The disturbingly hydrocephalous features of the heroes is perhaps part of the design: this particular tapestry may have been part of a series (labors?) and destined for a higher section of the wall — in which case, viewed at a sharp angle from below, body proportions would look “right”.
The most striking feature of the piece to me are the fruit-and-flower borders, exquisitely drawn, superbly woven and retaining 500 years later incredible freshness of colors. It is one of the main reasons why I keep going back to the museum.
isn’t: it is the triumph of life, symbolized here by The Fates. In the end, of course, death does win, but death only exists where there is life to begin with: the image of the three sisters standing atop overturned Chastity make the meaning plain: for life to go on, Chastity must be overturned. Ladies, think about it.
This is a subversive joke, of course; so the makers felt compelled to pair it with the Triumph of Eternity, an ugly thing showing St Jerome and St Augustine (say the credits, though I think it’s actually Saint Sylvester the Pope) riding in a chariot over the overturned Fates. That pleased the powers that were — but we don’t have to look at it.
Tapestry of the Trojan War
Flemish, Tournai, 1475-1490, wool and silk, cut down at the top and right edge.
About 10 m x 4 m.
Supplied to an unidentified patron by Pasquier Grenier; in the possession of Charles VIII of France at Amboise by 1494.
This is the ninth of a series of eleven tapestries. Events unfold left to right: on the left, Amazon Queen Penthesilea kneels before King Priam pledging to defend Troy; in the center battle ensues; on the right the beardless youth Pyrrhus, son of Achilles, receives his dead father’s armor from the hands of Ajax.
This page at the V&A website will tell you all sorts of useful things about this tapestry — such as that several different such sets existed, that the cartoons still survive, etc. What it does not tell you is how it entered the collection. Which I do not know but suspect that, if it is like most other tapestries in V&A’s possession, it will have entered it in lieu of taxes — usually death duties (a.k.a. “inheritance” or “estate” tax). In this tapestries are like palaces, all of which somehow, sooner or later, end up in governments’ hands. “Safe as houses” Polish gentry used to say about their real estate investments — which today house universities and ministries of health while the heirs vegetate in some appalling crampments.
The government, said Confucius, is worse than a tiger.
This set of tapestries, based on cartoons by Giulio Romano, is referred to as “Children Playing”. It was executed in wool, silk, gold and silver; probably at the workshop of Nicolas Karcher, a Flemish craftsman who settled in Mantua; probably circa 1539; probably for Cardinal Hercules Gonzaga, who later owned them (one actually bears the inscription “HER MAN”). The Gulbenkian owns four of these, as well as two fragments of two others. Here are the three currently displayed in the museum and various out-takes from them.
They are displayed in a protective semi-murk, which is a great mood enhancer — a comfortable bench has been conveniently placed at a very good viewing distance in front of them — but has been heretofore a terrible impediment for anyone trying to photograph them.
Well, thanks to Sony’s TX1, museal murk is no longer an impediment. Here are the three tapestries in global view — the tapestries are huge (6 x 4 meters at least) and so have to be photographed from some distance, the resulting image being none too clear:
But as long as you can get within 3 feet of the work, TX1 delivers:
I have not been able to learn yet what the iconography of this series means, but I find it delightful: a bunch of kids out in a fruit grove in the country, away from the city, its adults and controls, naked, with minimal supervision (the sole adult seems to accompany them on a harp rather than try to keep them in check), being as rowdy and crazy as their heart would please — with all the terrible consequences of the surfeit of freedom — bleeding noses and crack’d skulls — which, of course, you are just not allowed to have for your own protection.
It makes me think of a grafitto I saw this morning from the local anarchist brigade:
“You call this freedom? We want more.”