“Eden to Eternity: Molas from the San Blas Islands”

Glencairn Museum News | Number 2, 2015


View of the exhibition Eden to Eternity: Molas from the San Blas Islands.


Molas are hand-stitched reverse appliqué panels made for the front and back of blouses worn by Cuna women, who live on the San Blas Islands along the coast of Panama. Each mola in this exhibition illustrates a story from the Bible—from the Garden of Eden to the Ascension of Jesus Christ into heaven.


Figure 1: A young Cuna woman from the San Blas Islands, Panama. Photo credit: Yves Picq http://veton.picq.fr GFDL (http://www.gnu.org/copyleft/fdl.html)


Molas probably originated with the custom of body painting, traditionally done by Cuna women as early as the 17th century. By the 19th century the body painting was replaced by textiles, perhaps because Christian missionaries insisted that the Cuna wear clothing. Molas are made by women and girls, using only a needle, scissors and thimble. The Cuna have selectively adopted certain aspects of Western civilization, but continue to maintain their indigenous lifestyle and traditions. Many belong to thriving Christian congregations, and biblical themes are often depicted in their textiles. Western symbols such as Christmas trees are sometimes incorporated into mola designs.


Figure 2: Blouse with Scenes from the Infancy of Christ. Two scenes from the Gospel of Matthew decorate the molas on this blouse. The front panel depicts the journey of the Holy Family during the Flight into Egypt. On the back (pictured here), one of the Wise Men, riding a camel and pointing to the Star of Bethlehem, carries a gift for the baby Jesus.


The molas in this exhibition are on loan from the collection of Sandra and Bob Bowden. According to Sandra,

“The first time I saw these biblical molas was in a gallery of ethnic art in San Francisco 15 years ago, and I was immediately taken with the intricate needlework. I was also intrigued that I found some with biblical themes. A short while later I made contact with a dealer in Panama who would search for biblical panels. Some islands are known for being especially drawn to the biblical stories. Over the course of four or five years I realized that I had a variety of molas that told the story of the Bible, from Genesis to Revelation, from ‘Eden to Eternity.’”

“These beautifully stitched reverse embroidery panels reflect a joyous celebration of the Bible. I love how the artists use the entire surface, filling every inch with pattern or design. These molas appeal to a wide range of ages: children delight in them, and those who sew can marvel at the delicate and difficult stitchery used to create these colorful interpretations of biblical characters.”


Figure 3: Noah’s Ark. One of the most-read of all Bible stories is that of Noah’s ark. Here Noah stands in the foreground, guiding the animals as they walk up the walkway into the ark, two by two.


Figure 4: David and Goliath. In the background, a small boy with a slingshot and staff prepares to fight Goliath, the champion of the Philistines, who looms large with spear and armor. David’s skillful use of the seemingly inferior sling and stone laid the nine-foot warrior flat.


Figure 5: Daniel in the Lions’ Den. Sentenced by King Darius the Mede to a cruel death in the lions’ den for praying to “any god or man” besides him, Daniel nonetheless prays to God. Lions surround him in his prison cell, but he continues to trust in God while a guard waits outside.


Figure 6: Jonah in the Mouth of the Great Fish. The story of Jonah and the great fish has captured the imagination of many cultures, including that of the Cuna Indians. After the crew of the ship casts Jonah over the side, a great fish comes from the ocean depths to swallow the prophet.


Figure 7: Mary and the Baby Jesus. With folded hands, Mary worships the Christ Child in the manger. The Cuna artist has also chosen to depict a modern symbol of Christmas—a Christmas tree with ornaments, topped by a large six-pointed star.


Figure 8: Baptism of Jesus. The Holy Spirit in the form of a dove descends upon John the Baptist as he prays to God while baptizing Jesus in the Jordan River.


Figure 9: Jesus Raises the Dead. Jesus holds the hand of a young girl as she comes back to life. Earlier a synagogue leader had approached Jesus to heal his sick daughter, but she died before they could reach her. “Don’t be afraid; only believe,” said Jesus, before raising her from the dead. This mola captures the parents’ amazement as they reach out to embrace their daughter after the miracle.


Figure 10: Jesus in the Tomb. After the crucifixion, Jesus lies in a tomb decorated with flowers, while angels hover overhead.


Figure 11: Resurrection with Angels. The angels lay down their musical instruments at the feet of the resurrected Christ, in tribute and adoration.


Eden to Eternity: Molas from the San Blas Islands is open through Saturday, April 4, 2015. Hours: Tuesday to Friday with 2:30 pm tour or by appointment | Weekends 1:00 - 4:30 pm. Donations welcome.

A complete archive of past issues of Glencairn Museum News is available online here.