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Holy Family with Music-Making Angels, c. 1520

Flanders, 1510-1530
Wool tapestry with silk and gold threads (woven at Brussels)
102 x 116 in. (259.1 x 294.6 cm)
The Norton Simon Foundation
F.1965.1.130.T
© The Norton Simon Foundation

On view

Probably woven in Brussels around 1520, this sumptuous tapestry depicts Mary and the infant Jesus being serenaded by a heavenly choir who are accompanied by angels playing medieval instruments: a lute, a harp, a rebec (an ancestor of the violin), a recorder and a small keyboard called a portative organ, which was played with one hand and pumped with the other. The two women in the foreground engrossed in their handwork have been identified as the Virgin’s half-sisters, Mary Cleophas and Mary Salome. One embroiders a mantle similar to the one the Madonna is wearing, and the other prepares a crown for the Queen of Heaven from the roses in her lap. Characteristically, Joseph plays a minor role in this domestic scene, and is shown entering the chamber from the left. With vessels and containers for food and drink on the table at the left, a glimpse into the canopied bedchamber at the right, and a view of the everyday life of a town seen through the two windows, the scene is both a portrayal of an active quotidian existence and an allusion to a sacred, contemplative moment.

The Madonna gently caresses the Child’s foot as He plays with one of the roses to be used in the crown. In spite of this human gesture, Mary is set apart from Joseph and her earthly sisters, surrounded by angels and raised on a throne decorated with jewels and tapestries. The two ornate columns, arranged to give the effect of a triptych, further the hierarchical separation of the heavenly group.

The same festooned border seen here exists on two other tapestries of similar size: one of the Nativity in the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts in Richmond, and the other of the Resurrection in the Victoria and Albert Museum, London. The Pasadena piece was once part of the notable collection of decorative arts assembled by the banking magnate Baron Ludwig von Stieglitz (1779–1843) of St. Petersburg. By 1902, the tapestry was in England, and was hung in Westminster Abbey for the coronations of both King Edward VII (1902) and King George VI (1937). The tapestry entered Norton Simon’s collection in 1965, when he purchased en bloc the stock of the prominent art dealers Duveen Brothers.

Despite the fact that this particular piece is remarkably well preserved, some of the silver thread has tarnished, and it is extremely fragile. Last exhibited in 1999, the tapestry will be on view for only five weeks during the holiday season, since works of this nature are especially susceptible to exposure to light.


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