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For anyone who has collected, or even occasionally seen, needlework samplers from the 18th and 19th centuries, it is always quite remarkable to view the skills of what must have been fairly young girls, as they formed alphabets and little vignettes illustrating their lives, with painstaking, tiny stitches.  Practicing their cross stitch and crewel embroidery was not only a learning tool, but also showed the world what accomplished, obedient and dutiful girls they were, and what fine wives they might become.  I associate these samplers with colonial-era America, and I was not aware until recently that the phenomenon was also present in Europe at even earlier dates.

How surprised I was then, when recently I opened a drawer in the Textile Department of the Museum of Decorative Arts in Prague, and discovered a series of samplers made in Nuremburg in the late 17th century.  They had the usual tiny stitches and were made of finer materials than those I had seen in the States.  But instead of biblical quotes or moral poems, as I had seen on American samplers, on each one I noticed an identical small scene of the crucifix, and beside it a miniature whip, staff and scourge, the instruments of Jesus’ torture as he hung on the cross.  Presumably, as with American girls, the Nuremburg makers of these samplers were working from a pattern book, which explains why the scenes were exactly the same.  I stood there and wondered to myself, how odd!

To put into context the irony of this moment, the Museum of Decorative Arts in Prague is situated adjacent to – in fact, shares its back wall – with an ancient Jewish cemetery, one of the best preserved in all of Eastern Europe, and the Jewish Quarter of old Prague, with four or five historical synagogues within a few blocks.

Having spent the entire prior day exploring this Jewish Quarter, marveling that so much of it had survived the ravages of the Second World War, and learning how, for a time, the Austro-Hungarian Empire may have provided a sort of haven for German-speaking Jews, I stood rooted to the floor looking at these little hand-stitched scenes of the execution of Christ, and wondered if I was looking at the seeds of anti-Semitism.  Instead of scenes portraying Adam and Eve and the apple tree, or Noah’s ark, or even loaves and fishes, why this particular, ghoulish representation of the symbols of Jesus execution?  What can these young girls have been thinking, as they carefully created each tiny stitch of a scourge, whip and lance?  Were they being taught in a subliminal, cumulative way, under the guidance of their mothers or teachers, to think of Jesus not as a teacher of great humanity and wisdom, but as a victim brought down by the cruelest of deaths?  A child’s mind is easily captured by such vivid details, and the many layers of historical context are omitted….there are no Romans on view in the samplers.  The thought sent chills up my spine.

I’ve been thinking about this every since, about how the largest of historical horrors can often be traced to such seemingly minor details of domestic life, and about how it is important, always, to pay attention to the messages we give our children.


©Poets’ Sinews, 2014. Reuse with permission.