The Five Senses and the Four Elements, Canvas Worked with Silk Thread

Second quarter 17th century
Canvas worked with silk thread
17 ¼ x 22 ½ in. (43.4 x 56.5 cm)
The Metropolitan Museum of Art MMA 64.101.1315

Companionate Couple in a Landscape with the Five Senses and the Four Elements

The exhibition, English Embroidery from the Metropolitian Museum of Art, 1580-1700: ’Twixt Art and Nature, explores the technical, stylistic and iconographical characteristics of English embroideries of the late Elizabethan and Stuart eras, and asks questions as to their production and uses within the context of the home and of their relationship to the wider ambient culture.

by Andrew Morrall

This embroidered panel is currently on display in the “Nature and Pastoral” section of the exhibition, English Embroidery from the Metropolitian Museum of Art, 1580-1700: ’Twixt Art and Nature.. It is worked in silk thread on a canvas base measuring 17 1/8 x 22 ¼ in. (43.4 x 56.5 cm), and may be dated to some point in the second quarter of the seventeenth century. It constitutes one of the most popular themes of English seventeenth-century figurative embroidery, that of the “companionate couple.” Typically such scenes depict a man and woman, centrally placed within a landscape or garden setting, he in an attitude of deference, she, typically holding a flower or book. Often associated with betrothal or marriage gifts, perhaps made by the bride or by younger members of the family, they echo in pose and gesture the conventions of engraved marriage portraits dating from the mid-seventeenth century. Certainly, the number of similar pieces to have survived suggests that the theme constituted something of a fashion; if not made on the occasion of marriage, they certainly embodied the desires and aspirations for an ideal partnership of the young women who made them.

This example is unusual in that the central couple merges with three further female figures as part of an allegorical scheme representing the Five Senses, framed by the Four Elements. The gentleman, holding out a goblet, standing beneath a tent next to a table laden with food and drink, represents the sense of “Taste” (an unusual and deliberate inversion of gender in a scheme normally made up entirely of female personifications); the lady to whom he turns plays the lute, thus representing “Hearing” (while also carrying connotations of “Harmony”). They stand at the center of a series of female figures, who represent, respectively, “Sight” (woman with mirror, far left), “Smell” (woman with flowers, far right), and “Touch” (woman with bird on wrist, lower center). Around them at each corner the Four Elements are identified thus: Fire in the guise of Apollo with a phoenix and the sun; Air as Diana with birds and gusting winds, Earth as Ceres with fruits, animals, and an overflowing cornucopia; and Water as a river nymph. The sun, rain, and rainbow overhead emblematically indicate the passage of natural time within the larger natural order.

The Senses and the Elements belonged to sets of allegorical representation, conformant with other themes such as the Planets, the Seasons, and the Cardinal and Theological Virtues, which were used and reused in varying combinations in all kinds of decorative contexts in this period. Such allegories, which drew from different ontological or moral values, were nonetheless universally recognized as belonging to the same overarching symbolic system, the Great Chain of Being, which explained the workings of man, nature, and the cosmos in terms of a grand unified hierarchy, by which all things were linked by a doctrine of correspondences and set in ordered positions relative to each other. Thus the Senses represented the sentient aspect of man, just as the Elements made up his physical, material essence; this made him a microcosm of a wider Nature that was composed of the same primal elements. We see in this embroidery an example of what was an important characteristic of the Jacobean and Stuart aesthetic: the significance of any given image was likely to be determined by reference to a conventional program or scheme outside the work itself, comprehensible to all because it spoke to instantly recognized concepts of the world. Inclusion of a couple among the Senses and the Elements, as here, was thus to bring the harmony of their married state into registration with this established model of universal order. That sense of larger order is reflected here in the symmetry of organization; the natural elements of blooming flowers and fruiting trees, coupled with images of abundance in the Waters and the cornucopia of the fruits of the Earth, confer a sense of Nature provident and harmonious.

A second, rather more central function of the Senses in the context of marriage or betrothal is the celebratory: Collectively, the Senses embody all the synaesthetic pleasures of Nature and bring them into registration with the happiness of the lovers’ union. Notions of largesse and abundance, familiar tropes of baroque interior decoration, are employed here to underwrite the imagery of love, which is expressed in the overflowing of Earth’s cornucopia and by the material extravagance of the banquet of foods and drink set out by the figure of Taste. (One may note the plate made of fashionable blue-and-white porcelain or delftware, which had only recently begun to be imported from the Far East.) Such idealized images of Plenty and of the surfeit of the appetites found great resonance in an age of economic uncertainty and frequent crop failures, when the threat of hunger and deprivation was still very real.

