We know very little about the origin of this beautiful and symbol-laden quilt by Harriet Powers. The arresting use of graphic applique to illustrate stories is linked to artistic techniques in Benin, West Africa, and combines Biblical stories with meteorological events in a beautiful tapestry that gains an ominously apocalyptic tone on deeper inspection.
Descriptions of each panel:
(Panel 1) Job praying for his enemies. Job crosses. Job’s coffin. (2) The dark day of May 19, 1780. The seven stars were seen 12 N. in the day. The cattle wall went to bed, chickens to roost and the trumpet was blown. The sun went off to a small spot and then to darkness. (3) The serpent lifted up by Moses and women bringing their children to look upon it to be healed. (4) Adam and Eve in the garden. Eve tempted by the serpent. Adam’s rib by which Eve was made. The sun and the moon. God’s all-seeing eye and God’s merciful hand. (5) John baptizing Christ and the spirit of God descending and resting upon his shoulder like a dove.
(1) Jonah cast over board of the ship and swallowed by a whale. Turtles. (2) God created two of every kind, male and female. (3) The falling of the stars on Nov. 13, 1833. The people were frightened and thought that the end had come. God’s hand staid the stars. The varmints rushed out of their beds. (4) Two of every kind of animal continued…camels, elephants, “gheraffs,” lions, etc. (5) The angels of wrath and the seven vials. The blood of fornications. Seven-headed beast and 10 horns which arose off the water.
(1) Cold Thursday, 10 of February, 1895. A woman frozen while at prayer. A woman frozen at a gateway. A man with a sack of meal frozen. Icicles formed from the breath of a mule. All blue birds killed. A man frozen at his jug of liquor. (2) The red light night of 1846. A man tolling the bell to notify the people of the wonder. Women, children and fowls frightened by God’s merciful hand caused no harm to them. (3) Rich people who were taught nothing of God. Bob Johnson and Kate Bell of Virginia. They told their parents to stop the clock at one and tomorrow it would strike one and so it did. This was the signal that they had entered everlasting punishment. The independent hog which ran 500 miles from Georgia to Virginia, her name was Betts. (4) The creation of animals continues. (5) The crucifixion of Christ between the two thieves. The sun went into darkness. Mary and Martha weeping at his feet. The blood and water run from his right side.
Got questions, comments or corrections about Pictorial Quilt? Join the conversation in the Obelisk chat room, and if you enjoy content like this, consider becoming a member to unlock exclusive essays, downloadables, and discounts at the Obelisk Store.
Reed Enger, "Pictorial Quilt," in Obelisk Art History, Published January 21, 2017; last modified May 19, 2021, http://arthistoryproject.com/artists/harriet-powers/pictorial-quilt/.