Valois Tapestries

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Marguerite de Valois and her brother François, Duke of Anjou (right) are depicted in the Valois Tapestries

The Valois Tapestries are a series of eight tapestries depicting festivities or "magnificences"[1] at the Court of France in the second half of the 16th century. The tapestries were worked in the Spanish Netherlands, probably in Brussels or Antwerp,[2] shortly after 1580.


The collection of eight tapestries has no formal title, but is usually called the "Valois tapestries" and sometimes the "Fêtes des Valois".[3] The tapestries, none of which has an official name, include:

  • Combat à la barrière, also known as Barriers—Measuring 386 by 328 centimetres (152 by 129 in),[8] this tapestry may depict lance games that occurred frequently at the Palace of Fontainebleau in 1564 but it is equally likely that it could depict some other event.[9] Duke Francis is depicted in the foreground.[10]
  • Carrousel des chevaliers bretons et irlandais à Bayonne, also known as Tournament—Measuring 391 by 611 centimetres (154 by 241 in),[3] this work depicts a ballet de cour ("court ballet"), an elaborate, choreographed performance. In this case, it depicts a court ballet held on June 25, 1565, as part of the Bayonne celebrations, in which knights representing the forces of Love and Virtue do battle. In the background, the cardinal virtues of Courage, Justice, Prudence, and Temperance ride in one chariot, while Cupid and Venus ride in another chariot surrounded by a host of putti. Depicted in the tapestry are Catherine de' Medici (in mourning),[3] Margaret of Valois, King Henry IV, and Louise of Lorraine.[7]
  • Départ de la Cour du château d'Anet, also known as Journey—Measuring 390 by 534 centimetres (154 by 210 in),[11] this tapestry depicts the royal court departing the Château d'Anet. The date is unknown, although it may represent the departure of King Henry III for Poland in 1973. Many of the figures depicted are not identified, or so uniquely depicted that identification is very difficult. It is likely that Catherine de' Medici is depicted riding in the litter, while King Charles IX rides a horse at the head of the retinue.[12]
  • Fête aux Tuileries en l'honneur des ambassadeurs polonais, also known as Polish Ambassadors—Measuring 388 by 480 centimetres (153 by 189 in),[13] the work depicts a lavish party given at the Tuileries Palace in Paris in 1573 when a group of high-ranking Polish ambassadors came to elect Henry III to the throne of the Kingdom of Poland.[14] Few of the figures in the tapestry are clearly identified, but a majority of scholars beliee Henry I, Duke of Guise, and Anne de Joyeuse are depicted in the foreground.[10]
  • Fête nautique sur l'Adour, also known as Whale—Measuring 355 by 394 centimetres (140 by 155 in),[15] this work depicts a banquet given by Catherine de' Medici on June 24, 1565, on an island on the Adour river near Bayonne. As the attendees traveled in boats to the island, music was played and an artificial whale "attacked" the boats. The god Neptune accompanies King Henry III, while tritons and sirens surround and praise Henry for defeating the whale. On the riverbanks, shepherds (a metaphor for the provinces of France) dance to the music of French horns. Catherine de' Medici, King Henry II, King Henry III, King Henry IV, Margaret of Valois, and Charles III, Duke of Lorraine are all prominently depicted.[16]
  • Jeu de la quintaine, also known as Quintain—Measuring 387 by 400 centimetres (152 by 157 in),[14] this tapestry depicts a game of quintain played at Bayonne on June 19, 1565. The central figure in the work is Henry III.[7]
  • Mascarade à l'éléphant, also known as Elephant—Measuring 387 by 640 centimetres (152 by 252 in), this tapestry depicts a partially animated artificial elephant being attacked by members of the royal family and court. The ballet de cour depicted is of uncertain date and location.[14] Prominantly depicted are King Henry III, Margaret of Valois, and Duke Francis.[10]

Scholars have not firmly established who commissioned the tapestries or for whom they were intended. It is likely that they were once owned by Catherine de' Medici, but they are not included in the inventory of possessions drawn up after her death. She had probably presented them to her granddaughter Christina of Lorraine, for her marriage to Ferdinando I de' Medici, Grand Duke of Tuscany, in 1589. The tapestries are now stored at the Uffizi Gallery in Florence, Tuscany, but are not on public display.[17]

Composition and context[edit]

Water Festival at Bayonne. Antoine Caron's designs lack the foreground figures of the finished tapestries.

The tapestries are based on six (possibly eight) designs drawn by the artist Antoine Caron during the reign of King Charles IX of France (1560–1574). These were modified by a second artist, who reveals a strong personality of his own, to include groups of full-length figures in the foreground. Historian Frances Yates believed that this second artist was the influential Lucas de Heere.