Many of the elements within the image —the couple, the house in the background, the quasi-heraldic animals, the motley selection of flowers, trees and animals —in fact became the stock features of many embroidered panels of “the companionate couple.” The theme is most straightforwardly laid out in an embroidered mirror frame, in which all these elements, including the couple (he with doffed hat, she with proffered flower), the two country houses, lion and leopard, symmetrically flank the central mirror, presided over at the top center by a figure of “Harmony”, a young woman playing a lute. Birds, flowers, and small animals, including a dog chasing a hare, summon up the theme of the chase of love, and again situate the couple in an imagined and idealized natural or garden setting that gently suggests a specific locality.

Indeed, the omnipresent motif of the house (or houses), transforms the natural environment or garden from an idealized pastoral landscape or lover’s bower into a statement of property: the idea of land ownership—the emblem of “gentle” status—is embedded within the married ideal. Typically, as in the case of the mirror frame, the royal heraldic beasts and the figure of Harmony also combine with these other elements to suggest a larger political dimension. The harmony of the central allegorical figure alludes not only to the couple’s mutual love, but to a wider sense of societal order, situating the lover’s union within a larger hierarchy. The marriage brings with it the harmonious transfer and continuation of property ownership, which in turn ensures the harmony of the realm; just as, conversely, the harmony of the kingdom—and the heraldic reference to the crown in this context is explicitly Royalist—ensures the continuation of a stable social structure. There is thus contained within this scheme an entire social philosophy of the individual’s relationship to the wider commonwealth, expressed with the concision of an emblem. Though the primacy of the theme of love is maintained throughout by the simple forms and bright colors, this poetic conception of courtship and marriage is subtly underwritten by an ideology of place and nation.

Such ideas of hierarchy underlie many of the surviving embroideries, and it is significant that the fashion for them dates from the second half of the century, particularly the period of the Restoration, after the period of the Civil War and anarchy, a time when the fear of uprising and of sequestration of land, and the overturning of the landed ideal of power by the forces of republicanism, had been very real. The image of harmony built around stable, traditional foundations of marriage and home was a potent one and found expression in poetry and literature of the time. For George Wither, in his Vox Britannica of 1645, the well-managed country household was an “Oiconomick-Government,” and an example for the whole nation; an idea elaborated upon by Aston Cockaigne:

Where plenty, neatness, and a right
Well-govern’d house yield full delight;
Wherein you and your Lady give
Example how the good should live…”  [1]

To Daniel Rogers, [marriage] was the foundation of all other institutions: the “Preservative of Chastity, the Seminary of the Commonwealth, seed-plot of the Church, pillar (under God) of the World, right hand of providence, supporter of lawes, states, orders, offices, gifts and services: the glory of peace, the sinews of warre the maintenance of policy, the life of the dead, the solace of the living, the ambition of virginity, the foundation of Countries, Cities, Universities, succession of Families, Crownes and Kingdomes.”  [2]

An embroidered expression of this idea is found in a charming beadwork panel, initialed A. H. and dated 1651, which probably once served as the cover of a casket. Here the idea of harmonious marriage as the root and center of the ordered commonwealth is expressed through the conventions of a peculiarly English rural ideality. The couple stands within a central cartouche in a landscape made up of local agricultural elements: domestic animals, houses on the hill, enclosed fields, a pleasant brook or pond well stocked with ducks. Domestic contentment is cast as rural idyll. The couple in turn is surrounded by symmetrically disposed figures representing the Four Continents, the harmony of their domestic world standing at the eye of the greater macrocosm and maintaining the latter’s greater orbit by its centrifugal pull. The equally ordered and brightly colored trees at each corner of the panel, bursting with leaf and fruit, express the harmonious structure of the world.

This same metaphysical conception of Nature was particularly appropriate in underscoring embroidered representations of monarchy. Aligning images of monarchs and their consorts with an orderly universe served, after all, to reveal the principle of monarchy as part of the natural order and therefore to uphold the principle of divine kingship. This underlies the imagery of the commemorative beaded basket where Charles II and Catherine of Braganza stand amid the Four Continents of the World, thus situating their union within the wider compass of a divinely-appointed order. In this case, the overflowing plenitude of flowers in bloom expresses the idea of the fruitfulness of their union and of a hoped-for male successor.

In these schematic framings of lovers or couples within the cosmic order, we find a merging of the transcendent with the mundane that was so much a characteristic of the worldview of the age, one expressed, for instance, with numinous moral purpose in Henry Vaughan’sThe World (1633):

I saw Eternity the other night,
Like a great ring of pure and endless light,
All calm, as it was bright;
And round beneath it, time in hours, days, years,
Driv’n by the spheres
Like a vast shadow mov’d; in which the world
And all her train were hurl’d.
The doting lover in his quaintest strain
Did there complain;
Near him, his lute, his fancy, and his flights,
Wit’s sour delights,
With gloves, and knots, the silly snares of pleasure,
Yet his dear treasure
All scatter’d lay, while he his eyes did pour
Upon a flow’r….

