Somehow, I missed the excitement around two huge Flemish tapestries depicting Alexander the Great!
Every year, Brussels is hosting a fair of Antique and Fine Art Dealers and recently the event was in the news because they contributed to the restoration of two tapestries made in the workshops of Pasquier Grenier around 1460 in Tournai (Belgium), and which are presently part of the Princes Doria Pamphilj Collection in the Palazzo del Principe in Genoa (Italy).
Alexander is being represented here as rendered in the so-called Alexander Romance, a personage I find rather remote from his true historical context – in as far as we are still able to find it after two thousand five hundred years, of course.
Wool and silk, gold and silver threads were used to weave these huge tapestries that were in an advanced state of disintegration. The old silk threads were pulverized; most of the brown wool was corroded by the iron components used in the original dyeing process; and many warp threads were broken or missing due to accidents or mishandling.
The Royal Manufacturers De Wit in Mechelen (Belgium) is one of the rare places capable of performing this kind of restoration job although seldom done on pieces of such poor condition. Each tapestry (about 10 meters long) required two years of work, cleaning them first, followed by an overall stabilization of the material and a consolidation of the weaker areas. Finally, a sturdy lining provided the much needed support to hold the tapestry together and camouflage the gaps.
According to the specialists, these tapestries are spectacular, not only because of their composition and design, but also because of their technical aspect and color palette, and should be ranked among the finest examples of 15th century tapestries to survive. The Story of Alexander knew at least seven tapestry versions, all created between 1460 and 1470, and these two examples most likely belonged to Admiral Andrea Doria, who commanded the fleet of Charles the Fifth at the battle of Tunis in 1535.
The first tapestry shows young Alexander surrounded by his mother Olympias and his father, Philip II; the taming of Bucephalus; and his first military victories; culminating with the crowning of Alexander by his dying father. The second tapestry, depicts six scenes of Alexander’s conquests of Asia, including idealistic (and in my eyes unrealistic) images where Alexander soars the skies in a cage drawn by griffons, and later travels under water in a glass bulb, to finally journey to the end of the world where wild men and dragons live.
They are lively illustrations of the Alexander Romance that was popular at the time, embellished thanks to the ideals of the Crusaders, for whom Alexander became an example of virtue and morality for knighthood of the late Middle Ages. Not exactly my cup of tea, as you can imagine, but it shows how much Alexander stimulated the imagination of mankind over the centuries. And he still does …