Flemish tapestries have always played an important role in the history of collecting in Portugal. Tapestries from various centers of manufacture in the Netherlands and in France were sought after by the nobility and princes of the church for royal and episcopal palaces or for the interiors of churches. The largest collection in Renaissance Portugal was assembled by royal patrons: Manuel I (reigned 1498-1521), John III (reigned 1521-57), Catherine of Austria (1507-78) and Maria of Portugal (1521-77) for royal residences in Lisbon, Sintra, Almeirim and Évora.
Tapestries were prized not only for their unique decorative value, but also for their utilitarian function. Late medieval castles needed both the insulation and bright colours of tapestries on bare stone walls. Dark and drafty halls were rendered warmer and more inhabitable. Brilliant colours, striking designs and the use of gold and silver threads literally “furnished” sparse interiors. Woven stories of all kinds: allegories, scenes from plays, excerpts from Greek and Roman history and mythology were made; many grouped in a series to illustrate one principle theme. The lives of the saints and Biblical stories were commissioned for churches where choirs were permanently decorated with tapestries, and others hung between pillars of the nave on feast days. Some were flexible in use, draped over beds, tables, doorways, pulled around fireplaces or stretched to form temporary partitions in rooms or tents.
Tapestries were made to be portable in order, to travel with their owners. As lords progressed from one property to the next with their personal accessories, tapestries had the great advantage of being easily rolled up and quick to install. As a form of visual decoration, they served as woven stages for the courtly and musical entertainment’s enacted before them, frequently displayed on the battlefield, on the exterior of buildings or used to line city streets for royal entries, or joyeuse entréees, of kings and princes. Tapestries have an additional advantage: a number of sets or individual panels can be used for the decoration of one large hall or a suite of rooms, and rearranged for special occasions according to the tastes or political objectives of the owner.
These large-scale works of art were viewed as portable propaganda, and whenever public pageants were staged to enhance princely magnificence, tapestries were invariably part of the program as visual metaphors of princely rule. They proclaimed status, and were a means of emphasising class distinctions. Splendid cycles were exhibited for baptisms, weddings, coronations and meetings between heads of state for purposes of self-glorification. Political alliances were sealed with gifts of expensive panels and the dowries of Renaissance princesses always included at least several panels or a “chambre” of tapestries.
Portugal’s economic ties with Flanders during the fifteenth and sixteenth century, facilitated the importation of tapestries to the Iberian peninsula, where they bought and sold by merchants in Lisbon and at the annual fair at Medina del Campo, Spain. The Lamego tapestries were not direct commissions ordered in Flanders, but were purchases bought either individually or as a lot, between 1525 and 1535, to adorn the throne and reception rooms of the episcopal palace. The Lamego bishops appreciated the subtle use of tapestries not only as symbols of rule and power, but also as decoration. Flemish tapestries formed a large part of their collecting activities well into the seventeenth century.
JUSTICE (JUSTICIA) DISARMED BY CLEMENCY (MISERICORDLA)
This panel, formerly known as Music, belongs to a famous series entitled, The Combat of the Virtues and Vices, taken from an important iconography cycle of the middle Ages. The religious symbolism, borrowed from the late antique book, Psychomachia, by Prudentius, centers of the redemption of man’s soul and the salvation of mankind. The story takes place here on two horizontal levels, divided into un upper section which represents the celestial kingdom of God, and below, earth. The principle theme is the redemption of man from the pleasures of life, who is shown in the center. Music represents the frivolity of life, and throughout contemporary instruments are depicted. Christ, seated on a throne in the upper central section, debates with four Virtues the culpability of mankind. Truth (with an open book) and justice (with a sword) accuse man of his sins, while Clemency and Peace plead for his innocence. To the far upper right, the Virtues attack the Seven Deadly Sins, who flee vanquished. Pride (Superbia) falls before the vengeful sword upheld by justice. Beneath, man has given way to the pleasures of the world. Elegant women and courtiers, typical of early Renaissance Flanders, - play an organ, a harp, recorders, lutes, a drum, flute and clavichord. The background is rendered in a style known as, millefleur, in which the ground is covered with hundreds of tiny scattered flowers, plants and animals realistically portrayed. Fortitude interrupts the musical entertainment by threatening the central group with her sword. justice, in the lower left, attacks a kneeling woman who begs for forgiveness, but is stopped by Clemency. Heavenly vengeance is ultimately over come by the compassion of Christ.
