Alexander the Great assaulting Tyre
Bruxelless, early 17th century
Material: Wool and silk
Size: 520 x 275 cm
review by DOTT. NELLO FORTI GRAZzINI
It’s a vivid and astonishing late Renaissance Flemish arras whose brighting polychromy is improved by green, blue, red, yellow, orange and dark brown colours. An old crowned king in the foreground, on the left, is the main character of the scene. He wears an armour and a blue mantle with some golden decorative elements. He’s holding the scepter in his left hand while his right hand is reaching the rampant lion shield and the helmet a black young servant of his is giving him. Some spear armed soldiers are close to him. One of them is holding the bit of his horse.
The rest of the scene shows a town being assaulted by the king’s huge army coming from land and sea both. With its towers, belfries and domes, the town overlooks a wide gulf in the background. A lot of loaded ships are cutting through the bright sea, while several knights and soldiers are moving along the shoreline from right to left in order to get closer to the town. They assembled a huge multitude some soldiers from a camp on the left are flowing into. Teeming with a huge amount of pictorial items – such as characters, weapons and horses – the scene is enhanced by the military equipments in the foreground and by the huge number of yellowish-green floral elements all around them. Some rows of round crowned trees and some rocky hills are in the background as well.
The artwork we’re analysing is likely to belong to a series dedicated to Alexander the Great’s deeds. The Macedonian king’s virtues and military skills were narrated by several ancient and Medieval sources. A lot of fifteenth century Northern Europe tapestries are based on them, as they were often required by customers to honour the prestige of their own families or the memory of a dead person they knew.
The scene of the tapestry we’re analysing shows Tyre, the most important Phoenician town, being assaulted. According to Plutarch’s Vite Parallele, Vita di Alessandro Magno (pp. 24-25) it was besieged for seven months by land and sea both. The final assault, effective although unplanned, was ordered by Alexander after his favourite seer, Aristandros, had predicted its failure. As the scene shows, Alexander seems to be unprepared for it as he’s completely unarmed. In addition to the soldiers and the servants, a bearded bareheaded old man – who is thought to be pointing his warning finger to Tyre – stands close to him: he’s supposed to be Aristandros himself.
All around the main scene several tiny floral elements are alternated with biblical and allegorical elements inside some architectural frames topped with small arches, arbours and refined columns. At the centre of each side some other scenes are depicted within round frames. The “Sacrifice of Isaac” is both at the top and at the bottom, the “Birth of Samson” on the left and “Tobia with the Angel” on the right.
Both at the top and bottom sides four female characters are portrayed: Faith with a tiny cross, Charity holding a torch, Temperance with two cups in her hands and Flora holding some flowers. At the vertical sides we can appreciate: Judith holding a sword and Holofernes’ head at the upper right as well as Bia, the goddess of power and strength, with a column under her arm at the upper left. Then, there are Susan at the lower left and Bathsheba at the lower right.
All the other human and animal characters are supposed to be realized to fill the remaining spaces up mainly. However, all the side elements are not connected with the central scene. Like the side characters and items of several seventh century Flemish tapestries, they are thought to adorn the artwork only. The main scene recalls that period as well, because of its classical main and secondary elements mainly. However, like the greater part of late Renaissance Flemish tapestries, it’s lacking in gravitas and solemnity, unlike the sixteenth century Italian-like artworks, as well as the Baroque and Rubens-like ones.
Then, the artwork we’re analysing isn’t signed and, as there are such few informations about, I discovered it in 1995 only. That’s why, in order to date it back more accurately and to recompose the whole arras set it belonged to, we have to compare it to some similar works, as the one showing Alexander the Great’s triumph.
It’s a 285 x 385 cm unsigned arras whose representational style and side decorative items are very similar to Alexander the Great assaulting Tyre’s. It belonged to Vigo Sternberg’s galleries, London, although it was thought to show Scipio’s – not Alexander’s – issues. It was sold by Sotheby’s on 29 February 1996 as a late sixteenth century Flemish (probably Antwerp) tapestry.