Yet as these embroideries demonstrate, even Vaughan’s “silly snares of pleasure” were capable of framing these same large and formidable concepts within their modest compass.

The taste for this theme died out relatively suddenly at some point in the 1680s and 1690s. This can be ascribed to two main factors. First, the Glorious Revolution of 1688, the subsequent accession of William and Mary, and the security of a stable Protestant Succession in an important sense removed the need for the assertion of monarchy that lies at the heart of so many of the companionate couple scenes of the Stuart era. Indeed, seen in this retrospective light, the insistent celebration of the monarchy in these images and the assertion of its place within the natural order, seems to carry within itself an anxiety that the political order would once again be inverted. Once this fear was effectively removed by the accession of William and Mary, this essentially royalist theme became largely redundant, and the poetics of marriage and courtship could be released from a wider political frame. More fundamentally, the age of revelation and of divine kingship, and with it the static, hierarchical worldview that supported it, was, by the 1690s fast giving way to a new sensibility brought on by the Restoration itself. This was an era that championed reason and science, marked by the founding of the Royal Society in 1660 and by the emergence of such figures as Robert Boyle, Isaac Newton, and René Descartes, for whom the world was no longer limitless and inexplicable but was now contained within the limits of human reason. Thus, cut off from its metaphysical underpinnings, the marriage panel became the insipidly charming subject of shepherd and shepherdess, which now referenced nothing beyond the pastoral convention through which it was expressed. The encyclopedic vision that had tied betrothal and marriage to the larger social, political, and natural spheres, that celebrated monarchy at the same time as it celebrated marriage, had inculcated or at least implicated the young women who worked them in the larger ideological and political questions of the day. In the eighteenth-century pastoral, this tenuous link with a broader world was broken, and the new kind of connection between nature and women that it embodied pointed to the new way in which women had come to be defined. Thomas Purney, in his A Full Enquiry into the True Nature of Pastoral of 1717, speaking of women as both readers and subjects of pastoral, deemed the genre appropriate to what he described as the “soft sex”: for him it embodied the very qualities that women were to assume in the Augustan age: “Simplicity and tenderness [which] are universally allow’d to constitute the very Soul and Essence of Pastoral…[and whose] “design” is “to soothe and soften the mind.”  [3]

Thus, by the end of the century, the impulses that had sustained the traditional themes of floral embroidery—the numinous sense of the natural world within domestic life and the cosmological model of social hierarchy, both based on an essentially theological foundation—had largely drained away. Even so, with regard to the new genre of pastoral, the underlying similarities with the older form are as striking as any differences in mode of representation. For the embroidered panels of companionate couples, whether gentleman and lady or shepherd and shepherdess, remained essentially documents of female education and leisured work; both too, were ideal statements, and as both James Turner and Laurel Thatcher Ulrich have observed with regard to pastoral poetry and embroidery respectively, the genre could hide the far-from-innocent depredations of land enclosures and economic exploitation on which their makers’ material well-being might depend 4 Furthermore, the ideal and generalized nature of both modes makes these objects definable as cultural rather than personal documents in the sense that, although young women could express their very real aspirations for marriage, economic stability, and happiness through them, they did so through formulas and conventions that were not their own but were imposed from outside, and which perpetuated the traditional, essentially patriarchal, notions of the nature of women and of their place in society.


[1] George Wither, Vox Pacificia (London, 1645): 184; Aston Cockaigne, Small Poems, cited in Turner, The Politics of Landscape (1979): 87.

[2] Daniel Rogers, Matrimoniall Honour (London, 1642): 7.Cited in W. and M. Haller, “The Puritan Art of Love, Huntingdon Library Quarterly 5 (1942): 246–47.

[3] Thomas Purney, A Full Enquiry into the True Nature of Pastoral (!717), ed. Earl Wasserman, Augustan Reprint Society (Los Angeles: William Andres Clark Memorial Library, 1948): 19, 27–28, 57.

[4] See James Turner’s account of the discrepancies between the happy innocence of rural existence in Katherine Philip’s poem “A Country Life” and the actual circumstances of her life in her husband’s house in Wales and the economic brutality and rapaciousness that established his estate’s economic base. The Politics of Landscape (1979): 2–4. For a masterly exposure of the historical conditions surrounding a piece of pastoral embroidery, see Laurel Thatcher Ulrich, The Age of Homespun. Objects and Stories in the Creation of an American Myth (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2001): 142–73.