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Vlaamse wandtapijten voor de Bourgondische hertogen keizer Karel V en koning Filips II

Flemish tapestries at the Habsburg courts of the Renaissance: from the dukes of Burgundy to Philip II Exhibition: 21 November 2008 - 29 March 2009

Information from the organizer

The art of tapestry went through a spectacular growth during the 15th century and tapestries were in use at the majority of European courts. The use of tapestry gave an image of grandeur, one of the virtues linked to princes at the beginning of Modern Age and fully justified in popular readings at the time, such as the Nicomachean Ethics by Aristotle.

In the same manner, tapestries were used as objects of worship and extravagant decoration of chapels, churches, and cathedrals since the Middle Ages. Tapestries served both a storytelling and an educational function. At the same time, they stood for luxury and wealth.

From the 14th century, but mainly from the 15th century onwards, the most important tapestry factories were located in northern Europe, more precisely in some cities of present-day Belgium and the north of France (Arras, Tournai, and some time later Brussels). The largest and most important factories produced tapestries of great quality that were exported and used throughout Europe, including Italy and Spain.

The tapestry gained its place on the market not only because of its image of luxury and greatness, but essentially because it was easy to transport. Yet, there were many other decorative styles in use. Stained-glass windows for instance, were considered of great importance for the purpose of storytelling, for their large size and effectiveness. Lead windows were especially used in Northern Europe. In Italy, the use of frescos was more common. Also, mosaic tiles enjoyed great popularity in regions such as Venice, who were under the influence of the Byzantium East. The tapestries proved very useful for travelling royal courts, because they could rapidly and easily be changed within the same room or religious space, or exported.

The international success of the Italian Renaissance and its theoretical consolidation through writers such as Vasari and others starting from the 16th and 17th centuries, awakened the interest of collectors and historians for the triad of painting, sculpture and architecture. An arts system was developed that would be reinforced during the 18th and 19th centuries. Consequently, the greatly valued art of tapestry became secondary and was reduced to an image of decorative and luxury art, an impression that still lingers.

This exhibition is only another step in the process towards the historical recovery of the art of tapestry. We propose an exhibition based on these arguments. For well-known reasons, some of the best Renaissance tapestries in Europe are preserved in Spain. Commercial relations between Castile and Flanders greatly increased at the end of the 15th century and continued to flourish throughout the 16th century. This was in large measure due to marriages between the Spanish Trastámara family and the Habsburgs, who were related to the Dukes of Burgundy. But even before that, the Catholic Kings enjoyed buying and collecting tapestries of Flemish origin.

The weddings of Johanna of Castile to Philip of Habsburg and of Prince John to Lady Margaret, and the unexpected succession to the thrown by Archduke Charles, the eldest son of the first couple, caused the creation of a typically Habsburg collection within the art of tapestry. This would last until the 16th century, coinciding with the reign of Philip II. The women of the Habsburg family, such as Elisabeth the Catholic, Margaret of Austria and Mary of Hungary, played a fundamental role in the acquisition process of the tapestries.

The exhibition explores this collection. The main focus is the important connection between Brussels and Madrid at this time, without forgetting the origins of the collection at de Court of Burgundy during the second half of the 15th century. However, the exhibition will not deal exclusively with royal collections. Flemish and Spanish aristocrats were also zealous collectors of this artistic genre, for the decoration of palaces and parties. After some time, the tapestries ended up being donated to churches and cathedrals. For this reason, many Spanish churches and cathedrals (Pastrana, Zaragoza, Lérida, Palencia, Zamora…) are still keepers of magnificent tapestries from the late Medieval and Renaissance epoch, because of these donations by the nobility.

Regarding the different styles, the exhibition shows the development of the Flemish tapestry from the Gothic solutions of the 15th century until the introduction of more modern styles by designers such as Barent van Orley. At the beginning of the 16th century, and after the great revolution that took place in the middle of the previous century in Flanders, people like Jan Vermeyen appeared on the stage. He worked independently from the other large development in the great transformation of the genre. This was fuelled by Raphael in Rome, with his fabulous series depicting the Act of the Apostles.

Nevertheless, this sample does not intend to show the history of the Flemish tapestry from a point of view of style. Rather, it aims to take advantage of the opportunity to view some of the highest-quality tapestries in Europe, while focussing on both the collector and the function of tapestry at the Spanish courts between the end of the 15th century and the beginning of the 16th century.

The exhibition consists of the following parts:

1) The image of the world at the end of the Middle Ages through the art of tapestry

2) Late Medieval and Renaissance courts in Flanders and Spain: the dukes of Burgundy at the beginning of the reign of Charles V (1480–1535)

3) Renewing the art of tapestry in the middle of the 16th century: the classic and heroic world surrounding the imperial courts (1535–40)

4) Mary of Hungary and Cardinal Granville, collectors of tapestry

5) The royal court of Madrid and the imperial court in Vienna during the time of Philip II and Maximilian II

6) The religious conflicts at the end of an era (1580-1600)