Museums

City Museum Oudenaarde - Tapestries Alexander the Great

In the city of Oudenaarde in Oost-Vlaanderen you can see one of Belgium’s most beautiful city halls. The design is by master-builder Hendrik van Pede. The style is Brabantic late Gothic; it was built between 1526 and 1537. On the highest tower, is a brave soldier nicknamed “Hanske The Warrior” who is watching over the city of Oudenaarde.

It is not only the exterior of the city hall that is a feast for the eye. Inside, the halls are filled with great collections of art-treasures. Actually this city hall can be regarded as a museum. Most of the art collection , except for the paintings, is related to two typical trades of Oudenaarde: the art of the silversmith and the art of tapestry.

 

Pictures by kind courtesy of the City Museum Oudenaarde and Technifoto.

Silver collection

Oudenaarde was an important centre for the art of precious metals between the 15th and the 18th century. The trade went from father to son, often for generations. There is a big collection of silver tableware, for example tea, coffee and chocolate pots, cutlery and little pieces like salt and pepper-cellars, mustard pots and oil and vinegar sets. The oldest known teapot dates from 1702. There are also many other objects made from silver; we can see candlesticks, tobacco-boxes and decorative pots. Besides these there is religious silverware like altar-vases, holy water pots, crucifixes and a famous monstrance (ostensorium) from 1762. There is also a prayerbook, with silver fittings and fastenings and a silver medallion. The silver collection is owned by Ernest De Boever and was loaned to the city hall; in this way everybody can admire these treasures of art.

 

Tapestries

Below City Hall, in the cloth-hall, a beautiful collection of very old tapestries can be admired. They are handled with the utmost care and respect. The making of tapestries was one of the most important trades of the city from the 16th to the 18th century. The tapestries made in Oudenaarde are known for their very high quality. Proof of this is that they can be found all over Europe. They can still be admired in many public places and are admitted to private-collections. The themes on these tapestries also follow the fashion of the time of their production. In the earliest tapestries we often see historical and biblical themes, mostly taken from the Old Testament. Another popular one was mythology. In later years it was mostly landscape pictures, often with large animals like horses, deer and leopards or sometimes fantasy animals like unicorns and dragons. Of course, hunting tableaux could not be omitted in the houses of the wealthy. Then came romantic representations and, of course, one of the specialities of Oudenaarde the "Verdures" or “Green work”. These are scenes with gardens and trees. Every leaf was weaved with great precision, with a scale of green colors. The average size of a carpet was 4 or 5 meters wide and about 2 or 3 meters deep. These large tapestries hung beautifully on the walls of rich homes.

 

History

The first weaver from Oudenaarde is mentioned in old documents from 1368. Documents before that time don't exist anymore. In 1441 the St. Barbara Guild was founded, the trade guild for carpet weavers. The oldest known carpets are dated about 1550.

Weaving was mostly carried out at home on a loaned or owned loom. The raw materials a weaver used were hemp and flax for the chain fibres and for the weft-threads they would use colored wool and silk and even gold on metal threads.


 

"De Weever"
("The Weaver" in Old Dutch)


"De Tapeitwerker"
("The Carpet-worker" in Old Dutch)

uit "100 Verbeeldingen van Ambachten" - 1694 - Johannes en Caspaares Luiken

 

By order of Emperor Charles in 1544, Oudenaardse weavers were obligated to mark their tapestries with a city-mark and a weavers-mark. These were woven into the border of the carpet. The Oudenaarde city mark was a coat of arms with spectacles, depending on the house that made it. These marks were in fact a quality-label for the trade of Oudenaarde. In time it helped experts to recognize the carpets; in spite of the fact that there were many carpets from Oudenaarde without the city-mark.


House de Lalaing

 

 

As would be expected all these valuable carpets are handled with extreme care. For that the city uses another historical building, House Lalaing. This is an aristocratic house once belonging to Philips de Lalain, city-governor, who lived there in the 16th century. It is here that the carpets are restored. They are first washed very thoroughly. This takes place in a very big bed where the carpet can lie entirely flat. Employees bind synthetic sponges under their feet and walk very carefully over every part of the carpet. Then it is dried with the use of white soft towels and absorbant blotting paper. This is followed by the restoration of any thinned or worn-out areas and here also the employees use special procedures so the original carpet stays intact. The carpets are wrapped around big cylinders with an opening in between so the employee can work on the specific areas. These employees are specially trained so that they are able to find and repair down to the smallest of worn-out areas. The whole process of preservation and restoration can last one or two years, depending on the condition of the carpet. After that the carpet is again well preserved for decades.

The collection of carpets on display is rotated regularly. They are hung up for 6 months and then rolled up and stored for 6 months. The full collection of Oudenaarde carpets consists of 24 tapestries and 14 of most of these are displayed in the Cloth-Hall.

The collection of carpets on display is rotated regularly. They are hung up for 6 months and then rolled up and stored for 6 months. The full collection of Oudenaarde carpets consists of 24 tapestries and 14 of most of these are displayed in the Cloth-Hall.

