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Textiles - The Reverenced Bed

( Originally Published 1930 )

The tendency of our day is to suppress the bed, to make of it a couch with the footboard abolished, or to obliterate its true character under innumerable silken cushions. To understand the pompous magnificence of the bed of earlier centuries one must realize the place it occupied in social—and even political—life, and it at once gains importance as an expression of other times and other manners.

Baldaquins, canopies, testers, all tell a tale, and curtains speak of display as well as comfort. In the time of Francis I it was a courtesy for a gentleman to put his bed at the service of a guest, actually to take him in as a bed-fellow. It must have been a severe strain on courtesy to take a formal sleep beside a snoring prince or nightmarish noble. Yet one hears that Francis I thus favored Charles IX, and the Duc de Guise the great Conde. Other customs there were equally demanding and all of them together give reason for the draperies which we use today in bed-rooms of sufficient size. Oddly enough the principal bed in the house served as a reception room. While still between the sheets of slumber's hours the man or woman of importance admitted persons who came on business or on friendship's quest. Silk-covered extra pillows were provided for the recliner to place beneath the elbow, that guests might be greeted or papers signed with greater ease.

It was etiquette in the time of Louis XIV and earlier thus to receive visits of State. But most amusing was the custom prevailing among women of higher rank. On the loss of her husband the widow spent three weeks in bed in order to receive in appropriate setting the ensuing visits of condolence.

Catherine de' Medici, always interesting and intriguing because of the times she reflected, presents a magnificent picture of the luxury of woe. On the death of Henri II she tore down the gorgeous brocades of the bed and replaced them with more of magnificence than even color could express. Into this bed they popped the widowed queen, and this is how it was draped. A canopy was over her head of black silk damask lined with white. From this depended a dossier which hung behind the bed's head, also of black damask, but embroidered in silver. But the fine effect was given by the curtains long and full, all of black velvet. They were embroidered with gold and silver and finished across the hem with silver fringe. When they parted it was to reveal the queen lying under a coverlid of black velvet and black damask set off with flashes of silver and pearls. Who could doubt the sincerity of woe thus beautifully expressed? This style of bed was aptly called the lit de parade.

Yet again, Francis I the elegant and artistic father-in-law of Catherine when wishing to curry favor with Henry VIII of England took with him a gift of a "camp-bed" in crimson velvet lavishly embroidered with fruit worked in real pearls.

The flight of Mary of Scots to England is one of the historic events which always stirs us. She was widowed, beautiful, and, oh, so young for the part she played. But she took with her thirty beds to soften the bleakness of her Scottish castle. Velvet ones were in the mossy green of summer woods, and they were also draped in crimson and in brown. There were damask ones as well, and satin, and these displayed shades of red, of blue, of yellow, and some were of white made lovelier by gold embroidery. All of them were rich with trimmings of metal and of silk.

It would appear that great ladies changed the hangings of the bed as capriciously or as reasonably as they changed their gowns. We are told that they were sometimes short of stockings, especially those of silk, but never short of drapings for the vanities of the bed-chamber. Thus it came that the decorator and upholsterer grew ever more important, and the skilled sculptor in wood was without a bed to carve. Beds were so concealed by draperies that it was no longer reasonable to spend time and money carving them as they were carved in the days of Italy's High Renaissance.

Later the large square canopy disappeared and with it the long curtains shrunk to a drapery over the bed's head.

It was not altogether because of the cold that beds were curtained; it was to give dignity and prominence to the most important piece of furniture in the house. It is the habit of today to speak with flippancy of all things, a charming and witty flippancy. Nevertheless we can appreciate the sentiment of older times. I find it hard to express in modern phrase the respect with which the bed was regarded when it was considered worthy of such elegant caparison as we have been considering. Generations of deep sentiment about birth and marriage and death had crystallized into reverence.

Thus it was the bed as a family altar, or as a king's subsidiary throne, that it was considered appropriate to dress with ultra magnificence, this dress to be changed for varying circumstance.

And when now we drape our beds after the olden manner, a haunting seriousness flits through the back of the mind.

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