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: Tapestry of Famous Months Series Acquired


Minneapolis Institute of Arts



Institution Minneapolis Institute of Arts
The recent acquisition of a Flemish late Gothic tapestry from a well-known series of months tentatively attributed to Bernard Van Orley marks another important step in the assembling of the Institute’s collection of fine tapestries. Inaugurated in memory of Charles Jairus Martin by Mrs. Charles J. Martin in 1915, this collection has grown steadily through gift and purchase, and now contains outstanding examples from the Gothic through the high Renaissance periods.The latest addition to the collection, a tapestry depicting the month of September, is one of seven pieces known to exist from a set of months woven in Brussels about 1525. The other pieces are January, February, April, July, August, and October. The tapestries depicting the months of January and February are in the Doria Palace in Rome; the month of April is in the collection of Mr. and Mrs. Robert Woods Bliss; and those of August and October are in the Metropolitan Museum through the Julliard bequest. The July tapestry, which was exhibited last in Brussels in 1905, has been lost to view.The September tapestry, like the other pieces now in this country, is a vertical design. On a rectangular ground is imposed an oval medallion enclosing the main scene of the tapestry. A narrow border, defined by bands of rope pattern and possessing outstanding elements of the Renaissance period, surrounds the whole.The month of September is symbolized by a vintage scene enacted beneath the eyes of Bacchus, who is seated on a goat watching a group of men and women gathering grapes and trampling out the juice. In one hand he holds a bunch of grapes, and in the other a staff twined with vines and fruit. He is draped in a flowing garment that leaves his right arm and shoulder bare, and wears a pair of high, open-toed Renaissance boots decorated with satyr masks.The main vintage scene is composed of three men and a woman. In a large iron-bound wooden vat two of the men, clothed in Renaissance costumes with slashed sleeves, are busily trampling our the grapes. The third man, wreathed with vine leaves, and the woman coiffed with a large handkerchief, are dumping large baskets full of newly gathered grapes into the vat.Directly in front of this group are three chubby children disporting themselves with flamboyant gestures. One plays with a bird; one, the little rich boy of the group, is clad in half armor and rides a horse stick; and the third raises his arm in a gesture of salute to the wine tramplers. In a luxuriant landscape in the right background a woman in a flat straw hat of the type that is still worn is cutting grapes with a short hand scythe, and in the left background other figures are gathering and carrying grapes. Beyond is a turreted castle in a rocky landscape.It is interesting to observe how completely the designer has preserved all the details of a contemporary and local vintage scene despite the Renaissance flavor of his composition. The whole scene is full of movement, and rich in the detail typical of Gothic tapestries. The combination of this latter quality, together with the Flemish facial types, and the Renaissance influence seen in the costumes, cupid-like children, and elaborate border designs, has been skillfully achieved.One of the most interesting aspects of the tapestry is the frame of the oval enclosing the above scene. It is filled with a series of small medallions containing the signs of the zodiac, with Libra, the correct sign for September, occupying the upper central position just above the head of Bacchus. The other signs of the zodiac are arranged in their proper order, and read as follows beginning at the right of Libra: Scorpio, Sagittarius, Capricornus, Aquarius, Pisces, Taurus, Gemini, Cancer, Leo, and Virgo. The signs of the zodiac were an important feature of tapestries of this type, and are here effectively arranged.Between each medallion are figures of two women in classic gowns of varying colors. Each woman holds an hourglass, and since there are twenty-four of these figures they are presumably meant to represent the hours of the day. On the extreme outer border of the oval frame, reading from top to bottom on the right and from bottom to top on the left, are the figures from one to twelve, indicating the hours of daylight and darkness.In the upper spandrels beyond the large medallion frame are depicted the parents of Bacchus: Jupiter on the right and Semele on the left. Semele, it will be remembered, came to grief over her insistence upon seeing her lover in all the panoply of his sovereign power. When Jupiter became enamored of the lovely mortal he paid his addresses to her in the guise of an ordinary person. He did not deceive her as to his true station, for he doubtless wanted to impress her with his importance, but he told her that it would not be safe for him to come to her as Jupiter. She was content enough with this arrangement until the jealous Juno came to her disguised as her old nurse and asked her how she could possibly be so naïve as to think that her lover was the Olympian deity. “You have no proof,” the nurse said. “If I were you I would insist in seeing my lover as the personage he pretends to be.”Semele, whose doubts were stirred by this argument, decided that Jupiter, if it were he, would do her more honor if he visited her in his true guise instead of as an ordinary person. The next time he came to her she made him swear