Once upon a Tapestry: Woven Tales of Helen and Dido presents a selection of artworks that explore the fates of two heroines from classical mythology whose stories have inspired poets, artists and musicians over the centuries: Helen of Troy and Dido of Carthage. Five tapestries from the 16th and 17th centuries, along with a rare set of cartoons, illustrate the currency of these female-centric narratives in early modern Europe, the power of tapestry to visualize such stories and the inventiveness and skill employed to produce these splendid objects, made for the wealthiest and most distinguished patrons.
Homer’s epic poem of the Trojan War, the Iliad, written in the eighth century BCE, is the source for the dramatic story of Helen of Troy. Medieval poets updated the ancient tale and often added commentary to connect European nobles to their heroic Trojan counterparts. In the visual arts, these contemporized versions of the Iliad challenged artists to depict the conflict of battle, and the large-scale, multipaneled character of tapestry provided a magnificent vehicle for their ambitions. It is all the more notable then that Helen, an icon of beauty whose abduction from Sparta and her king provoked the Trojan War, figures so prominently in four of the tapestries exhibited. They chronicle Helen’s fate, from her arrival in Troy and marriage to Paris to her return to Sparta and her reconciliation with her first husband, Menelaus. Her leading role in these panels may be a stage for exploring the then-topical power of female beauty. Rich with detail, these luxurious silk and wool tableaux introduce us to contemporary court attire and to medieval stagecraft, as seen in the jewel-encrusted architectural framework that calls attention to the principal subjects.
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 ill-starred 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. And Romanelli’s grand and sympathetic interpretation of this popular subject arouses compassion for her undoing.
Six cartoons fashioned in gouache and watercolor on paper survive. Exactly when Romanelli painted them remains open to speculation: possibly as early as the 1630s or as late as the 1650s. Norton Simon acquired them in 1969, and this is the first time they have been exhibited together since 1976. Inherently fragile, they are infrequently on view. That they exist at all is a testimony to the value accorded to them from the moment of their making. Romanelli’s cartoons, and the tapestries made from them, were masterpieces of Michel Wauters’s tapestry manufactory in Antwerp during the 17th century. At least eight sets of these tapestries were woven for royal and aristocratic patrons throughout Europe from the 1650s to the 1670s. Only three complete editions survive.
The Museum possesses one tapestry from the last episode of the lovers’ narrative. Recently restored, the Death of Dido offers an opportunity to envision the design process, compare the weaving with its cartoon prototype and appreciate the unique character of each medium. In the weaving, the narrative appears in reverse, the result of its production on a low-warp loom. Surrounded by a faux frame, the tapestry’s subject is presented as a “woven picture” bordered by architectural motifs and linked by an entablature. At its center are ligatured letters that identify the Swedish aristocratic couple for whom the tapestry set was destined: Count Gustav Otto Stenbock (1614–1685) and Countess Christina Catharina De la Gardie (1632–1704).