Jan Raes’ Tapestry on a Drawing of Paul Rubens’
Brussels, early seventeenth century
Alexander the Great entering Biblos
Wool and silk
Size: 445 x 330 cm
The refined tapestry we’re analysing is made of thick wool wefts and thin silk warps drawn together and then painted with vegetal and animal colours.
Brussels’ weavers used such a technique since the early sixteenth century to give their artworks the astonishing pictorial effects we can appreciate today. We can prove the tapestry we’re analysing is from Brussels by focusing on “B.B.” refined sign at its left upper part, just under its selvage (“B.B. stands for Brussels-Brabant). It’s a sort of device Belgian weavers drew upon since 1528 to the latest seventeenth century to prove the authenticity of their artworks.
The tapestry shows Alexander the Great entering Biblos – Jubayl, today – and being greeted by its leader as he set it free from the Persians, whose authority had never been accepted by the citizens. Such an event occurred after Sardis had belonged to Corinth League. Some time later, Alexander would occupy Tyre as well.
However, after the capitulation of Sardis, some nearby cities – as Biblos for instance – gave in to Alexander spontaneously. He was then able to rule over them and he was even allowed to take possession of their ships by the local leaders themselves.
By focusing on the banner in the foreground we can appreciate S.P.Q.M. acronym. It’s borrowed by Senatus Popolusque Romanus initialism, but Romanus is replaced with Macedo, which the letter M stands for.
S.P.Q.M. acronym is then aimed at comparing the Macedonian values to the Roman ones. Therefore, the artist is said to honour Alexander’s deeds in comparison to the most important Roman leaders.
Like Alexander the Great meeting Mithrenes tapestry – today at Gallori Turchi’s, Florence – the artwork we’re analysing belongs to a wider series. Alexander as the leading character and the twisting pillars as the main side decorative items can help us to ascribe it to Jan Raes.
By focusing on the last ones, we can realize Paul Rubens drew – in 1626 approximately – some similar columns for the drawings the tapestries showing the Eucharistic mystery are based on. Jan Raes weaved them in 1628 on behalf of Archduchess Isabella – “Infanta” of Spain and Governor of the Netherlands – who carried them to Las Descalzas Reales convent in Madrid.
Jan Raes II (1570-1643), better known as “the young”, was from an important family of weavers working in Brussels between the sixteenth and the seventeenth centuries. He was such a renowned Flemish weaver as well.
Paul Rubens was one of the most important Brussels artists in the seventeenth century. He started working with Jan Raes in 1611, when the weaver was asked to realise some tapestries – based on some drawings of Rubens’ – by Francesco Cattaneo.
The Italian official was such an expert on ancient history, on Roman consul Decio Mure especially. Since Raes and Rubens were interested in ancient battles too, we may date back the tapestry we’re analysing to their earliest partnership.
Let’s focus now on the foreground characters, all the frame items, the selection of the paints, the shading effects and the chiaroscuro contrasts. Because of them, we can assume the tapestry is based on some sketches of Rubens’. When he was asked to realize them, he usually preferred drawing or oil painting to tempera and gouache techniques.
We can then state, although there are no reliable evidences, Jan Raes realised the tapestry we’ve just analysed during the twenties of the seventeenth century.
Paul Rubens is then very likely to have realised the sketches it’s based on. Although they’ve been so far unknown, the customers were highly supposed to come from a rich noble family.