The Flemish late Gothic tapestry illustrating the parable of The Prodigal Son,
which was first exhibited to members at a preview on January 27, is an addition of considerable importance to the Institute’s distinguished collection of tapestries. One of the famous tapestries of America, it was until recently in the collection of Genevieve Garvan Brady. Its acquisition will be of special interest to those associated with the museum, for it is the first major purchase made from the John Van Derlip Fund.The Prodigal Son
tapestry was woven in Brussels in the early sixteenth century, and represents the end of that period of tapestry weaving so splendidly recorded in the three Gothic examples in the Charles Jairus Martin Memorial Collection. It represents also, since it stands between the Gothic and Renaissance styles, the dawn of a new period in Flemish weaving, and thus takes an important place, hitherto vacant, in the Institute’s collection.It is a piece of considerable size, measuring about twenty-one by thirteen feet, and the field, within a narrow border, is crowded with incident in the manner of Gothic tapestries. Like the other pieces in the collection, it reflects the spirit of the age in which it was woven. The regency of Marguerite of Austria (1480-1530) marked, as Phyllis Ackerman has pointed out, the triumph of the middle class in Flanders, and the bourgeois Fleming, pious, solidly smug, and secure in his wealth, doted on religious allegory. Contemplation of the wages of sin, or of virtue, reinforced his own conception of the purpose of life. The history of The Prodigal Son
must have delighted him beyond measure.The story told in the tapestry depicts a series of episodes in the life of the Prodigal Son. In the upper left corner the young man is seen receiving part of his inheritance from his father. He is wearing a furred green coat over a crimson gown, and looks at the green-clad servant who is carrying a portion of his newly acquired wealth in a roped bundle. His aged father, in a blue cloak, sits in a ceremonial chair between the two, his right hand held out in a gesture of admonition. On the ground at his feet is a gold chest containing further treasures. Surrounding the central figures are several attendants.In the center of the tapestry the youth, again accompanied by attendants of both sycophantic and disapproving mien, sits beside a woman representing Pleasure, to whom he absently hands a purse of money. Beyond them a page in green rummages in a chest for further treasures, while a young man with a falcon on his wrist and an incredulously admiring woman look on. Below the central group to the left the Prodigal Son is seen flirting with a blue-clad woman representing Luxury, and, balancing this group on the right, he appears at a table with two young women clothed in rose and pale green, where he is tempted by the vice of Gluttony. This is an amusing scene. For the first time the youth appears to be wholehearted in his desire for pleasure. His up-flung right arm seems to call for more wine, and the expression on his face indicates that he is going about the business of sin in a determined fashion.In the lower left corner, somewhat wary, the youth is tempted by the figures of Luxury, Worldliness, and Pleasure, while again numerous attendants, hoping to share in the spoils, look on. Opposite this scene, in the lower right corner, the victim, shorn of his splendid cloak and jewels, is spurned by his temptresses.In the upper part of the tapestry, above the central group, appear the figures of Mercy, Repentance, and Humility, who will eventually rescue the youth, reading the Book of Knowledge. But the Prodigal Son is not yet ready for redemption. At the left he is tempted by Lust, and at the right by Music. The final episode in the story, the downfall of the Prodigal Son, is depicted in the upper right corner, where simple folk deplore the result of heedless livingThe incidents of the story follow each other in rapid succession and with little separation save for the short wreathed column setting off the initial episode. The complexity of the pattern is characteristic of allegorical tapestries as well as of the Gothic period, and is one of the qualities which gives The Prodigal Son
its Gothic flavor. Properly speaking, The Prodigal Son
is not a Gothic tapestry, for while it retains many of the characteristics of the Gothic age it announces the coming of a new style.One of the indications of the Renaissance is seen in the richly designed border of intertwined flowers, leaves, and fruits, a fashion that was to grow into the magnificently swagged frames of later Flemish tapestries. Another suggestion of the Renaissance is seen in the figures, still drawn with a thought for the silhouette, yet already hinting at the three-dimensional quality that was to come in with the Italian influence. The draperies are treated more expansively, with their rich folds sweeping a turf only sparsely scattered with the blossoms so beloved in an earlier age. A comparison of this tapestry with either The Falconers
or the Esther
tapestry in the Martin collection will indicate the advances made in the handling of draperies. It will also reveal the extended range of colors at the service of early sixteenth-century weavers.Yet the Gothic spirit persists; in the design, which is still flat and suitable to mural decoration, in the brilliant coloring, in the composition, with its lack of perspective and space, and in the small clumps of flowers scattered over the lower portion of the field.The Prodigal Son,
woven about 1525 when Brussels was the tapestry center of Europe, represents the last stand of the Gothic in tapestries. Thereafter they were to approximate paintings more and more, until, like the Institute’s Virgil
tapestry, and the Death of Decius Mus
from the Rubens series, they became woven paintings. In the museum collection The Prodigal Son
bridges the gap hitherto existing between the millefleur
of 1510 and the Joseph tapestry of 1550. It is a splendid example of late Gothic weaving; a noteworthy addition to the collection, and one that provides the final link in a group illustrating the history of tapestries throughout two centuries.Referenced Works of Art
- The Prodigal Son with Pleasure seated at his side. Detail of a Flemish Gothic tapestry of The Prodigal Son. Purchased from The John Van Derlip Fund.
- The Prodigal Son receives a portion of his inheritance from his aged father before he departs on his journey.
- The allegory of the Prodigal Son. The youth converses with a woman representing Luxury.
- Luxury, Worldliness, and Pleasure tempt the Prodigal Son. Detail of the Institute’s new tapestry.