Elisava and the mystery of the banner

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ELISAVA ME FECIT: these three Latin words embroidered on a beautiful ancient banner, acquired by the Design Museum (Museu del Disseny) in Barcelona some hundred years ago, posed an interesting challenge for historians.

‘Elisava made me’ said the text, while as a rule Medieval artists did not sign their work. So the experts wondered who ‘wrote’ it and which other secrets did the standard hide? Here is what they discovered.

The banner was found in a box placed in the niche of the Altar of Saint Ot at the cathedral of Santa Maria d’Urgell, La Seu d’Urgell. Ot of Urgell (now the town’s patron saint) was a bishop of Urgell from a noble family whose members were counts of the region Pallars Sobirà. He presided his diocese between 1095 and 1122 and the standard could very well date from those years, also considering its material and style characteristics.

But who was Elisava? The name was rather common in the Middle Ages, so that does not give us any indication, although it was frequently used by the family of counts over a large period.

Let us have a better look at the banner first. The delicate embroidery of a high artistic value is made in reddish and golden tones of silk on a linen cloth. The work is presided by the Almighty inside the mystical almond wrapped around with the gospel symbols,  such as a lion, ornamented with a border of vegetable motifs. Three fringes that hang from the banner, are also embroidered with praying and offering figures, evidently female. The figures on the left and right carry a book in their left hand, while the central one holds a not identified object.

Various hypotheses have been made as to the identities of the figures. Some experts think the central figure respresents Elisava as the embroiderer, perhaps a nun living in the episcopacy. However, the unity and beauty of the work suggest a great understanding between the person who commissioned it and the one who made it.

That is why other experts believe Elisava to be the commissioner of the work, inspired by another interpretation of ‘Elisava me fecit’, together with the two other figures depicted on the banner. One of them wears a luxurious dress decorated with precious stones and is holding a lighted candle. Within the historical and cultural context historians suggest she is the Countess Llúcia de la Marca, wife of Artau I of Pallars Sobirà, comparing this image with her portrait on another banner (below). We know that Elisava was a person very near to her. According to a third group of experts, Elisava could be the commissioner as well as the embroidery artist.

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Banner found in the church Sant Pere de Burgal, Pallars Sobirà.

Another discussion concerns the purpose of the banner. In view of the good relations between the counts of Urgell and the bishops of La Seu the banner could have been a votive offering or it was embroidered to serve as a standard for the private armies of the bishop who fought together with the counts’ armies on some expeditions against the Moorish occupying forces.

Whatever the case may be, this standard is one of the oldest pieces of embroidery in Western Europe as well as one of the first female signatures. Elisava wanted to record for posterity her involvement with the banner. She amply succeeded, because we can still admire her work in the Design Museum.

The first school of design, situated in Barcelona, has honoured her talent naming itself Elisava.

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