Almost certainly commissioned and gifted by Christine de Lechy to the Cistercian Abbey of Herkenrode, Sint-Truiden, c. 1521
Emile and Isaac Pereire Collection, Hôtel Pereire, Parc Monceau, Paris, late 19th century
With Royal Manufacturers of Tapestry De Wit, Mechelen
Private collection, London
E. A. Standen, European Post-Medieval Tapestries and Related Hangings in the Metropolitan Museum of Art (The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, 1985), pp. 180-184
G. Delmarcel and E. Duverger, Brugge en de tapijtkunst, exhibition catalogue (Brugge-Moeskroen, Poortere, 1987), pp. 63-72, 84-86, 186
A. S. Cavallo, Medieval Tapestries in the Metropolitan Museum of Art (The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, 1993), pp. 594-599
G. Delmarcel, La Tapisserie Flamande (Imprimerie National, Paris, 1999), pp. 79, 180-187
The dark blue background with large climbing trails of foliage and flowers of this superb millefleurs tapestry provides a colourful setting for the central coat of arms suspended by ribbons and carried by two winged cherubs flanked by the initials ‘CL’. This is a reference to the widow Christine de Lechy, née Zelighs, who was born around 1440 originating from Sint-Truiden (Saint Trond) in the province of Limburg. Her late husband, Henri de Lechy, was an alderman of the city, a prosperous commercial hub during the Renaissance between Antwerp and Cologne. This central motif is encircled by a laurel wreath, the carpet of leaves and flowers adorned with a single red squirrel perched near the left hand inner border. The upper and lower borders are resplendent with curling tendrils ending in grotesque masks at each end, the two side borders with flower vases sitting on top of balusters with acanthus leaves in an ornamental Renaissance style.
Typical of the period from the second half of the 15th century to the first third of the 16th, millefleurs is a term associated with tapestries that have a dark blue background scattered with flowers, sometimes stylised and often represented in a repetitive pattern. The carpet of flowers acts as a setting for figures, animals or arms motifs and reflects a certain realism and love of nature.
In the second half of the 15th century this subject developed into a specific genre in tapestry making. The workshops of Tournai and Bruges, and also Enghien, specialised in this type of work which soon became a commercial success these objects finding buyers in the remotest corners of Europe. Millefleurs often featured in the tapestry collections of the inventories of property of deceased kings and wealthy nobles. Early 16th century artists also showed a penchant for the subject, often using millefleurs as backdrops for portrait paintings.
The present tapestry is a rare and exquisite example of the genre. It bears a strong resemblance to several characteristic tapestries woven in Bruges. A fragment of the millefleurs with the coat of arms of the Franc de Bruges, now in the Stedelijke Musea in Bruges (Inv. 0.1.XVII), for example, has analogous trails of flowers over a dark blue background and a similar laurel wreath. That work also features a lone squirrel which very much resembles the one seen here. It is not only the stylised rendering of the flora, the range of colours and the ornamentation of the laurel wreath which mirror the surviving Bruges specimens from about 1520 – 1530, but also the borders. The vases of flowers on the side borders of the present example, the curling foliage and the grotesque masks are set in Renaissance-style ornamentation that is strikingly similar to two extensively documented Bruges millefleurs with medallions which, at the time, were in the Blondell collection (see Delmarcel, La Tapisserie Flamande, op. cit., p. 185). Both of those works have cherubs, grotesque masks and decorative vases, the aesthetics of their design closely analogous to our tapestry.
This type of ornamentation cannot, however, be attributed exclusively to Bruges. Other weaving centres in Southern Netherlands, such as Enghien, followed meticulously the latest stylistic trends during this period and produced exceptional specimens such as the larger and later ‘Lewknor Armorial Table Carpet’, now in the Metropolitan Museum of Art (Acc. no. 59.33). Once again, we see a coat of arms, three in this example, girt with laurel wreaths, and, in the middle, two putti who carry the central motif by means of ribbons, the scenery consisting of stylised leaves and flowers against a dark blue background.
The heraldic symbols in our tapestry provide an attractive hypothesis as to the exact origin of the work, although it is difficult to be definitive. Numerous archival documents reveal Sint-Truiden to have been a highly productive weaving centre in the 16th century. Yet only two tapestries can be attributed to the town with any certainty, these being the altar cloth ‘The Virgin of the Apocalypse with Saint Catherine and Saint Barbara’ in the Cloisters Collection in the Metropolitan Museum of Art (Acc. no. 57.35) and a related antependium depiciting Saints Mary Magdalene, Agnes and Elizabeth of Hungary in the Burrell Collection in Glasgow (Inv. 46.125).
It is also very tempting to associate this tapestry with the weaving centre that is linked directly to the origins of Christine de Lechy. She was the mother of two famous women: Mechtildis and Aleydis de Lechy, both abbess of the prestigious Cistercian Abbey of Herkenrode, located in the vicinity of Sint-Truiden and which, during the 16th century, was the richest convent in Southern Netherlands until its dissolution during the French Revolution.
Abbess Mechtildis famously transformed the former Gothic abbey into a Renaissance edifice by way of important commissions from leading artists and workshops across the Netherlands. Seven of the stained glass windows she had manufactured for the church (c. 1532) now decorate Lichfield Cathedral. The impressive majolica floor from the church choir (c.1532) is now housed in the Musées d'Art et d'Histoire in Brussels. Her antiphonarium, a collection of richly decorated liturgical songs on parchment (c. 1544), is now in the library of the Cistercian abbey of Gethsemani in Kentucky. She also commissioned richly decorated ecclesiastic vestments, altar hangings, the Saint Florentin reliquary and many other important artworks. Her death in 1548 is consequently the terminus ante quem of our tapestry.
Abbess Mechtildis’ extensive patronage undoubtedly inspired her mother Christine de Lechy to further introduce the latest Renaissance taste in the region around Sint-Truiden. However, our tapestry is unlikely to have been produced by way of private commission from Christine de Lechy for her personal use. It was almost certainly part of her dowry, presented to the convent when her daughter entered the congregation or, more precisely, when she was appointed abbess in 1521. Such dowries reflected directly the social status and wealth of the family. It is likely that our tapestry decorated the chapel of the convent’s church. This explains the extremely fine quality of the weaving which surpasses the weaving quality of private domestic tapestries. It also explains its remarkably fresh condition as such pieces were only displayed on particular days of the ecclesiastic calendar remaining otherwise rolled and protected, and, most significantly, its horizontal shape and size corresponds with the dorsalia or choir tapestries of the period.
Highly prized for their rarity and decorative nature, millefleurs are to be found in the most prestigious private and institutional collections, including superb specimens with flower patterns similar to those of the present work, in the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the Rijksmuseum and the Musée de Cluny.
Of the highest museum quality and in an exceptional state of preservation, this masterpiece of the early 16th century Flemish weaving tradition has an impressive pedigree following its probable placement in the Abbey of Herkenrode, it having been later in the Pereire collection. The Pereire brothers, Emile and Isaac, were leading French industrialists in the late 19th century who financed major projects such as the Metro de Paris and filled their Parisian townhouse, the Hotel Pereire next to the Parc Monceau, with the most extraordinary work of art, including our tapestry.
We are grateful to Mr Jean-Jacques van Ormelingen, President, Association Royale Office Généalogique et Héraldique de Belgique, Member, Flemish Heraldic Council, for providing the heraldic study of the coat of arms and initials of the work.