The Protestant de Heere, who died in 1584, had previously designed tapestries for Catherine de' Medici in France.[18] In his last years, he was working in Flanders for William the Silent, the founder of the House of Orange-Nassau and the ally of Catherine de' Medici's youngest son François, Duke of Anjou. In 1582, de Heere designed the decorations for Anjou's Joyous Entry into Ghent, de Heere's home town.[19] Between 1582, when Anjou was installed as the duke of Brabant, and his death in 1584, when he still held the town of Cambrai, the French prince opposed the forces of Alexander Farnese, Duke of Parma, governor of the Spanish Netherlands. He met with little success, however, owing to a desperate shortage of funds to pay his troops.[20] Art historian Roy Strong has questioned Yates's finding that the tapestries were produced in Antwerp under Lucas de Heere, suggesting that they contain Brussels markings.[21]

This tapestry depicts festivities at the meeting of the Valois and Habsburg courts at Bayonne in 1565; the harpooned whale spouted red wine.

Yates believes that de Heere's contribution to the tapestries represented a plea to Catherine de' Medici to send Anjou the funds he needed to confront Parma effectively.[22] Historian R. J. Knecht questions this reading and calls the tapestries "an enigma". The reason Henry III and Catherine did not throw the full weight of France behind Anjou's campaign in the Netherlands was that they feared provoking a war with Spain. Knecht asserts that a gift of tapestries, however magnificent, would hardly have changed their minds.[23] More recently, historians Lisa Jardine and Jerry Brotton assess the imagery of the tapestries and "turn Yates's argument on its head", concluding that "the tapestries actually are deeply antithetical to the Protestant, and specifically Huguenot, cause."[24] They argue that the Huguenots are depicted in the tapestries not, as Yates believed, to demonstrate the tolerance of the Valois and offer a vision of different faiths and peoples at peace, but to illustrate the certain defeat of the Protestants at the hands of the Valois.[21] They interpret the inclusion of Turks alongside the Huguenots to indicate that both were regarded as "infidels", an association previously made in the Tunis tapestries for the Habsburg Philip II's marriage to Mary I of England.[25]

Jardine and Brotton also suggest that the Valois tapestries have a clear antecedent in the triumphalist History of Scipio tapestries designed for Francis I by Giulio Romano. Yates believed that the depiction of an elephant in one of the tapestries was based on engravings of Anjou's staged entry into Antwerp. Jardine and Brotton suggest instead that Antoine Caron based his designs for the Elephant tapestry on his own painting Night Festival with an Elephant, which in turn draws on The Battle of Zama from the Scipio tapestries. They also maintain that the political message of those tapestries remained part of the Valois ethos, since the Triumph of Scipio was displayed during the summit meeting between the French and Spanish courts at Bayonne.[26] Knecht urges caution, however. The obvious intent of the tapestries is to glorify the house of Valois; beyond that, he believes, all is speculation.[23]

The fêtes[edit]

Valois tapestry depicting the ball held in 1573 at the Tuileries in honour of Polish envoys. Catherine de' Medici is seated in the centre, wearing her habitual widow's black.

The artists seem to have consulted written accounts of Catherine de' Medici's court festivals.[27] Some of the entertainments recorded in the tapestries can be identified with known events, such as the festivals mounted at Fontainebleau and at Bayonne during Charles IX's royal progress of 1564–65; and the ball held for the Polish ambassadors at the Tuileries in 1573. Particularly lavish were the tournaments and fêtes held in 1565 in Bayonne, near the Spanish border of France, where Catherine met with her daughter Elisabeth, Queen of Spain, amidst rituals of display from both courts. The latest event identifiable in the tapestries was held in 1573 at the Tuileries, where Catherine laid on a ball for ambassadors from the Polish governing council, who had elected her son Henry as king of Poland.[28] The costumes worn by the courtiers in the tapestries have been dated to not later than c. 1580.[1]

For Catherine de' Medici, who masterminded these occasions and may have ordered the tapestries that commemorated them, such entertainments were worth their colossal expense, since they served a political purpose. Presiding over the royal government at a time when the French monarchy was in steep decline, she set out to show not only the French people but foreign courts that the Valois monarchy was as prestigious and magnificent as it had been during the reigns of Francis I and her husband Henry II.

This tapestry depicts entertainments at Fontainebleau in 1564, including the mock rescue of damsels held captive on an enchanted island.

At the same time, she believed these elaborate entertainments and sumptuous court rituals, which incorporated martial sports and tournaments of many kinds, would occupy her feuding nobles and distract them from fighting against each other to the detriment of the country and the royal authority.[29] Catherine also exercised her own creative gifts in the devising of the court festivals. Biographer Leonie Frieda suggests that she, "more than anyone, inaugurated the fantastic entertainments for which later French monarchs also became renowned".[30]

People in the tapestries[edit]

Most of the full-length figures in the foreground of the tapestries are recognisable as members of the French royal family and court. François, duke of Anjou, is featured prominently in some of the tapestries; and Catherine de' Medici, dressed in her widow's black, occupies the central position in all of the tapestries except one.[31] Catherine's daughter Marguerite de Valois can also be seen.

