Ethiopia and the Bible (Oxford, UK: Oxford University Press, for the British Academy, 1967). Ethiopian traditions and images relating to the Queen and Solomon have been discussed most recently in the catalogue of an autumn 2002 exhibit at the British Museum, Queen of Sheba: Treasures from Ancient Yemen, ed. St John Simpson (London: British Museum, 2002), in the essay by Fabrizio Pennacchietti, "Legends of the Queen of Sheba." See p. 36 and fig. 11 and pp. 39-40 and fig. 12.

5 Embroidered picture, by the girl who became Mrs. Mary Esher, Philadelphia, 1812, fig. 157 in Dilys Blum, The Fine Art of Textiles: The Collections of the Philadelphia Museum of Art (Philadelphia: Philadelphia Museum of Art, 1997), p. 85.

6 For commentary on the Chronicles version, see Paul Watson's introduction to James Pritchard's anthology, Solomon and Sheba, p. 11. Lassner comments similarly that the second Aramaic version of the story shows that "she has become the king's client through an exchange of gifts" (Demonizing the Queen, p. 17).

7 Paul Watson, "The Queen of Sheba in Christian Tradition," in Solomon and Sheba, ed. Pritchard, pp. 116-7.

8 Paul Watson, p. 117.

9 For the blackness of the Queen of Sheba and its gradual erasure in European representation, see Paul H. D. Kaplan, The Rise of the Black Magus in Western Art (Ann Arbor, MI: UMI Research Press, 1983, 1985), pp. 37-42, and figs. 6 and 27. See also Jean Devisse and Michel Mollat, The Image of the Black in Western Art, vol. 2, trans. William Granger Ryan (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1979). On links between the beloved speaking the Song of Songs and the Queen of Sheba, and the whitening of this figure by early modern writers in England, see Kim Hall, Things of Darkness: Economies of Race and Gender in Early Modern England (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1995), pp. 108-16. Hall offers a detailed commentary on visual and verbal processes through which the challenging power of African queens was manipulated and transformed in the interests of European Christian/colonial ideology, in "Object into Object? Some Thoughts on the Presence of Black Women in Early Modern Culture," in Early Modern Visual Culture, ed. Peter Erickson and Clark Hulse (Philadelphhia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2000), pp. 359-66.

10 Reproduced in Paul Watson, "The Queen of Sheba in Christian Tradition," in Pritchard, Solomon and Sheba, plate 45. I am indebted to this fascinating and richly illustrated essay throughout my own.

11 For illustrations of this legend, including white-skinned Queens accompanied by dark-skinned waiting women, see Devisse and Mollat, The Image of the Black, plates 113 and 114. See also their illustration of the Queen of Sheba in a pre-1405 Prague manuscript of Conrad Kyeser's military treatise Bellifortis, plate 26. In the illustration, the queen has long blonde hair and black skin, though the black skin was apparently added later (p. 37).

12 Reproduced in Watson, pp. 122-3.

13 Pritchard summarizes arguments against the actual existence of the Queen in his introduction to Solomon and Sheba, pp. 11-12.

14 For recent arguments for the historicity of the Queen, see Christian Robin, Chapter 3: "Sabà and the Sabaeans," in the British Museum catalogue, Queen of Sheba.

15 Nigel Groom discusses the Sabaean production, use and export of frankincense and myrrh in Chapter 6, "Trade, Incense and Perfume," in Queen of Sheba.

16 For an analysis of the texts on which the Ethiopian story is based, see Edward
Ullendorf, "The Queen of Sheba in Ethiopian Tradition," in Pritchard, pp. 108-12.

17 Paul Watson, "Christian Tradition," in Pritchard, pp. 115-45.

18 Giovanni Boccaccio, De Mulieribus Claris, trans. by Virginia Brown as Famous Women (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2001), p. 138.

19 Reproduced in Watson, p. 130.

20 For this interpretation of the print, see Watson, p. 130.

21 Christine de Pizan, The Book of the City of Ladies, trans. Earl Jeffrey Richards (New York: Persea, rev. ed., 1998), p. 105.