that he would grant any request she might make and he, being very much in love, consented. She then told him that she wanted him to visit her in his full splendor. Horrified at the implications of this request he tried to dissuade her. But she was adamant and he capitulated. On the occasion of his next meeting with Semele, therefore, he appeared as the god of thunder, and Semele, together with the house in which she lived, were consumed by lightning. Jupiter saved their child Bacchus, however, and when he was grown Bacchus rescued his mother from the lower world and took her to Olympus where she became immortal under the name Thyone. In the Institute’s new tapestry she is depicted at the moment of her destruction, vis à vis Jupiter who holds his mighty thunderbolt aloft.The lower spandrels of the tapestry are occupied on the left by a pair of lovers in Renaissance costume, and on the right by a peasant gathering grapes in a vineyard so densely grown it has the appearance of a jungle. Possibly this scene represents the first winemaker harvesting his crop, for the peasant has a savage and uncouth appearance.The borders of the tapestry are exceptionally fine, and reveal, in their heavy swags of fruit and flowers, their ribbon streamers, and the satyr masks in the lower corners, the rich invention of the Renaissance. The colors in this tapestry, woven of wool and silk, are beautifully preserved. The reds especially, and the deep mauve of the lover’s hose in the lower spandrel, are fresh and glowing, imparting an air of great liveliness to the design.Some critics, among them the late Joseph Breck, attribute the tapestries of this series definitely to Bernard Van Orley. The composition, which makes such admirable use of the oval, as well as the drawing in some passages, suggest his hand. Other critics, however, believe that the cartoons were designed not by Van Orley but by someone close to him who, like him, had been subjected to Italian influences in design. Whether or not the designs may be definitely assigned to Van Orley is not, perhaps, of paramount importance, and since there is no way of determining their authorship definitely the Institute prefers to leave the designer nameless. He was a gifted artist, whoever he may have been, and if not Van Orley was someone at least as good.The date of the tapestries is probably between 1525 and 1528, for they bear no weaver’s nor city mark. In 1528 the city of Brussels passed a law requiring all weavers in the town to add to the selvage of their tapestries a mark of the city consisting of two capital letters B flanking a shield. This mark is seen on the Institute’s Joseph tapestry, but the new September tapestry bears no such mark and must, therefore, have been made before 1528.With the exception of the Doria Palace pieces, the known tapestries of this set are identical in composition. January and February differ in shape from the others—they are wider then they are high—and the medallions enclosing the central scenes are circular rather than elliptical as in the remaining tapestries. Because of this slight discrepancy in general composition, and because of the fact that the design of the medallion band differs in detail from the others, it has been suggested that these two tapestries belong to another set. In view of the fact that the borders are the same, however, and the general scheme very close, it seems more likely that their departure from the detail of the other tapestries is due rather to the fact that they were probably woven first and by another hand than to any other reason.The tapestry of September, formerly in the possession of William Randolph Hearst through the bequest of his mother Phoebe A. Hearst, was, with July, August, and October, at one time in the Séchan Collection. Later this group became the property of another collector, and later still was sold at the Georges Petit Gallery.Sets of Months were among the subjects most favored by tapestry weavers from the early days of the art. Perhaps the earliest known example of a Months tapestry is the Norse piece depicting the months of April and May which dates from the late twelfth century. Reference to a complete set of twelve Months is made in the inventory of Charles V, dating from the end of the fourteenth century, and throughout the years that followed there is a constant mention of sets of the Months. One of the most famous is that known as the Months of Lucas, because it was once attributed to Lucas Van Leyden.Among existing series, however, it is doubtful if any surpasses in felicity of design or excellence of weaving that from which the museum’s tapestry comes. In acquiring it the Institute has added to its collection a further distinguished example of this ancient art. With the superb Gothic pieces in the Charles Jairus Martin Memorial Collection, and those acquired by the museum, it constitutes a suite in the history of tapestry weaving that would be difficult to better.Referenced Works of Art
  1. Vintage Scene. Detail of a tapestry symbolizing the month of September. Flemish (Brussels) XVI century. Dunwoody Fund
  2. Tapestry depicting the month of September. One of a set of the Twelve Months of the Year woven in Brussels about 1525
  3. Peasants Trampling out the Grapes. Detail of the September Tapestry recently acquired through the Dunwoody Fund
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Source: "Tapestry of Famous Months Series Acquired," <i>The Minneapolis Institute of Arts Bulletin</i> 28, no. 13 (April, 1939): 62-66.
Rights: ©MIA
Added to Site: March 10, 2009