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Object of the Month: January 2022

Narratives from the Early Life of Christ

Wool tapestry

Franco-Flemish, c. 1480

In Western church tradition, celebrating the twelve days of Christmas begins December 25 and culminates on January 6 with the Feast of Epiphany on Twelfth Night. According to The Golden Legend by Jacobus de Voragine (Archbishop of Genoa in 1275), this day commemorates four special events in the life of Christ: the adoration of the Magi, and later the baptism of Christ by John the Baptist, the miracle at Cana of the water turned into wine, and the miracle of feeding the five thousand with five loaves and two fish.

Scripture is unclear about the dates of these four events; however, chapter two of Matthew’s Gospel recounts that the wise men from the East came not thirteen days after Christ’s birth, but some two years. The Magi followed the star to Roman-occupied Jerusalem, where they visited King Herod hoping to learn of the promised Messiah’s birth. Unaware and troubled by the news, Herod assembled the chief priests and scribes to discover Christ’s birthplace, which was cited by the prophet Micah as Bethlehem in the land of Judah. Herod directed the noble travelers and requested they return to let him know where the young king was so that he too could worship.

The Magi found and worshipped the Christ child and offered Him three generous gifts, but they were warned in a dream not to return to Herod and departed a different way. Joseph too was advised by an angel to flee to Egypt to protect Jesus from Herod’s murderous jealousy—his massacre of innocent male children two years and younger.

Possibly handcrafted by a guild weaver in Tournai, France in 1480, M&G’s tapestry is roughly 4.5 feet high by 11 feet long. It tells a visual narrative of three scenes following the Magi’s remarkable visit: Herod ordering the murder of the children, the massacre of the innocents, and the family’s flight to Egypt.

Tapestries have a long history dating back to Egyptian and Roman times. However, from the Middle Ages up to the French Revolution, weaving flourished in France and Flanders as an outgrowth of interest from both the church and wealthy nobility. Tapestries were once functional, beautiful, and personal—full of purpose and reflecting the beliefs, skill, economics, and status of the times.

In the 15th century, tapestries often focused on heroes, particularly the Nine Heroes of pagan history (Hector, Alexander the Great and Julius Caesar), Jewish history (Joshua, David and Judas Maccabeus), and Christian history (King Arthur, Charlemagne and Godfrey de Bouillon). However, in this age of chivalry there was a parallel focus on nine heroines including the “greatest lady of them all,” Christ’s mother Mary. M&G’s Narratives from the Early Life of Christ is one of a series of six tapestries depicting the life of the virgin. In 1499 Leon Conseil, who was Chancellor of the Cathedral of Bayeux, cannon of Arry, and secretary of the bishops of Bayeux (Louis de Canossa and vicar general of Cardinal de Prie) gave the tapestry series and a pension for their care to the Cathedral of Bayeux—a church dedicated to Mary and one of France’s greatest and most notable cathedrals.

Phyllis Ackerman in Tapestry, the Mirror of Civilization explains the import and placement of such a gift, “The feudal devotion to a patron was equally practiced by the towns, for each had its patron saint to whom the Cathedral or finest church was usually dedicated, and just as a knight would trace his descent to his hero, so a city often attributed, if not its foundation, at least important moments in its early history to its saint. The lives of these saints were rendered into tapestry to decorate the church, usually on long, horizontal bands to hang around the choir.”

According to the 1901 Normandy Annals, M&G’s tapestry survived the French Revolution and still remained with the Cathedral (hanging in the library) until the city of Bayeux determined to deaccess it. It then passed through multiple collectors including John Pierpont Morgan, Georges Hoentschel, Clarence H. Mackay, and French & Co. before joining M&G’s collection in 1960.


Erin R. Jones, Executive Director


Published 2022

Hezekiah Tapestry Series

The Life of Hezekiah Is Prolonged Fifteen Years

Weaver of the Hezekiah Series

Brussels, c. 1530

Below the image, click play to listen.

Object of the Month: January 2017

Mille-Fleurs Tapestry

Franco-Flemish, c. 1480

Gift of Z.E. Marguerite Pick in memory of Misty

Click on the links throughout the article to view additional artists’ works and reference material.

Mille fleurs tapestries are those with a myriad of small flowering plants sprinkled across a dark blue or red or sometimes dark brown background.  Mille-fleurs is French, literally translated “thousand flowers.”

Tapestries have been around for centuries, and their use was not merely decorative as we might assume in today’s culture. These incredible textiles are constructed from a considerable amount of wool threads with varying amounts of silk, silver, and gilt yarns for beauty and richness. Their size and material provided insulation in the drafty, cold interiors of medieval castles and homes, and they could easily be rolled or folded and transported, which was a great advantage to those living back then.

However, the subject matter of tapestries varied significantly focusing on scenes from history, allegory, mythology, Scripture, and romance with coats of arms and decorative elements included too.  The mille fleurs decoration, however, wasn’t necessarily linked to any specific subject, but sometimes might be; instead, as one writer describes, the flowering background is more of “an expression of the universal human love of fresh flowers and the wish to have bouquets of fields of them covering the walls”—especially in the barren winter months.

Although as symbols, mille fleurs particularly lend themselves to allegorical and romantic themes “furnishing a slight subject for tapestries entirely sprinkled over with sprightly growing plants” with the “now and then active dogs, strange beasts or an occasional human figure [who] claimed a space.”

M&G’s tapestry certainly meets this composition depicting the imaginary animal, the unicorn, with various birds (perhaps a falcon on the right) against the mille-fleurs background.  The upper portion reveals a landscape of mountains and hills with tall grasses, trees, various buildings, towers, and castles—including one with a moat full of wavy, active water.