22 Bathsua Makin, Essay to Revive the Antient Education of Gentlewomen, in Frances Teague, Bathsua Makin, Woman of Learning (Lewisburg: Bucknell University Press, 1998), p. 119.

23 John Lyly, in Euphues Glasse for Europe, the third section of Euphues and his England (1580), has a character praise his beloved for "hir sharp wit, excellent wisedome, exquisite learning, and all other qualities of the minde" by comparing her to the Queen: "[she is in] questioning not inferiour to Nicaulia the Queene of Saba, that did put so many hard doubts to Salamon" (p. 258). John Phillips, in "A freendly Farewell geuen to Honorable and vertuouse Ladyes," from his Commemoration of Ladye Margrit Duglasis (1578), celebrates the new Queen Elizabeth by telling his fellow Britons that she promises "For wisedome a Saba your blisse to reuiue" (l. 388). George Pettie, in A petite Pallace (1576), assigns his character Alexius a defense of women's intelligence, including the reminder that "Solomon was most wise and learned, yet Saba was able to dispute with him" (p. 228, sig. Ffiii). Katherine Philips, however, in an ode she composed for Charles II, "Arion on a Dolphin, To his Majesty at his passage into England," in her Poems (1667), emphasizes not the Queen's wisdom but her awe at Solomon:

And Monarchs shall to yours resort,
As Sheba's Queen to Judah's Court;
Returning thence constrained more
To wonder, envy, and adore. (ll. 67-70, p. 5)

24 The Diary of Anne Clifford 1616-1619, ed. Katherine Acheson (New York: Garland, 1995), pp. 65-6.

25 Reproduced in Pennacchietti, Queen of Sheba, fig. 8, p. 33.

26 Boston Museum of Fine Arts, reproduced in Watson, p. 145.

27 Reproduced in Pennacchietti, Queen of Sheba, fig. 18, p. 46.

28 Reproduced in Xanthe Brooke, Catalogue of Embroideries, The Lady Lever Art Gallery (Stroud, England: Alan Sutton and the Trustees of the National Museums and Galleries on Merseyside, 1992), fig. 2, p. 24.

29 Reproduced in Brooke, Lady Lever Gallery, p. 74.

30 Liz Arthur, Embroidery at the Burrell Collection 1600-1700 (London: John Murray, 1995), plate 71, p. 102.

31 Brooke, Lady Lever Gallery, p. 23.

32 Ibid.

33 Reproduced in Brooke, Lady Lever Gallery, p. 45.

34 Ashmolean Museum, Oxford, reproduced in Pennacchietti, Queen of Sheba, fig. 22, p. 49

35 Watson further suggests that such an image of a scripturally legitimated monarch dominating a subservient woman would have been welcome to Henry during his struggles with Katharine of Aragon (p. 131).

36 For the Holbein drawing, see Watson, fig. 59; for his comments, p. 131. Pennacchietti reproduces the Hollar print as fig. 16, p. 44.

37 Reproduced in Thomasina Beck, Gardening with Silk and Gold: A History of Gardens in Needlework (London: David and Charles, 1997), fig. 16.

38 Beck, Gardening with Silk and Gold, fig. 17.

39 Arthur, Burrell Collection, fig. 64, p. 93.

40 Arthur, Burrell Collection, pp. 92-3.

41 Brooke, Lady Lever Gallery, p. 54.

42 Arthur, Burrell Collection, fig. 70 and p. 99.

43 Arthur, Burrell Collection, fig. 44, p. 67.

44 Thurman, Art Institute of Chicago, p. 73.

45 Peabody Museum, Essex, Massachusetts, reproduced in Betty Ring, Girhood Embroidery: American Samplers and and Pictorial Needlework, 1650-1880 (New York: Knopf, 1993), vol. 1, pp. 31-5.

46 Esther is the biblical heroine represented most often in seventeenth-century embroideries, according to Charlotte Mayhew (The Effects of Economic and Social Developments in the Seventeenth Century upon British Amateur Embroideries with Particular Reference to the Collections in the National Museums of Scotland, MA thesis in literature, University of St. Andrews, 1988), cited in Brooke, Lady Lever Gallery, p. 53, note 1.



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