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.
The tapestry before us is called the Mazarin tapestry, because tradition tells us that it once belonged to the famous tapestry collection of the famous Cardinal. It was purchased at a sale of his nephew's effects by M. de Villars. Early in the XX century it appeared in the shop of a London dealer from whom Mr. Morgan bought it. Before it came to New York it was exhibited in the Victoria and Albert Museum.
It is one of the most richly decorated tapestries ever woven. Every inch of robes and draperies is elaborate with ornament. Everywhere is the sparkle of gold and silver thread, used lavishly but with rare discretion. The sky has its clouds of silver, and threads of silver glitter in the whitened locks of Augustus.
The main subject of this tapestry is the Triumph of Christ and of the New Dispensation. The composition of the whole is like that of a triptych (threefold altar screen), and the architectural style of the columns and arches is definitely Gothic. The columns are pictured as in gold thickly studded with jewels.
In the middle panel is shown Christ seated on a throne, right hand upraised, Gospels in left hand with richly illuminated pages open toward the two groups of worshippers below. The group below his left hand represents the Church and is headed by the Pope. The group below his right hand represents the State and is headed by the Emperor. Between the groups, just beneath the throne, is a fascinating landscape, of slight dimensions, but of extreme significance in the composition of this triptych tapestry. At the right hand of Christ, above the Church group, is an angel bearing a long branch with lilies, symbolic of Mercy and of the Church. At the left hand of Christ is an angel bearing a sword, symbolic of Justice and of the Temporal Power (the State). Highest of all are two angels holding up a curtain behind the throne.
At Alexander's Feet
Plate no. 381. The Family of Darius at Alexander's Feet, a Late Renaissance tapestry in the Royal Spanish Collection.
The figure on the column next the Church group, with crozier and chalice, represents the Holy Catholic Church of the New Dispensation. The figure on the column next the State group, blindfolded, with broken lance and broken tablets of the Mosaic law, represents the Church (Synagogue) of the Old Dispensation.
The lower two-thirds of the right wing of the triptych show Ahasuerus (known to the Greeks as Xerxes) and Esther with attendants. The Latin inscription reads: Cum osculata fuerat spectrum assueri esther scipho utitur regis pleno meri (When Esther had kissed the sceptre of Ahasuerus she drank from the King's cup filled with unmixed wine). In the small scene above on the left, Esther is seen kissing the sceptre.
The lower two-thirds of the left wing of the triptych show the Roman Emperor Augustus -his name Octavianus being woven in the border below - and the Tiburtine Sibyl. The Latin inscription reads: Regem regum adoravit augustus imparator cum sibilla demonstravit quo patuit salvator (The Emperor Augustus adored the King of Kings when the Sibyl had shown him the apparition of the Saviour). Above the heads of the Emperor and the Sibyl, and their attendants, is a small scene showing the Sibyl pointing out to Augustus the apparition of the Saviour in the heavens above them. I am indebted to Joseph Destrée, the learned curator of the Royal Brussels Museum of the Decorative Arts, for the transcription of the captions, one of which is so illegible as to have been always misread before. His transcription I have, however, confirmed by careful personal examination.
Plate no. 383. Autumn, a Brussels Late XVII century tapestry, one of four Seasons attributed by Darcel in Guichard French to the brush of Van Schoor and the loom of Van Den Hecke. A duplicate set is now in New York.
This Mazarin tapestry in many points resembles the splendid Triumph of the Virgin (See plate no. 269), bequeathed to the Louvre by Baron Charles Davillier, which has the date woven into the lower border: Actu(m) a(o) 1485 (made in the year 1485). It also resembles several in the Royal Spanish Collection that were woven near the end of the XV century. One of them, no. 7 in Valencia's portfolio, shows - but larger in proportion - similar nude figures of Adam and Eve. Interesting to compare with them are the nude figures of Adam and Eve now in the National Museum of Brussels, that once crowned the marvellous Van Eyck painted triptych now in Ghent.
Plate no. 385. Diana Attending a Wounded Huntress, an XVIII century Flemish tapestry in Lord Fortescue's collection.
Technically this Mazarin tapestry is finer than any other at the Metropolitan Museum. It represents the best that can be done with gold and silver and silk and wool, to picture many figures elaborately gowned, with flesh and hair that are marvellous in texture and tone. The flesh-tints one can never forget. They represent an intricacy of interweaving that almost passes credibility.
Twenty-two ribs to the inch is none too fine for a picture of this character, so crowded with details. Compared with an ordinary tapestry, this one is like the most delicate cloisonné against an ordinary parquet floor. The refinements that in the latter would be absurd are necessary and right in the former. The Mazarin tapestry is real tapestry in every sense of the word, true in both letter and spirit to the best traditions and practice of XV century weavers.
The most interesting and the oldest tapestry at the Museum is the Burgundian Sacraments. It dates from the first half of the XV century. It was correctly described for the first time in my article in the Burlington Magazine of December, 1907. It consists of five fragments, two of which contain two scenes each, making seven scenes in all. Originally all of these were part of one very large tapestry containing fourteen scenes, the upper seven of which illustrated the Origin of the Seven Sacraments, the lower seven the Seven Sacraments as Celebrated in the XV Century. Between the upper and lower rows ran a descriptive series of French verses in Gothic letters. The illustrations in plates nos. 46 and 47 show the fragments restored to their original relative positions. This splendid tapestry was woven in Bruges, about 1440, for Philip the Good Duke of Burgundy, as a decoration for the chamber of his son, the youthful Count of Charolais, known to history as the rash and unfortunate Charles the Bold, several of whose tapestries, captured in battle, have since been in the Swiss city of Berne. The price paid by Philip was 317 livres and the weave is coarse, about 12 ribs to the inch. The five pieces, constituting altogether half of the original tapestry, are much repaired and patched and two of them, the one showing XV century Baptism, and the other the two XV century scenes of Marriage and Extreme Unction, are mounted wrong side out. In order to compare these pieces with their companions, it is necessary to picture them reversed back to their original position as in my illustrations.