The cartoon for this panel has been attributed to Jean van Roome (active 1509-21), a Brussels painter associated with the cultured court of Charles V (1500 - 1558) and Margaret of Austria (1480-1530), in the Netherlands. By the mid-sixteenth century, reputable court artists sketched designs for tapestries, supplying ateliers with small sketches, petit patrons and full size grand patrons. The word cartoon is borrowed from the Italian cartoon, a large piece of paper. This tapestry may have been purchased by Fernando de Vaconcellos, Bishop of Lamego in 1531, or by Miguel de Noronha, elected bishop around 1550, at Medina del Campo, where similar panels of Virtues and Vices were regularly available for sale well into the 1550s. It was acquired for its rich decorative qualities rather than its moralising character, and similar subjects were still collected by Lamego bishops decades later. In 1692 eight panels of the Seven Liberal Arts, often paired with the Seven Virtues, were listed in a inventory of the Lamego palace (Ajuda Library, Ms. 40-XV-70, fol. 40).
THE TEMPLE OF LATONA
Tapestry designs moved closer to painting styles around 1516-1519 when famous cartoons by Raphael for his Acts of the Apostles were woven in Brussels, the leading center of tapestry making. As a result, Brussels weavers produced sumptuous series for the expansive Renaissance palaces of Europe that replaced medieval fortresses. Raphael’s drawings established a new pictorial style in tapestries, which underwent significant changes in the rendering of space, perspective and form. The late Gothic style, as seen in the tapestry of justice and Clemency, was instantly outmoded. The most successful designer in the new manner was Bernard van Orley (ca. 1488-1541), whose style blended Italian and Flemish traditions. in the Latona tapestry, van Orley’s innovative approach is evident. Three dimensional space, realism and a sense of plasticity is now conveyed, the tapestry is conceived of as a woven painting.
The subject of Latona, or Leto, the mother of Apollo and Diana, from Ovid’s Metamorphoses, is an example from Greek mythology of pride humbled. Niobe, the daughter of Tantalus, the king of Thebes and granddaughter of Zeus, tries to persuade Thebans from worshipping Latona, boasting of her own divine superiority and number of children (seven sons and seven daughters). Niobe, wearing a crown, rushes into an open-air temple with her daughters on the far left, threatening Thebans with wooden sticks and forcing them to exit on the right. Apollo and Diana, whose small statues flank the ancient altar with a statue of their mother, later punish Niobe’s arrogance by killing all her children. All the personages wear a curious combination of ancient Roman and old Testament clothes.
The man in front who cowers in fear of Niobels wrath bears two rare inscriptions on the hem of his cloak: AEIOU (Austria est imprare orbi universo), the symbolic letters a personal motto of the Emperor Frederick III (1415-1493), who married Eleanor of Portugal in 1452. Buildings, reliquaries, sculpture and illuminated manuscripts commissioned by him invariably bear these letters he devised in 1437, given a magical meaning closely associated with the Habsburg dynasty, underscoring Austria’s destiny to rule the universe. Imperial aggrandisement became the aim of his successors.
This tapestry once belonged to set of four, depicting the story of Niobe, woven in Brussels, replicas of which were described in the palace of the Cardinal of Trent in 1539, but which are no longer extant. The Lamego and Trent series may be copies after an original cycle (editio princips), perhaps commissioned for the Habsburg court in Flanders, because of the identifying AEIOU inscription. Frederick III’s close dynastic ties with the Portuguese crown may partially explain the presence of the Latona panel in Lamego, but whether the entire set of four originally hung there cannot be determined.
