16th century Brussels tapestry
The Story of David
Brabant, 16th Century
Monogram at the bottom left.
320 x 250 cm
This splendid Brussels tapestry, crafted from wool and silk during the 16th century, bears the monogram of the weaver's workshop at its lower left corner.
The tapestry narrates the story of David, with a particular focus on the episode of the young shepherd's battle against formidable adversaries: the lion and the bear. The Bible recounts David's struggle against Goliath, a tale pivotal in ending the war between the Philistines and the people of Israel. Within this narrative, the accounts of David's previous clashes with the lion and the bear are intricately woven.
The confrontation with Goliath stands as one of the most renowned episodes in the wars between Israel and the Philistines. Goliath, a giant standing at 9 feet 2 inches, hailing from the city of Gath, challenged the entire army of Israel to single combat for 40 days, with no one daring to face him. It was David, who, sidelined from the war due to his youth, volunteered to confront Goliath when he arrived to supply his brothers with provisions.
The central scene depicted in the tapestry portrays David's battle against the beasts, which aimed to persuade King Saul to allow him to face the giant despite his youth. The crux of this episode lies in the unwavering faith that fuels David and the divine protection that accounts for his remarkable victory. David, drawing a parallel, states, 'When your servant was tending his father's sheep and a lion or a bear would come and carry off a sheep from the flock, I would go after it, strike it, and rescue the sheep from its mouth. If it turned on me, I would seize it by the jaw, strike it, and kill it. Your servant has killed both the lion and the bear; this uncircumcised Philistine will be just like one of them, since he has defied the troops of the living God. David added, 'The Lord, who saved me from the paw of the lion and the paw of the bear, will save me from the hand of this Philistine.' So Saul said to David, 'Go, and may the Lord be with you.'
David, a shepherd under his father Jesse, was soon recognized as a representation of the Son of God, who became the Son of Man to manifest to humanity. David, the shepherd who risked his life to face the beasts and ensure the sheep's salvation, was an unmistakable figure of the Good Shepherd who 'lays down his life for his sheep.' The episode of David's triumph over the lion and the bear can be counted among the symbols of Christ's Paschal victory over Satan, rescuing humanity.
According to Hippolyte, the lion symbolizes death and the bear represents sin. From the Christological interpretation where David conquers the lion and the bear symbolizes Christ's triumph over infernal powers, one naturally transitions to a moral exegesis: just like David, Christians are called to conquer evil and sin.
The tapestry is framed within a beautiful and expansive border richly adorned with compartments. It is representative of many Brussels series from the third quarter of the 16th century, featuring the grotesque style popularized by Raphael's school in the first half of the 16th century, incorporating sphinxes, vases, flower garlands, and small colonnaded structures.
This exquisite decoration draws inspiration from the paintings found in the Domus Aurea (Golden House) discovered in Rome in 1493. Filled with animal allegories borrowed from late Antiquity treatises, such as those of Pliny, these images serve as allusions to the moral virtues illustrated in the central scene. The virtues showcased at the four corners of the tapestry are typical of the late 16th century and frequently appear in Brussels, Tournai, and Enghien workshops.
Four episodes from the story of David, integrated into the border, complete the iconographic program of the central scene. In the upper part of the tapestry, we find the scene where David decides to face Goliath armed only with a shepherd's staff and a flat stone, while the lower part portrays the death of the giant at the hands of young David. On the left, another scene depicts David at Saul's court, playing soothing music on his harp to alleviate the king's bouts of depression. On the opposite side, we see David journeying to the camp of the Israelites to deliver food to his brothers engaged in battle against the Philistines, and at this moment, he hears Goliath's challenge to send a champion to fight him. Saul offers David armor to confront the giant, but the young shepherd chooses to fight without armor, relying on the protection of God.
In addition to symbols of wealth and prestige, tapestries served functional purposes such as providing insulation for castle walls, covering openings and providing privacy in bedrooms.
European clientele in the 16th century, seeking to enhance their prestige, inherited medieval codes, particularly chivalrous ideals, and continued to commission significant tapestry works from workshops. While repetitive and decorative patterns like verdure or armorials persisted, historiated tapestries gained increasing interest. Their subjects often allowed for the portrayal of a character trait, virtue, or an episode from the patron's life.
By the early 16th century, the Netherlands was one of the unrivaled centres of tapestry production in Europe, with the majority of industry concentrated in Brussels (the kingdom of Belgium seceded from the Netherlands in 1830). During the second quarter of the sixteenth century, the volume of lucrative commissions from the foremost courts of Europe encouraged even greater specialization by Brussels cartoonists and weavers, leading to extraordinary technical and artistic achievements.
The Brussels weaving workshops enjoyed an international reputation due to their technical and artistic excellence. They were particularly admired for their ability to capture texture, light, shadow, and relief effects using threads of various colors, similar to the nuances in paintings.
Some Brussels craftsmen even relocated to various parts of Europe, often close to the monarchs' residences. Furthermore, renowned painters sent their designs to Brussels to be executed into tapestries.
Tapestry manufacturing was a highly organized and standardized business involving fine artists, weaver's guilds, large financiers, dealers and royal commissions.
The cost of labor and raw materials, including wool, silk, and gold threads, necessitated significant financial investments. These workshops were essentially enterprises managed by weaving dynasties. Consequently, Brussels' tapestries elevated the city's status as a stronghold in the European luxury market. These Brussels tapestries, whether used for devotion or as a medium for displaying power, found their way to numerous European courts.
From the Dukes of Brabant to the Dukes of Burgundy, and even the court of Emperor Charles V, Brussels fabric was highly sought-after during the transition from the Middle Ages to the Early Modern Period. It traveled as far as the court of the King of France and the Pope in Rome, from Cracow's castle to the London residences of Henry VIII. At the time, it was the most expensive prestige product in Europe.
The "movable frescoes of the North," as they were termed, held a prominent place in the grandeur of princely residences during this era.