Tapestries in the Norton Simon Museum

The art of tapestry — an ornamental textile woven of wool and silk threads that often tells a story — flourished in Europe from the 15th through the 18th centuries. Often called “the frescoes of the North,” tapestries were synonymous with the brilliant costumes, courtly occupations and spiritual character of the Middle Ages and the early Renaissance. Flemish, and later French, weavers excelled in creating imaginative and sumptuous pictorial designs. The Norton Simon Museum is home to eight spectacular examples, from the 15th through 17th centuries. Their subject matter includes episodes from ancient myth and history, as well as religious imagery, all of which were popular subjects in this medium.

The story of the Trojan War, beloved by medieval writers, provided rich source material for this art form. The adventures pertaining to Paris and Helen from this famous epic tale inspired the design of three of the museum’s tapestries. Woven in Tournai, a small town in southern Belgium notable for its tapestry production, the suite likely included additional scenes that may have been displayed together as one continuous, decorative ensemble. 

A fourth tapestry, woven in Brussels around 1510, depicts the “Justice of the Emperor Trajan.” It measures 10 by 12 feet. Given its size and its theme that addresses the importance of dispensing justice, a necessary quality for political leadership, it is possible that this tapestry once hung in an official room of a court or palace. All the best qualities of medieval tapestry are presented here, from the lush pictorial details defined by a palette of blues, reds and yellows, to the continuous narrative of events that can be followed as the eyes move from left to right, top to bottom. 

The latest tapestry, and the sole 17th-century work in the collection, depicts the death of Dido, a beautiful and melodramatic scene of love and loss drawn from Virgil’s epic poem, “The Aeneid.” Remarkably, Mr. Simon also acquired the set of six cartoons designed by the Italian Baroque artist Giovanni Francesco Romanelli (1610–1662) and on which the tapestry suite was based. Significant works of art in their own right, the cartoons represent the second of three phases in tapestry production: The first stage involves a smaller, simpler design. The second stage establishes the formal elements and details copied to full-scale. The actual weaving of the tapestry, with the large cartoons hung behind or underneath the loom, constitutes the final stage.

Tapestries were considerably more expensive than paintings, and certainly the materials used — silk threads, some wrapped with thin sheets of beaten gold and silver, and wool — increased their value. The materials, along with the labor and artistry, combined to make these objects highly appealing to the wealthy and discerning collector. Their visual splendor was matched by practical advantages; since they were pliable, they could be rolled and, therefore, easily transported.


Tapestries

Arrival of Paris and Helen at the Court of Priam, King of Troy, c. 1500
Embassy of Ulysses and Diomedes from the Greeks to the Trojans, c. 1500
Esther and Ahasuerus, c. 1500
Arrival of Paris and Helen at the Court of Priam, King of Troy, c. 1500. Embassy of Ulysses and Diomedes from the Greeks to the Trojans, c. 1500. Esther and Ahasuerus, c. 1500.
Holy Family with Music-Making Angels, c. 1520
Justice of the Emperor Trajan, c. 1510
Marriage of Paris and Helen, c. 1500
Holy Family with Music-Making Angels, c. 1520. Justice of the Emperor Trajan, c. 1510. Marriage of Paris and Helen, c. 1500.
Surrender of Rome to Brennus, British King of Gaul, c. 1480
Death of Dido, c. 1620-40. Romanelli, After Giovanni Francesco
Surrender of Rome to Brennus, British King of Gaul, c. 1480. Death of Dido, c. 1620-40. Romanelli, After Giovanni Francesco