The unicorn has quite a history—through second-hand accounts, of course. This mysterious animal is described in classical references as having goat-like features, hence the cloven hooves and beard; he hunts in the mountains and is a very strong, fast animal that no one could capture.  He is depicted on cylinder seals as far back as Babylon and Assyria and referenced in the fifth-century Greek writings by Artaxerxes’ physician, Ctesias.  Other references of the unicorn appear in the old bestiaries.

Philippe de Montebello, former director at the MET, explains the interest in animals both real and imagined, “During the Christian era, the expressive power of animals perhaps reached its height in the Latin bestiaries of the twelfth and thirteenth centuries. These books, labored over by the monks who copied them over and over again, combined factual, realistic observations of animal life with legend and served as allegorical texts for teaching clergy and laymen alike. Animals in their amazing diversity yielded illustrations and promulgations of desired behavior as well as warnings against misbehavior or evil.”

Of all the beasts, the unicorn (sometimes called the Monoceros) has become legendary. He symbolizes purity, and since the unicorn could only be captured by a virgin because of his attraction to her love of chastity, the hunt for the unicorn became an allegory of the incarnation of Christ as well as an allegory of romance and marriage.  Thus, the unicorn appears in both secular and religious art—even on some vestments worn by priests.

It is said that the horn of the unicorn possessed the virtue of detecting poison as well as the power to render the poison harmless. According to legend the animals of the forest would not drink from a pool until the unicorn had first purified it with his horn.  This story is depicted in one of the great unicorn tapestries in the collection at the Cloisters in New York.

The unicorn is often depicted in a place of colorful and abundant fauna, referencing Paradise—sometimes in connection with scenes of Creation and the Fall. He usually stands in the middle or off to the edge, alone or distant from the other animals, and sometimes near a body of water, perhaps immersing his horn.

For the gardeners and lovers of flowers, some of the plants possibly depicted include: foxglove, day lilies, rowan, and the daffodil.  Look closely to identify these symbolic plants:

  • Cuckoo Flower, which Pliny claims can repel snakes and “drive away melancholy and makes people happy in their hearts.”
  • Blue Bell blossoms, which supposedly when a bluebell is suspended above the threshold, “all evil things will flee therefrom.”
  • Wild Pansy, a symbol of remembrance and meditation
  • English Daisies, which signify the joy of Easter, and in medieval Germany these were called massliebe or “measure of love” suggesting that even then girls plucked the petals saying, “He loves me, he loves me not.”

Without knowing more about the designer, weavers and past owners, it’s difficult to know the intention of the tapestry; however, its symbolism provides insight for both the secular and spiritual just as it did in its original home.  The concept of appreciating nature and learning from our observation of it wasn’t new in the old bestiaries or even Aesop’s fables. King Solomon, the wisest man to ever live, exhorts the reader in his wisdom writings of Proverbs and Ecclesiastes to observe God’s creation and find its parallels for application and improvement in our own daily living—a good start for a New Year.

Erin R. Jones, Executive Director


Published in 2017

Object of the Month: January 2016

Tapestries on the Life of King Hezekiah: The Destruction of the Idols by Hezekiah, The Sacrifice of Hezekiah,  and Hezekiah’s Life Prolonged

Signed: unknown weaver’s mark (bottom right)

Woven wool  and silk tapestry

Designed by Jan Cornelisz. Vermeyen

Flanders, active 16th century

Woven by the Weaver of the Hezekiah Series (of the Royal Swedish Collection in Stockholm), also known as the Weaver of the Book of the Kings Series (of the Royal Collection in Vienna)

Brussels, c. 1530

Click on the links throughout the article to view additional artists’ works and reference material.
During these winter months, we turn up the thermostat, put on a sweater, or throw an extra blanket on the bed when the temperatures drop. Insulation, thermal-pane windows, and caulking keep our houses snug from winter’s chill.  But what if your home was a drafty castle with no warmth except near the fireplace? If you were wealthy enough, tapestries would provide some insulation to keep the winter winds out and the meager warmth in. The tapestry’s portability was an added bonus. When one residence got particularly smelly or otherwise unsuitable, the artistic insulation could be rolled up and transported to the next home. Of course, we view tapestries today primarily as works of art, without much thought as to their original practical purposes.

When you step into the Lobby at the Museum & Gallery at Bob Jones University, some of the first works of art you encounter are three tapestries, each measuring 13 feet x 11.5 feet. They depict three scenes from the life of King Hezekiah, ruler of Judah in the 8th and early 7th centuries BC. The tapestries were produced in Brussels, Brabant (before Belgium existed as a country) in the early 16th century, and by the early 17th century they graced the walls of Somerset House in London, residence of Queen Henrietta Maria, wife of King Charles I. Since tapestries were considered the most valuable objects of their time, only royalty or the very wealthy would have owned them. With the beheading of Charles I, the tapestries became possessions of Cromwell’s Commonwealth. Later sales trace them to Spain and then New York. M&G acquired them in 1965.

The Bible records details of Hezekiah’s life in 2 Kings 18–20, Isaiah 36–39, and 2 Chronicles 29–32. As one of Israel’s moral, godly rulers, Hezekiah is depicted in the first two tapestries destroying idols and restoring temple sacrifices to draw his countrymen back to serving and worshiping the one true God genuinely, purely, and wholeheartedly. The third tapestry shows an incident where Hezekiah was gravely ill and requested a longer life from the Lord; God answered his prayer and miraculously healed him. The Latin phrases at the top of each tapestry describe the events of each pictured scene.

Anne Short, Volunteer Collection Researcher & Retired Docent

Published in 2016