Thursday, September 26, 2013

The object of the day: Heroes Tapestry, 15th century

Heroes Tapestry, ca. 1400–1410
South Netherlandish

Wool warp, wool wefts 

168 x 250 in. (426.7 x 635 cm)
Munsey Fund, 1932 (32.130.3b)
Gift of John D. Rockefeller Jr., 1947 (47.101.1)
Gift of George A. Douglass, 1947 (47.152)

These tapestries, among the earliest Gothic examples to survive, bear the arms of Charles VI, king of France, his uncle Jean de France, duke of Berry, as well as those of the duchy of Burgundy. The set originally consisted of three tapestries, each measuring more than twenty-one feet by sixteen feet. Both Charles and his other uncle, Philip the Bold of Burgundy, are known to have owned similar sets, and it has been suggested that Jean de Berry commissioned this series.

An allegory of good government, the set illustrates a theme popularized in an early fourteenth-century epic poem that tells of three heroes from three different eras: the ancient pagan world (Hector, Alexander the Great, and Julius Caesar), the Hebrew Scriptures (David, Joshua, and Judas Maccabaeus), and the Christian era (King Arthur, Charlemagne, and Godfrey of Bouillon). The bearded and crowned heroes sit on thrones in elaborate Gothic niches and are depicted in contemporary rather than historical dress.

The largest extant tapestry of the group represents the Hebrew heroes. King David, who soothed King Saul with his music and composed the Psalms, can be recognized by the harp on his shield and the open book on his lap. Joshua, the great warrior, is appropriately represented with a dragon. The figures flanking the heroes are warriors. In the arcades at the top of the tapestry are fashionable court ladies and three soldiers. The tapestry representing the third hero, Judas Maccabaeus, is lost. Other surviving tapestries from the set, exhibited at the Cloisters, include two pagan heroes and one figure from the Christian era.

In their rich variety, these hangings depict the highest level of an affluent and powerful social structure in late fourteenth-century France. Representations of the members of the royal courts, including cardinals, bishops, knights, and ladies, are located in the architectural framework. Lower orders of society are also illustrated, including musicians, spearmen, and archers. While the tapestries have sustained damages and losses, even in their fragmented state they offer remarkable glimpses into late medieval court life.

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