It shows Alexander riding and holding his sceptre in front of some soldiers gifting him the spoils of Susa, the Persian town they had just assaulted. In the background we can appreciate it being looted.
Although depicted by a different angle, Tyre being assaulted scene is shown by two other tapestries. Even if they don’t belong to the same set, they may help us to get more informations about the work we’re analysing.
The first of them belongs to Swedish Crown arras set. Balthasar Gyllenhoff sold Charles XI, king of Sweden, it with seven other works realized in Brussels in 1685 approximately (see J. Böttiger, Svenska Statens Samling af vävda tapeter, Stockholm 1898, III, p. 19, tab. III, known as “War Scenes”). It’s bigger than the tapestry we’re analysing (345 x 585 cm) and it’s quite different as for its frame ornamental items.
There are four female characters at the corners, a river divinity at the centre of the upper side and some tiny satyrs along the horizontal sides. It was realized by Jacob I Geubels in the late seventeenth century (1590 approximately). His signature and Brussels sign are shown up.
Five tapestries belonging to the Swedish set are today kept at Skokloster Castle. Böttinger published them, although there are no connections with Charles XI’s set (see. J. Böttiger, Tapisseries a figures des XVIe et XVIIe sieclès appartenant aux collections privées de la Suède. Inventaire déscriptif, Stockholm, 1928, pp. 27-33, n. 20-24, tab. 20-23; see also Tapeter pa Skokloster, Stockholm, 1986, pp. 20-21, tab. 10).
In addition to Jacob I Geubels’ signature and Brussels sign, we can also appreciate Catharina Van Den Eynde’s. She was Geubels’ widow and she managed his workshop after he died in 1605. Then, we can date them back to this year approximately.
The first shows Cyrus freeing Jews (Böttiger 1928, tab. 21) as Michiel Coxcie’s drawings do (Madrid, Patrimonio Nacional). Like Alexander the Great’s deed tapestries, it recalls some Persian locations. The second depicts Alexander standing in front of Bucephalus (Böttiger 1928, tab. 23). The third shows Alexander’s triumph, despite a different angle if compared with Vigo-Sternberg’s (Böttiger 1928, tab. 22, see also “Cyrus being gifted by the Lydians” tapestry). A female character is depicted in the war scene of the fourth work: it’s likely to refer to a battle between Alexander and Darius’ armies (Böttiger 1928, tab. 20, known as “Elena’s kidnapping”). The fifth artwork shows a kneeled old man giving a king a crown and two keys. It’s supposed to be “Persian Crown being given to Alexander the Great” tapestry, though a similar one at Regensburg Museum shows the same scene.
The second Tyre being assaulted scene tapestry belongs to a six element set realized by Cornelius Mattens (1580-1640) in Brussels. We can appreciate both his signature and the sign of the Belgian capital on it. The whole set belonged to Sagredo’s first and to Donà Dalle Rose’s Venetian collection then.
Today it is at Monselice castle (see G. Lorenzetti, L. Planiscig, La collezione dei Conti Donà dalle Rose a Venezia, Venezia, 1934, pp. 70-71, n. 345-350, fig. 107-108; N. Barbantini, Il castello di Monselice, Venezia, 1940, pp. 158-161). Although the main differences, its side ornamental elements are quite similar to those of Tyre being assaulted tapestry, such as Susan and Bathsheba scenes or its mythological and animal items.
Donà Dalle Rose (Lorenzetti-Planiscig 1934, n. 347, fig. 108, size: cm 360 x 590) and Charles XI’s “Tyre being assaulted” are exactly alike, although the first was realized by a symmetrical angle. As for the remaining artworks of the set, we can appreciate “Alexander The Great’s triumph” (Lorenzetti-Planiscig, n. 346), a war scene (Lorenzetti-Planiscig, n. 348), “Alexander being gifted with the Persian Crown” (Lorenzetti-Planiscig, n. 348) and an only partially known scene showing Alexander. Then, we can notice something we haven’t analysed so far: “Alexander meeting Thalestris”, the Amazon queen (Lorenzetti-Planiscig, n. 345, fig. 107). A reproduction of this was weaved, although with a different frame, in Brussels and it was auctioned at Drouot-Richelieu’s. We can then suppose another Alexander the Great’s set of tapestries was realized.
