CODART, Dutch and Flemish art in museums worldwide

De betoverende stem van Orpheus

Orpheus, the singer and enchanter Exhibition: 2 May - 1 September 2013

Information from the museum, 27 May 2013

Grouping of a set of early 17th-century tapestries

This temporary exhibit consists of two drawings and two tapestries. They all belong to the same set of tapestries, the subject of which is Orpheus, the singer and enchanter, who exercised great power over men and nature through his voice.

Drawings and tapestries

Drawings were used as models for tapestries, and were an essential step in their creation; they are, however, usually lost. These two are exceptional as both have been conserved.
After the models for the tapestries had been approved, life-size cartoons were made for the weaving stage. The weaving process explains why the finished tapestry is a mirror image of the model and of the cartoon.

The drawing on the right comes from a private Belgian collection and was the model for a tapestry in the Osterreichisches Museum fur angewandte Kunst, Vienna (inv. T 96048) (photo). The tapestry exhibited here comes from the same private collection. The fact that the tapestries have the same border proves that they are from the same set.
The other drawing comes from the Fondation Custodia in Paris (inv. 1971-T53); we therefore know of three pieces from the set.

The subject

In all of them Orpheus is depicted in the same way: in the centre foreground, in an attitude ranging from activity to extreme passivity. In the Paris drawing, the wild animals, under the spell of his singing, gather round him. On the Vienna tapestry, Orpheus is resting and the animals already seem less concentrated, while on the second tapestry he is sleeping and both animals and men are moving away from him.

In each depiction, the beautiful, panoramic landscape is rendered in similar fashion. The central perspective is especially remarkable. It is clear that the landscape is the real subject of the tapestries.


Tapestry designers are generally anonymous and in this case also the artist is unknown. It is generally accepted that he was from Antwerp and would have been working at the end of the 16th century. The weaving centre from which the tapestries came is also not known as they bear no marks. However, the very high quality of the weaving points to a Brussels workshop of the early 17th century.