One absentee from the tapestries is King Charles IX of France, who was on the throne at the time of the events depicted, but who had died (1574) by the time the hangings were woven. Yates speculates that the Protestant creators of the tapestries deliberately cut him out because of his involvement in the St. Bartholomew's Day massacre of 1572, in which thousands of French Protestants, or Huguenots, were slaughtered on his orders.[32] Antoine Caron's original drawings for the tapestries, of which six survive, show Charles taking part in the festivities. It is the later artist who removes Charles from the designs and adds the figures in the foreground who relate to the court of Charles's successor Henry III.[33]

Conservation and display[edit]

Records regarding the display of the Valois tapestries after their arrival in Florence are rare, but it is likely that the eight works were rarely displayed and never together.[34]

All eight of the Valois tapestries underwent extensive conservation by the Uffizi Gallery.[34] Fundraising for the effort began in 1998,[35] while the conservation and restoration work took three years.[36] The tapestries were cleaned of dust and grime, and portions of the works which were weakened by age or damaged due to pests repaired. Paint applied to the works in the 1700s and 1800s to highlight details was also removed.[35]

In November 2018, six of the eight tapestries—Elephant, Fontainebleau, Journey, Polish Ambassadors, Tournament, and Whale—were displayed for the first time in North America at the Cleveland Museum of Art.[34][35] It was also the first exhibition of the tapestries since their conservation.[35] The works were hung in gallery with walls of various shapes and heights, similar to how they would have been hung originally.[34] Drawings used to inspire the works and preparatory documents used by the weavers were displayed alongside the tapestries.[36] Full-length portraits of Catherine de' Medici, Henry III, and Christina of Lorraine as well as a number of decorative art objects owned by the Medici family were included in the exhibit as well.[34][35]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ a b Strong, Roy, Splendor at Court, pp. 121–167.
  2. ^ Jardine and Brotten, p. 130.
  3. ^ a b c Bertrand & 2006-2007, p. 30.
  4. ^ Bertrand & 2006-2007, p. 35.
  5. ^ Bertrand & 2006-2007, pp. 32-33.
  6. ^ Sutherland 1966, p. 15.
  7. ^ a b c Bertrand & 2006-2007, p. 38.
  8. ^ Bertrand & 2006-2007, p. 40.
  9. ^ Bertrand & 2006-2007, pp. 33, 39.
  10. ^ a b c Bertrand & 2006-2007, p. 39.
  11. ^ Bertrand & 2006-2007, p. 45.
  12. ^ Bertrand & 2006-2007, p. 333.
  13. ^ Bertrand & 2006-2007, p. 42.
  14. ^ a b c Bertrand & 2006-2007, p. 33.
  15. ^ Bertrand & 2006-2007, p. 36.
  16. ^ Bertrand & 2006-2007, pp. 38-39.
  17. ^ Knecht, Catherine de' Medici, p. 241.
  18. ^ For this information, Yates cites the early biography of de Heere by Carel van Mander, one of his pupils. The Valois Tapestries, p. 8.
  19. ^ Yates, The Valois Tapestries, p. 18.
  20. ^ In January 1583, Anjou's depleted and ill-equipped troops were massacred by the citizens of Antwerp. Knecht, Catherine de' Medici, p. 213.
  21. ^ a b Jardine and Brotton, p. 125.
  22. ^ Yates, The Valois Tapestries, p. xx.
  23. ^ a b Knecht, Catherine de' Medici, p. 244.
  24. ^ Jardine and Brotton, p. 240.
  25. ^ Jardine and Brotton, p. 130.
  26. ^ The royal tournament grandstand at Bayonne had been hung with this gold-and-silk tapestry, which illustrated the triumph of Scipio. Brantôme recorded that "the Spanish lords and ladies greatly admired it, never having seen anything like it in the possession of their king". Jardine and Brotton, p. 128.
  27. ^ Knecht, Catherine de' Medici, p. 243.
  28. ^ Yates, The Valois Tapestries, p. 5.
  29. ^ Yates, 51–52.
    Catherine wrote to Charles IX: "I heard it said to your grandfather the King that two things were necessary to live in peace with the French and have them love their King: keep them happy, and busy at some exercise, notably tournaments; for the French are accustomed, if there is no war, to exercise themselves and if they are not made to do so they employ themselves to more dangerous [ends]". Quoted in Jollet, 111.
  30. ^ Frieda, 225.
  31. ^ Knecht, Catherine de' Medici, p. 242.
  32. ^ Knecht, Catherine de' Medici, p. 244; Yates, The Valois Tapestries, pp. xviii, 66.
  33. ^ Yates, The Valois Tapestries, p. 66.
  34. ^ a b c d e Dobrzynski, Judith H. (December 4, 2018). "Renaissance Splendor: Catherine de' Medici's Valois Tapestries. Review: Woven Vistas of Pageantry". The Wall Street Journal. Retrieved January 18, 2019.
  35. ^ a b c d e "Cleveland Museum of Art Debuts Newly Restored Valois Tapestries". Art and Object. November 20, 2018. Retrieved january 18, 2019. Check date values in: |accessdate= (help)
  36. ^ a b Litt, Steven (November 18, 2018). "Propaganda and power pervade Valois renaissance tapestries at Cleveland Museum of Art". The Plain Dealer. Retrieved January 18, 2019.