 

MANUFACTURE

“A room”
Because only rich families could allow themselves to have such exclusive tapestries, they were mostly ordered in series. One series was called "a room". The intention was that all the walls of one room were dressed with carpets according to a specific theme. A room could have up to a series of six carpets. The carpets were adapted to the size of the places where they were to hang.

Patterns
The patterns were very complicated and very rich in detail. An artist made the design and put it on pieces of cardboard, around 40 x 40 cm. The image was put between the threads and the weaver had to follow the image exactly. But, the weaver always worked with the back of the carpet towards him. So the image was made in reflection. The weaver could examine his work by looking in a mirror that was placed opposite the carpet. Because the cardboards were used more than once, we can find similar carpet backs with the same image.

Border
From the 1500’s every carpet was made with a border. This border was identical for every carpet belonging to the same "room". Every weaver used his own kind of border. Most of the time these borders were immediately woven on the representation. Sometimes the border was made separately and put on later .

 

Alexander the Great

The pride of Oudenaarde is a series of tapestries having to do with the famous Macedonian sovereign Alexander the Great. These carpets, unknown until 1995, were purchased by the city in 1998. The series consists of three very high quality carpets made late in the 16th century. The history of Alexander was a beloved theme in the art of making carpets. This was because at the time people looked up to the deeds of world leaders. The owner of such a carpet could proudly show his visitors how these passages were captured in his beautiful wall-decorations.

It is believed that this series belonged to Alexander Farnese, de Duke of Parma (1545 – 1592).

 

 

Alexander Farnese
1545 - 1593

Governor of the Spanish Netherlands
(1578-1592)

 

This Spanish Governor was the son of Margaret of Parma, who was born in Oudenaarde. He probably received the carpets as a gift in 1582 at his official inauguration in the city of Oudenaarde. It is not known how many carpets were made, but the whole "room" would have cost 2,000 florins, without a doubt a fortune in those days. An old document mentions patterns for a room of 8 pieces, depicting the history of Alexander.


The collection now owned by the city consists of three carpets:

- Alexander before the high priest Iaddo
- Alexander being presented with a crown
- The army camp at the river Granikos (Alexander was fighting here against the Persian King Darius – ca. 332 B.C.)

 

 


  • "Alexander before the high priest Iaddo"
    Oudenaarde Tapestry - from the 'Alexander the Great' series - 16th century
    - Oudenaarde City Museum - (© Technifoto)
    (With the kind permission from the city of Oudenaarde and Technifoto)

 

A fourth carpet from this series: “Alexander receiving the kings of Cyprus and Fenicia”. Previously found in Barcelona.

The carpets were probably made between 1580 and 1590. It is not known who designed them, but they are most certainly masterpieces, in which all the little details, in the foreground and the background are drawn carefully and then woven with extreme precision. The four boards also contain many decorative details, painstakingly made. Of all the carpets discovered to this day, it seems that this very popular series was reproduced the most. This series of patterns were used for many generations. From the carpet "Alexander before the high priest Iaddo" 4 versions have already been discovered. The oldest one, the one in the museum of Oudenaarde, has the best quality. The other three are in Italy, Hungary and one in a private-collection.

On this carpet the most important people are standing in front, namely Alexander and Iaddo the high priest of Israel. In the background you can see a part of the sovereign’s army and in the distance a landscape with houses, trees and people. Every detail is shown to perfection. The boards are also a chain of lovely representations. On every side of the great board we can see a little board with square motives, typical for the carpet-art of Oudenaarde. On the carpet we see a representation of Alexander the Great (356 – 323 B.C.), while he was having a journey of victory against the Persians. Jerusalem opened its doors for him and according to Jewish historian Josephus Flavius they showed Alexander the Bible book of Daniel. Probably chapter eight, were it speaks about a powerful Greek king, who would defeat the Persian Empire and conquer it (Daniel 8 verses 5-7 and verses 20-21). Alexander then allowed Jerusalem to remain intact and continued his victory march towards Egypt.

But, who was the high priest? According to the book “Chronologie van de bijbelse geschiedenis” ('Chronology of Biblical History') Jaddua was the high priest in those days. He was the last of the high priests mentioned in the Old Testament as having descended from Aaron. He was the fifth generation after Jeshua, and therefore can have lived during the same time as Alexander (Nehemiah 12 verse 22).

 

THE DIVINE NAME

A remarkable detail on the headgear of the high priest is that we see written on it IEOVA, the name of God. This is in agreement with what the Bible says in Exodus 28 verses 36 and 37. There it is written that the high priest had to place a golden nameplate on his headgear with the text: “Holiness belongs to Jehovah”.

 

 

 

 

 


 

More information can be found in:
- “Meer dan groen – Oudenaardse wandtapijten van de 16e tot de 18e eeuw” door Ingrid De Meuter, uitgegeven door Openbaar kunstbezit in Vlaanderen.
- “Oudenaardse wandtapijten van de 16e tot de 18e eeuw” – uitg. Lannoo, Tielt in 1999

 

 

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