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Powers, Harriet - VM - James Romaine

Harriet Powers: Bible Quilt

A Quilted Sermon

by James Romaine

This quilt, which is known as a Bible Quilt, is by the African American artist Harriet Powers. Powers was born into slavery near Athens Georgia in 1837. She was married and had at least nine children. Powers’ creative imagination comes down to us in two quilts. We know that she made other quilts as well, but these have not been identified.

In this Bible Quilt Powers employs scenes from the scriptures to construct a narrative of creativity and violence, of sin and salvation. This quilt, which Powers called “the offspring of my brain”, is a visual proclamation of her artistic intelligence and spiritual vision.

Constructed of 11 panels arranged in 3 rows, this quilt has been called “a sermon in patchwork”. What is particularly amazing about this Bible Quilt is how Powers organizes, juxtaposes, and connects the individual story panels into a visual narrative.

The top row has three panels. The first scene depicts Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden. The serpent whispers in Eve’s ear, tempting her. The fact that the serpent has feet suggests that this is the world before sin. In Genesis 3:14 God curses the serpent, “Because you have done this, cursed are you above all livestock and all wild animals! You will crawl on your belly and you will eat dust all the days of your life.” By giving the serpent feet, Powers is indicating that this panel depicts a moment before Genesis 3:14.

This detail of the serpent’s feet is one of numerous examples in her quilt that demonstrates Powers’ careful study of the Bible. Because she had been born a slave, it has sometimes been mistakenly assumed that Powers was illiterate. In fact, we have a letter written by Powers in which she recounts how she learned to read and that she would frequently study the Bible for herself.

Continuing to read Powers’ quilt, in the second panel, we see Adam and Eve with their son Cain. In the final panel of the top row the figure of Satan appears.

The impact of Satan as a contaminating force in God’s creation is immediately evidenced in the second row. In first panel Cain murders his brother Abel. The bleeding body of Abel is surrounded by his sheep. But then, in the next panel, Cain is redeemed. This is a rare example in the history of art in which Cain is depicted living in the land of Nod. In one of the most colorfully vibrant panels in the entire quilt, we see that Cain is blessed by God with a new family. Given that he is hardly a hero in the Bible, it is maybe surprising that Powers depicts Cain in three panels. Perhaps she meant to visualize a narrative in which Cain is born in paradise, becomes perverted by sin, and is then redeemed. Cain’s story is then an abbreviation of the history of humanity as created, corrupted, and restored.

As we continue to read across this middle row, we see Jacob’s dream, in which angels ascend and descend. The final panel of this row depicts the baptism of Christ.

The bottom row is focused on Christ. While the top two rows read from left to right. The bottom row seems to read in the opposite direction, from right to left. While it is possible that this reversal of direction is incidental, given that the rest of the quilt is so carefully designed, and, since the bottom row reads perfectly from right to left, this choice would seem to be intentional. By creating a new direction in reading the quilt, Powers was able to visualize a new way of looking at history. It is as if the entrance of Christ into history represents a reorientation of the narrative.

At the right, we see Christ as a child, with Mary and Joseph; notice the star of Bethlehem. This is followed by a depiction of Christ at the Last Supper. Then we see Judas with 30 pieces of silver. The final panel, the culmination of Powers’ narrative, is the Crucifixion of Christ.

To interpret Powers’ sermon, we need to read her quilt. We must pay attention to the arrangement of these panels and ask the question, “how does the sequence of scenes in Powers’ quilt match the Bible with or depart from it?”

There are two places where the order of the biblical narrative is interrupted. The first is the appearance of Satan. The second is the birth of Christ. Both of these events are disruptions in the flow of history. Satan’s appearance signals a new era, an era of death. The birth of Christ represents a new era in history, an era of salvation.

Inspired by a faith that supported her through unimaginable ordeals, Harriet Powers created a work of art that is theologically complex and visually commanding. She compels us to look at and consider her Bible Quilt with attentiveness to the sermon she is preaching.

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Harriet Powers: Bible Quilt, 1885-1886, cotton, 191 cm x 227 cm. The Bible quilt is both hand- and machine-stitched. National Museum of American History, Washington D.C., USA.

Harriet Powers was born a slave near Athens, Georgia, on October 29, 1837. At a young age, she married Armstead Powers and they had at least nine children. Sometime after the Civil War they became landowners. Eventually, circumstances forced them to sell off part of the land but not their home. The date of Harriet's death, Jan. 1, 1910, was recently discovered on her gravestone in Athens Gospel Pilgrim. She made this quilt in about 1886. She exhibited it at the Athens Cotton Fair of 1886 where it captured the imagination of Jennie Smith, a young internationally trained local artist. Of her discovery, Jennie 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, when there was held in Athens, Georgia, a 'Cotton-Fair,' which was on a much larger scale than an ordinary county fair … In one corner there hung a quilt which 'captured my eye' and after much difficulty I found the owner, a negro woman, who lives in the country on a little farm whereon she and husband make a respectable living.... 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.” Later Jennie sent word that she would buy the quilt if Harriet still wanted to dispose of it. Harriet offered it for ten dollars, but Jennie only had five to give. Harriet went out to consult her husband and reported that he said she had better take the five dollars. Mrs. Powers regretfully turned over her precious creation, but only after explaining each of the eleven panels of the design, which Jennie Smith recorded. Briefly, the subjects are Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden, a continuance of Paradise with Eve and a son, Satan amidst the seven stars, Cain killing his brother Abel, Cain goes into the land of Nod to get a wife, Jacob's dream, the baptism of Christ, the crucifixion, Judas Iscariot and the thirty pieces of silver, the Last Supper, and the Holy Family. In her narrative about the quilt, artist Jennie revealed why she was so taken with it: "Her style is bold and rather on the impressionists order while there is a naivete of expression that is delicious." In recent times historians have compared Harriet's work to textiles of Dahomey, West Africa. (https://americanhistory.si.edu/collections/search/object/nmah_556462)

James Romaine is Professor of art history at Lander University in Greenwood, SC, USA. He is the co-founder of the Association of Scholars of Christianity in the History of Art (ASCHA). His publications include Beholding Christ and Christianity in African American Art (Penn State University Press, 2018) and a chapter in Kunst D.V. – (Neo)calvinistische perspectieven op esthetica, kunstgeschiedenis en kunsttheologie. His videos can be seen on YouTube at SeeingArtHistory, William H. Johnson: Jesus and the Three Marys. https://youtu.be/wc1vzdC3ZLA

ArtWay Visual Meditation 28 March 2021