THE OEDIPUS CYCLE
This series of four tapestries depicting the story of Oedipus and the city of Thebes may be related to the Latona tapestry, and are designs attributed to van Orley and his Brussels workshop, dating between 1525 and 1535. The panels follow a loose chronological order beginning with LAIUS CONSULTING THE ORACLE, in which the Theban king consults the Delphic Oracle, kneeling under a temple-like structure with late Gothic tracery. In the center, Laius is shown dressed as an oriental with a turban, identified by his name inscribed on his sword blade. The statue of the winged Cupid, holding a bow and quiver, signifies the transience of power, wealth and pleasure. Laius is informed that any child born to his wife, Jocasta, would become his murderer. To the far left, Jocasta, in bed, bears a son in a classical structure. Opposite, to the right, a hunting party in contemporary Flemish dress act as spectators to these scenes. Above them, to the left, Laius hands his baby to two shepherds, ordering the abandonment of his son in the wild. The shepherds pierce the infant’s feet and leave him to die, hanging upside down from a tree.
The Fates have ruled otherwise. Forbas, a Corinthian shepherd finds the infant, names him Oedipus, "swollen feet," because of his deformities and takes him to the childless Polybus, king of Corinth. In the SECOND PANEL, a king and queen are shown progressing through the city streets of Corinth, followed by their retainers and court dressed in contemporary Renaissance clothes. They represent the aged Polybus and his wife, Periboae, who offers the young Oedipus, a fruit as he runs owards her, escaping from Forbas. This scene represents the adoption of Oedipus by Polybus and his wife, who raise him as their own son. A large section to the right, one meter in length, is missing, which could reveal more about this episode. As a youth in Corinth, Oedipus learns of his dreadful fate, questioning the oracle at Delphi where he finds out he will kill his father and marry his mother. To avoid this, he later exiles himself from his home.
OEDIPUS IN THEBES, the third panel, shows his arrival to the City of Thebes in the center, where Oedipus introduces himself to a group of courtly women, one of whom plays a lute. The lady in red brocade may represent his future wife/mother, Jocasta. In the background, two vignettes of past and future events are juxtaposed with one another. To the left, Oedipus unwittingly kills his father, Laius, with a sword, and to the right, after learning the horrible truth, an older and bearded Oedipus blinds himself with Jocasta’s garment pin. A number of visual references are made to classical antiquity, such as, the ancient architecture and the portrait medallion of a Roman emperor (Julius Caesar?) crowned with a laurel wreath in the lower left. The female figures are dressed in elegant Renaissance attire typical of the court of Margaret of Austria. The designer delights in combining Flemish and Italian motifs then current in Netherlandish painting.
In the last panel, OEDIPUS AND JOCASTA, Oedipus is king of Thebes, after his marriage to his mother. Visual emphasis is placed upon the concept of rulership. Seated under a Renaissance brocade dossal set upon a dais, Oedipus, whose name (EDIPUS) is inscribed on his belt, is offered the crown and sceptre of Thebes by grateful citizens, because they have been rid of the Sphinx who once plagued their city. In the upper left, two scenes are compressed in one. Before the gates of Thebes, Oedipus confronts a schematic monster with a woman’s head, lion’s body, serpent’s tail and eagle wings. His answer to the Sphinx’s unsolvable riddle is the cause of her undoing, afterwards forced to leap from a mountain and die in the valley below. Oedipus thus frees himself of this second impediment to his marriage and take-over, shown subsequently in the center accepting the Theban crown.
The Oedipus series may have been an allegory commissioned during the regency of Margaret of Austria, to stress the question of matrilineal inheritance and rule in Flanders. After the early death of Margaret’s mother, Mary of Burgundy in 1482, Burgundian autonomy was challenged by her Habsburg husband, Maximilian I (1459-1519), the son of Frederick III. After years of war and dissent, his daughter, Margaret, restored peace after her appointment as regent in 1507. The reasons why the Lamego bishops chose for their palace a tapestry series with strong belligerent overtones has not yet been resolved.
They may have been bought for their decorative and ornamental qualities, rather than for their political implications.