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Bible Quilt

Harriet Powers, an African American farm woman from Clark County, GA, created this lively, balanced expression of her religious fervor. She exhibited her quilt at the Athens Cotton Fair of 1886 where it captured the imagination of Jennie Smith. Of her discovery, Smith later wrote: "I have spent my whole life in the South and am perfectly familiar with thirty patterns of quilts, but I had never seen an original design, and never a living creature portrayed in patchwork, until the year 1886, where there was held in Athens, Georgia, a 'Cotton-Fair,' which was on a much larger scale than an ordinary county fair, as there was a 'Wild West' show, and Cotton Weddings; and a circus, all at the same time. There was a large accumulation of farm products and all the attractions usual to such occasions, and in one corner there hung a quilt--which 'captured my eye" and after much difficulty I found the owner. The scenes on the quilt were biblical and I was fascinated. I offered to buy it, but it was not for sale at any price..."

Several years later, during hard times, Powers, at the urging of her husband, offered to sell the quilt for ten dollars, but Smith could then only afford five. Powers regretfully turned over her precious creation, but only after providing a description of each section of the design, which Smith recorded with comments of her own, as follows:

No. 1 represents Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden, naming the animals, and listening to the subtle whisper of the "sarpent which is degiling Eve." It will be noticed that the only animal represented with feet is the only animal that has no feet. The elephant, camel, leviathan, and ostrich appear in this scene.

No. 2 is a continuation of Paradise but this time Eve has "conceived and bared a son" though he seems to have made his appearance in pantaloons, and has made a pet of the fowl. The bird of Paradise in the right lower corner is resplendent in green and red calico.

No. 3 is "Satan amidst the seven stars," whatever that may mean, and is not as I first thought, a football player. I am sure I have never seen a jauntier devil.

No. 4 is where Cain "is killing his brother Abel, and the stream of blood which flew over the earth" is plainly discernible. Cain being a shepherd is accompanied by sheep.

No. 5 Cain here goes into the land of Nod to get him a wife. There are bears, leopards, elks, and a "kangaroo hog" but the gem of the scene is an orange colored calico lion in the center, who has a white tooth sticking prominently from his lower lip. The leading characteristic of the animal is its large neck and fierce manner. This lion has a tiny neck and a very meek manner and coy expression.

No. 6 is Jacob's dream "when he lied on the ground" with the angel ascending or descending the ladder. She has rather a stylish appearance.

No. 7 is the baptism of Christ. The bat-like creature swooping down is "the Holy Sperret extending in the likeness of a dove."

No. 8 "Has reference to the crucifixion." The globular objects attached to the crosses like balloons by a string represent the darkness of the earth and the moon turning into blood, and is stitched in red and black calico.

No. 9 This is Judas Ascariot and the thirty pieces of silver. The silver is done is green calico. The large disc at his feet is "the star that appeared in 1886 for the first time in three hundred years."

No. 10 is the Last Supper, but the number of disciples is curtailed by five. They are all robed in white spotted cloth, but Judas is clothed in drab, being a little off-color in character.

No. 11 "The next history is the Holy Family; Joseph, the Vargint and the infant Jesus with the stare of Bethlehem over his head. Them is the crosses which he had to bear through his undergoing. Anything for wisement. We can't go back no further than the Bible."

From The Smithsonian Treasury: American Quilts by Doris M. Bowman, Smithsonian Institution Press, Washington, DC, 1991.

 

 



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