We can’t therefore ignore Darius’ family standing in front of Alexander the Great tapestry, from Saint James Episcopal church in New York and auctioned at Sotheby’s on 31 May 1995. It’s coeval with “Alexander the Great assaulting Tyre” – what we’re analysing – despite its static figurative style and its different iconographic patterns. Therefore, we aren’t sure of its authenticity as we can appreciate the same scene on a Bruges’ tapestry known as “Scipio’s deeds” (see G. Delmarcel, E. Duverger, Bruges et la tapisserie, exhibition catalogue, Bruges-Mouscron 1987, pp. 238-239, n.15).
Then, we can assume Alexander the Great assaulting Tyre artwork belongs to a more than once weaved topic such as “Alexander the Great’s deeds”. The two works we compared it with were realized in 1605 approximately but, unlike the one we’re analysing, according to the Renaissance style mainly. Their austere solemnity recalls the gravitas of Michiel Coxcie’s drawings which, though they were realized in the early seventeenth century, are based on some previous works (1565 approximately).
Some Brussels weavers – such as Jacob I Geubels, Catharina Van Den Eynde and Cornelius Mattens – would take inspiration from them to realize their artworks forty years later. Alexander the Great assaulting Tyre and Alexander’s Triumph tapestries are instead based on some drawings showing the same, though smaller and depicted by an opposite angle, characters and ornamental items.
Then, because of its vivid polychromy and its side elements some other seventh century Brussels tapestries show as well, the artwork we’re analysing is supposed to be realized just there in 1610 approximately. Focusing on Susan and Bathsheba scenes, we can appreciate their side items on some works realised by Cornelius Mattens, such as “Alexander the Great’s deeds” in Monselice, “Scipio’s deeds” at Regensburg and “Garden with some mythological characters” in Elsinore. We can notice them by analysing other artists’ works, such as “Troy’s issues” by Martin Reymbouts, “Ancient times wonders” by Jacob I Geubels as well as those realised by some unknown weavers (“Pomona’s issues” at Palazzo Bianco museum, Genoa; see also P. Boccardo, Il giardino di Flora, natura e simbolo nell’immagine dei fiori, exhibition catalogue, Genoa 1986, pp. 26-30, n. 6).
Therefore, we can appreciate such side items on some coeval artworks from a town, close to Brussels, which was well known for its thriving weaving workshops: Oudenaarde. Two tapestries can prove that: “Roman issues” at Germanisches Nationalmuseum in Norimberga (cfr. H. Göbel, Wandteppiche. Die Niederlande, Leipzig 1923, II, tab. 443) and “Scipio and Hannibal’s issues” at Petit Palais Museum in Paris (see I. De Meuter, M. Vanwelden, Tapisseries d’Audenarde du XVI au XVIIIe siècle, Tielt, 1999, pp. 183-184). Focusing on the last one we can appreciate, in addition to Susan and Bathsheba characters, some cupids close to turtle and sphinx-like items. At the upper left corner Bia, the goddess of power and strength, is highly similar to that of Alexander the Great assaulting Tyre tapestry. “Scipio and Hannibal’s issues” recalls it because of its foreground and background environmental items, in spite of their paler colours.
In conclusion, on the one side we can surely date back “Alexander the Great assaulting Tyre” tapestry to the early seventeenth century Flemish weaving production (1600-1615). On the other, however, we can’t trace it back to the city where it was realised. At that time, for instance, Oudenaarde’s weavers used to reproduce many of the side ornamental items realized by Brussels workshops to improve the value of their works and to compete with them.