Once Upon A Tapestry

Aeneas Leaving Dido, c. 1630–35 Giovanni Francesco Romanelli

Currently showing at The Norton Simon Museum is Once Upon a Tapestry: Woven Tales of Helen and Dido, an exhibition exploring two iconic love stories found in the classical epic poems the Iliad and the Aeneid. Helen and her contested romance with Prince Paris of Troy, as described in Homer’s Iliad, is represented in four sumptuous Flemish tapestries from around 1500; and Queen Dido of Carthage and her passionate affair with Virgil’s hero Aeneas is represented in a rare set of six cartoons (full-size preparatory drawings), and one related tapestry from the early 17th century. Seen together, these monumental works of art demonstrate the appeal of these female-centric narratives in early modern Europe, the power of tapestry to tell such stories, and the inventiveness and skill employed to produce these splendid objects.

Death of Dido, c. 1658–mid–1670s Antwerp, Workshop of Michel Wauters

Homer’s epic poem of the Trojan War, the Iliad, from the 8th century BCE, is the source for the story of Helen of Troy. Medieval poets updated the ancient tale and freely added commentary connecting the European nobles to their Trojan counterparts. In the visual arts, the primary focus of Le Roman de Troie (The Romance of Troy) was the conflict, and battle scenes were well suited to the large-scale, multipaneled character of tapestry. It is notable then that Helen, an icon of beauty whose abduction provoked the Trojan War, figures so prominently in four of the weavings exhibited. Rich with detail, these fabulous silk and wool tableaux introduce us to contemporary court attire and to medieval stagecraft where the jewel-encrusted architectural framework calls attention to the principal subjects.

Arrival of Paris and Helen at the Court of Priam, King of Troy c. 1500–25 Brussels, Workshop Unknown

Whereas the beautiful Helen functions mainly as a catalyst for conflict, the story of Dido, derived from Book IV of Virgil’s epic poem the Aeneid, 29–19 BCE, is considerably more personal and nuanced. The star-crossed lovers—Queen Dido of Carthage and the Trojan prince Aeneas—are both ambitious, accomplished leaders. With great imagination and verve, the Italian Baroque artist Giovanni Francesco Romanelli (1610–1662) conceived of Dido as the central protagonist of each dramatic scene in a cycle that once numbered eight full-scale tapestry cartoons. From the banquet Dido hosts to welcome her guests from Troy—when her love for the warrior is kindled—to the prince’s abandonment of Dido as he leaves Carthage at the gods’ behest, the cycle revolves around her destiny. 

Until 27 May 2019, The Norton Simon Museum, 411 West Colorado Boulevard
Pasadena, California 91105, USA

All images courtesy of The Norton Simon Foundation.

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