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the real royal story behind the lush, 500-year-old textiles | Pro Club Bd

The jubilee decorations have been taken down across Britain and the Queen has retired to Balmoral for a well-deserved holiday. But now the thoughts of some members of the royal household must turn to a more sensitive issue: the coronation of their successor. Imagine finding dusty files and discreet conversations in gentlemen’s clubs on Saint James. An old tradition that pauses the royal mandarins over their soup relates to a tapestry with a graphic depiction of The circumcision of Isaac.

We know, thanks to a detailed account by Francis Sandford in the late 17th century, that this was hung beside the throne in Westminster Abbey for the coronation of James II, and circumstantial evidence suggests that this use followed an earlier practice. Whether royal sensibilities would embrace such a connection when Prince Charles is crowned remains to be seen, but it would certainly be an atmospheric evocation of ancient traditions, when lavish textiles and tapestries provided the staging for all these court ceremonies. And after waiting 73 years for his mother’s succession, it might be nice for Charles to be flanked by an image of someone who, according to Genesis, has reached the beautiful age of 180!

The circumcision of Isaac is from the ten-piece tapestry set Story of Abraham which Henry VIII bought in the early 1540s and which is remarkably complete at Hampton Court. Intricately woven with masses of gold thread and measuring over 80m in total length, the ensemble is the most impressive tapestry set surviving in Britain.

Historically, such valuable textiles were only hung on special occasions, but this attitude was abandoned when tapestries fell out of fashion in the 18th century, with the result that the Abraham tapestries, like so many others, are now faded and their gold threads tarnished are. Nonetheless, they still make an imposing display in the great hall, speckled with flecks of colored light from the stained glass windows.

Watch out: the imperial state crown is sitting on a cushion at the opening of the state parliament in May; It will be on Prince Charles’ head when he succeeds the Queen Hannah McKay; Reuters/Alamy Stock Photo

The set was the most expensive Henry bought during his reign, and that’s saying something – the Inventory of the Royal Estates, drawn up after his death, lists more than 2,500 tapestries of varying quality and ages. Based on the cost of other such gold-woven tapestries at the time, we can estimate that they must have cost at least £2,000 at a time when eminent court artists such as Holbein were receiving annual salaries of £30 and a few pounds more per painting.

heart of the Reformation

Why would Henry have spent so much money on a series of tapestries depicting Abraham? The answer brings us to the heart of the English Reformation and the steps taken by Henry and his advisers to cement his position as the head of the English Church. As any British schoolchild knows, the crucial drama in Henry’s life hinged on his desire to produce a male heir. Katherine of Aragon disappointed him in this regard, fathering only Princess Mary, and sometime in the mid-1520s Henry opted for divorce in order to marry Anne Boleyn, a fusion of desire and duty that was to change the course of British history . Faced with vehement opposition from the papacy, Henry broke with Rome and declared himself head of the English Church, arguing that ancient precedent defined Britain as empire and the British king as independent of any other secular jurisdiction.

As the conflict with Rome intensified, legalistic arguments were supplemented by a more personal form of identification between Henry and the Old Testament patriarchs. Henry was a second Ezekiel sent from heaven to reform abuses; a modern King David liberating England from Goliath the Pope; a second Moses leading England, a new Israel, out of bondage. Artwork made for Henry in the late 1530s shows patriarchs such as Solomon and David with the features of the king. The cover of the Great Bible, published in 1539, goes a step further and shows Henry in direct communication with God and then propagates the Bible, literally a prophet and apostle to his own people.

An illustration by Francis Sandford The Story of the Coronation of James II (1687) shows The circumcision of Isaac next to the coronation throne Courtesy Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York and Harris Brisbane Dick Fund, 1943

The notion that Henry was the nation’s patriarch was reinforced in the judgment ceremony by the ubiquitous display of tapestries depicting Old Testament ancestors, some inherited but mostly newly acquired. The best were made in Brussels, and although the local artists and weavers could not produce overtly propagandistic images for Henry, owing to scrutiny by Charles V’s agents – several leading weavers and artists were accused of heresy in the late 1520s – admitted nothing stop Henry buying sets depicting Old Testament patriarchs.

Abraham, founder of the Hebrew nation and first of the great patriarchs, was the Old Testament model that resonated most with Henry as he attempted to found a new Church of England centered on the Tudor dynasty. The Abrahamic analogy would have been additionally attractive after 1537 because Henry finally had an heir in the birth of Prince Edward, just as Genesis established Abraham’s unchallenged succession of his house through Isaac.

Although no documentation survives for the set’s conception and ordering, we do know that it was delivered to the English court sometime between September 1543 and September 1544. A set of this size and delicacy would have taken at least two years to weave, possibly more. hence the designs and cartoons – attributed to the workshop of Pieter Coecke van Aelst, the leading tapestry designer of the time – must have been made some three to four years earlier, that is, when Prince Edward was still in his infancy.

The borders of the Abraham tapestries extend the analogy between the Old Testament patriarch and his modern successor with more than 100 allegorical figures. These provide ongoing commentary on the scenes depicted on the tapestry, expanding the analogies between Abraham and Henry, Isaac and Edward into a broader affirmation of the moral values ​​embodied in Tudor royalty. In summary, the tapestries provided a huge amount speculum principis– a mirror for princes – that would have been easy for anyone in Heinrich’s circle to understand.

The circumcision of Isaacof the Story of Abraham A series of tapestries (1540-43) by Pieter Coecke van Aelst might be considered too explicit, but they appeared at the coronation of James II Courtesy The Royal Collection Trust/© Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II 2022

What forum was the Abraham set intended for? It was first inventoried at Hampton Court in 1547, along with some of Henry’s other most expensive tapestry purchases, and has remained there ever since. Hampton Court experienced great development in the late 1530s and early 1540s and the tapestries may well have been intended to hang in the great hall and adjoining audience rooms. Given the phenomenal quality and amount of gold thread in the tapestries, it is possible that Henry had a second and grander site in mind from the very beginning: Westminster Abbey, where sooner or later his long-awaited heir would be crowned his successor.

threads of history

While records of the tapestries used at the coronations of Edward, Mary, Elizabeth I and Charles I are lacking, we do know that Westminster was decorated with scenes from Genesis for Elizabeth’s coronation. During the reign of Charles the Office of the Lord Chamberlain was charged with investigating the traditions surrounding royal ceremonies. And at the coronation of Charles II, four Abraham tapestries modeled on those at Hampton Court were purchased for use at the coronation (whether the originals were also used is unclear). Therefore, the use of the Abraham tapestries in Westminster Abbey for the coronation of James II seems to be based on historical precedent. The selection of The circumcision of Isaac Flanking the high altar was no coincidence. Circumcision was the physical manifestation of God’s covenant with Abraham and the continuation of his house through the line of Isaac. Is there a more resonant scene for the transition from one monarch to another and the continuation of the bloodline?

When I recently inquired about the condition with the Royal Collection The circumcision of Isaac Tapestry hoping to loan it for the Tudor exhibition to be held in New York, Cleveland and San Francisco next year I was told it was too fragile to travel. But one might hope that the royal coronation would garner a more positive response. It would be a beautiful revival of a long-standing tradition, and a lingering reminder of the intertwined origins of the royal succession and the Church of England, if the same tapestry were ready for use once more, when the time is venerable words soberly proclaimed: “The Queen is dead , long live the king.”

Thomas P CampbellDirector of the Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco (and formerly the Met) and author of HEntry VIII and the Art of MajestyYale, 2007

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