This section is from the book "Tapestries; Their Origin, History And Renaissance", by George Leland Hunter. Also available from Amazon: Tapestries; Their Origin, History, And Renaissance.
Rich and wonderfully interesting are the tapestry illustrations of the Bible and the Lives of the Saints. For tapestries, unlike paintings, are best when large and in sets and crowded with romantic details. The mission of tapestries is story-telling.
Tapestries begin at the beginning. The Creation is illustrated in a superb Brussels Late Gothic tapestry, 13 feet 2 inches high by 26 feet 10 wide (See plate no. 281), one of a set of six picturing the Story of Man, in the Berwick and Alba Collection acquired by Baron d'Erlanger, and by him exhibited at Brussels in 1880.
In the Creation the Trinity is represented, not as Father and Son with Holy Spirit in the form of a Dove, but as three crowned, richly robed and bearded kings who all look exactly alike and all appear in each one of seven scenes picturing the Creation and Fall. In the middle scene, in the upper part of the tapestry, the Trinity sit in Majesty, each with the Imperial Globe (Reichsapfel) and one with sceptre. In the other six scenes, all three have sceptres only. On one side of the Trinity in the middle scene is the angel of justice with sword, on the other the angel of mercy with lily-branch. Behind them the celestial choir. The composition and texture of the tapestry are of extraordinary merit. The nature of the subject and the manner of its treatment, as well as the costumes and flesh-tints, compel comparison with Mr. Morgan's Mazarin tapestry, with the Triumph of Christ in the Brussels Museum, and with the David and Bathsheba set in the Cluny Museum. The border is a narrow verdure of the kind characteristic of Brussels at the beginning of the XVI century. The tapestry is now in the Château de Haar, Belgium, where are also two others of the set - the Crucifixion with Vices and Virtues in Combat, the Triumph of Christ. The sixth of the set, the Last Judgment, is in the Louvre. In the Cathedral of Burgos are two tapestries that supplement the set of six, thus making an original set of at least eight. All are illustrated in half-tone in the Burlington Magazine for January, 1912, by D. T. B. Wood, who analyses them and compares them most interestingly with pieces in the Cathedral of Narbonne, the Vatican, Hampton Court, Knole, and the Cathedral of Toledo (formerly). There is a fragment of the Creation containing the middle grouping only, in a New York private collection.
The Story of the Garden of Eden is pictured in a set of Renaissance tapestries in the Florence Tapestry Museum, one of which I reproduce on plate 19. The contrast between the Creation tapestry, described above, and the Eden tapestry is striking. The former is typically Gothic and Flemish, the latter typically Renaissance and Italian. The borders also are characteristic.
Plate no. 281. The Creation, a Late Gothic tapestry, one of a set of six picturing the Story of Man, sold with the Collection of the Duke of Berwick and Alba in 1877, and exhibited at Brussels in 1880 by Baron d'Erlanger (See chapter XI (The Bible In Tapestries)). In this tapestry the Trinity are represented as three crowned, richly robed, and bearded kings who appear in each and all of the seven scenes picturing the Creation and Fall. The tapestry is now at the Chateau de Haar in Belgium. A fragment picturing the central group only - the Trinity with angel of mercy on one side, angel of justice (Justicia) on the other, and choir of angels behind - is in a New York private collection.
Other Old Testament tapestries reproduced in this book are: the Story of Judith and Holofernes, on plate no. 347; a scene from the Book of Kings, 101; the Story of Esther, 403; Crossing the Red Sea, 349, 975 Joshua helped by Jehovah over the Jordan; Susanna and the Elders, 325; Solomon and the Queen of Sheba, 29.
Especially interesting from both story and texture points of view is the Late Gothic set of ten tapestries at the Cluny Museum picturing the Story of David (See plates nos. 283, 285). The subjects are:
1. David has the ark transported to Jerusalem.
2. Bathsheba at the Fountain, seen by David.
3. Bathsheba's husband Uriah sent on a mission to Joab.
4. Joab's army prepares to assault the city of Rabath.
5. Capture of Rabath by Joab's army, and Uriah's death.
6. David in the midst of courtiers, learns of Joab's victory and Uriah's death.
7. David receives Bathsheba in solemn state.
8. David learns of the death of Bathsheba's baby and humbles himself before the Almighty.
9. David in the midst of his army receives the crown and insignia of royalty captured at Rabath.
10. Repentance of David.
The tapestries, 15 feet high and from 19 feet 4 to 26 feet 9 wide, are rich with gold and silver. They are said to have been woven for the King of France, once belonged to the Duke of York, to the family of Spinola, and to the Serra family of Genoa.
Plate no 283. David Bringing the Ark of God to Jerusalem. Late Gothic tapestry, 4.55 metres by 8.12, one of a set of ten that belonged in turn to the Duke of York, the Marquis Spinola, and to the Serra family of Genoa. The story of the tapestries before us is told in Samuel Book II chapter VI (French Looms, The Gobelins: Beauvais: Aubusson). The death of Uzzah (Osa) on the way to Jerusalem is pictured in the background on the left. The rest of the panel shows the triumphal entry of the Ark of God into the city, and David with his harp, barefooted and " girded with a linen ephod," that he might the better dance before the Lord " with all his might." In the balcony above David appears Michal daughter of Saul who despised David for dancing, and was punished for it.
Another favourite Old Testament subject was the Story of Esther. Unlike some other Old Testament stories, this remained a favourite long after the Gothic period, throughout the whole of the XVII and XVIII centuries. It is pictured not only in one XV century tapestry in the Hoentschel Collection (See plate no. 403), but also on the right wing of the Mazarin tapestry (See plate no. 369), and of the Triumph of Christ (See plate no. 370), and on the left wing of Mr. Blumenthal's Story of Charlemagne (See plate no. 371), and in the set of 7 pieces designed by De Troy (See chapter VI (French Looms, The Gobelins: Beauvais: Aubusson)) for the Gobelins. The subjects of the De Troy different scenes, that were designed from 1737 to 1740 and woven over and over again during the next 50 years, are: the Fainting of Esther, the Coronation of Esther, the Toilet of Esther, the Triumph of Mordecai, the Banquet of Esther, the Disdain of Mordecai, the Condemnation of Haman.