“Fine linen, Turkey cushions bossed with pearl, Valance of Venice gold in needlework … and all that belongs to house or housekeeping” – The Taming of the Shrew 2.1.
Although religious images were removed from churches throughout England around the time Shakespeare was born, the use of biblical imagery in domestic interior decoration, like the kind found on this tapestry cushion cover, was not only popular but also encouraged by Reformers. Indeed, the German Reformer Martin Luther wrote that it was ideal for “the whole Bible to be painted on houses, on the outside and inside, so that all can see it”.
This object is a tapestry cover for a long cushion created in England around 1600. It illustrates three scenes from the life of Joseph, with the central scene depicting the attempted seduction of Joseph by Potiphar’s wife. Wrapped half-naked in a sheet in front of a richly dressed bed adorned with curtains, presumably made of silk, and a runner of golden tassels, the adulteress grabs hold of Joseph’s cloak with one hand as he tries to escape, and with the other beckons him to join her on the bed.
For Shakespeare’s society, adultery was considered one of the greatest threats to marriage and social order; and indeed, many of his plays, comedies and tragedies alike, employ this theme as a dramatic device. Master Ford is convinced of his wife’s unfaithfulness in The Merry Wives of Windsor when he rants, “See the hell of having a false woman! My bed shall be abused” and Leontes in The Winter’s Tale likewise suspects an affair between his wife and best friend as he responds to their taking hands, “Too hot, too hot!”
Biblical imagery was not simply decorative but also functioned to instruct, remind, encourage and - in this case - warn its viewers. Given where it was probably displayed within the household, the Potiphar’s wife cushion cover presents an intriguing means by which people were reminded of and warned against sin and vice. The cushion cover may have been intended for a window bay where secluded, perhaps unsupervised and potentially flirtatious, conversation could take place; or it might have been displayed on a bed, which could easily become host to the kind of immoral behaviour depicted on the cushion. This was an expensive item and would have been a display piece rather than for general use; there is little sign of wear and tear - in fact it is in excellent condition. But this object with its lively imagery could entertain while serving to maintain order and moral discipline in the household. Encountering such an image if you were considering doing anything naughty may well have been enough to make you think otherwise!